The only food truck at ground zero,
continuing to serve the community, and its First Responders

History of the “Providence Canteen”

On the morning of Sept 11th, 2001, within hours of the attack on the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, the Providence Canteen was called to respond to Ground Zero.

Our nation was under attack; our first responders were on the front lines.

By afternoon, the Providence Canteen was in Manhattan, driving among emergency vehicles and those from the National Guard. O’Rourke pulled the canteen into a fire station. A chief checked out the truck.

“He said, ‘You can do cooking? Hang on a minute,’ ” O’Rourke recalled. A few minutes later, the chief returned with a letter giving them authorization to go inside Ground Zero and feed the first-responders, who’d been working all day without food or rest.

The Providence Canteen started toward the disaster and made it as far as a police checkpoint. O’Rourke showed the officers the chief’s letter. But the police were more interested in the canteen.

“The cops said, ‘You got food? Can you feed us cops? We haven’t eaten since 8:30 this morning,’ ” O’Rourke said.

The officers moved their cruisers out of the way for the canteen to park, then they lined up. In an hour and a half, the canteen fed about 100 officers, before a fire chief came searching for them.

“He said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be at Ground Zero?’ ” O’Rourke said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but these guys handcuffed us.’ ”

The fire chief sent the canteen on its way.

They drove inside the disaster zone, where papers littered the ground and dust swirled in the air like snow. They parked on Murray Street, about 500 feet from the fallen towers — “the only canteen inside Ground Zero,” O’Rourke said.

The responders, caked in dirt and dust, made their way over, and through the night and day, the canteen’s volunteers handed it out: beef stew, chili, hot dogs, coffee and hot chocolate at night, and water, eggs and ham in the morning.

“We always had something to give,” O’Rourke said.

They worked 12-hour shifts, except for O’Rourke, who wouldn’t leave the truck. They closed the windows and doors briefly every hour or so to clean the dust off the counters and the kitchen. The air was thick, like acrid smoke, and dust gathered on people’s faces and in their throats.

At least three times, the volunteers manning the canteen were forced to evacuate for fear nearby buildings collapsing would overtake the canteen, and their lives were in danger.  They turned out to be false alarms.

The truck will continue to serve First Responders, my company will donate a percentage of net profits annually, and all profits made every September 11th.