NEW YORK -- She was wearing a mask and clutching her asthma inhaler. Her eyes, wide with fright, were caked with ash. Still, Collette Smith wouldn't have been anywhere else but digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center, volunteering her time and skills for the city she loves.
"It was like a mission," said the 32-year-old computer worker from the borough of Queens. "It was just something I had to do."
All over the country, people felt the same. From the white-coated nurse wiping ash off an exhausted firefighter, to donors waiting hours to give blood, to corporations signing multimillion-dollar checks, America opened its wallets and hearts in an unprecedented outpouring of giving this week.
In business, in trades, in the arts, in schools, people have felt compelled to donate to relief efforts in New York and Washington. Contributions are so overwhelming and continue to come in so fast that relief agencies can't begin to calculate them.
"We've all lost people, we've all lost something," said Richard Weiss of the Laborers International Union, which bused hundreds of hard-hatted volunteers to the site. The union, which represents 16,000 workers in New York City, also donated boxes of respirators, masks and work gear.
"We didn't do it as union members," Weiss said. "We did it because we are New Yorkers and human beings and because we just wanted to help."
In New Orleans, a TV station's on-the-street fund drive for victims of the attacks picked up $300,000 in cash in less than 24 hours -- and the money was still pouring in. Children came with coin-filled piggy banks, and more than $1,000 was sent from the Guste public housing development, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
"People needed to do something," said WDSU-TV news director Margaret Cordes. "We can't just sit around and let terrorists take over our country."
In similar spirit, The Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, the nation's second-largest foundation, pledged $30 million, the largest sum the endowment has ever donated to a relief effort.
"We can't be there on the front lines, but like everyone else we wanted to help," said Gretchen Wolfram, spokesman for the foundation.
Other pledges from large corporations poured in: $10 million from General Electric Co., $10 million from Microsoft, $10 million from DaimlerChrysler, $5 million from Amerada Hess Corp., $3 million from Hewlett-Packard Co., $2 million from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and $1 million from MGM Mirage Inc., the largest hotel-casino owner in Las Vegas.
Many of the announcements were accompanied by statements of appreciation for the bravery and courage of rescue workers in New York.
"The scope of the response has been unbelievable," said Dorothy Ridings, president of the Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C., which has been swamped with offers of help. "We've never seen a tragedy like this, and we've never seen donations like this.
And not just from around the United States.
"Today I had an e-mail from a business in Bangladesh, offering help," Ridings said. "It made me weep."
Money and pledges were coming in at such a rate, Ridings said, that she had no idea how much had been raised. Those that didn't raise money contributed in other ways.
Students at McKinley Thatcher elementary school in Denver wrote letters and drew pictures to send to New York students.
One 8-year-old boy wrote, "I hope this picture makes you feel better. I will make a beautiful picture for you of the mountains so you can see what Denver's mountains look like."
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