Day at Ground Zero
September 11, 2001. A day. Events in three states.
Catastrophe. Disaster. Cruelty. Wailing cries. A portal between
the accustomed then and the new now.
October 29, 2001. Forty-eight days later. Rescue
became recovery. Warp-speed pace became deliberate plodding. In-your-throat
hope became heavy-on-the-heart, reluctant acceptance.
I began in a safe place. Home. Nestled in the
known security of police headquarters I got some patches to hand
out on scene. A courtesy ride in a red sector patrol car brought
me to the train station to catch the 8:23, and be drawn into the
center of the concentric circle of emotional chaos and structural
There I sat. "Grand Central, next stop."
Black clergy shirt. Blue windbreaker with "police chaplain"
emblazoned across the back. Chaplain's badge hanging from a bead
chain around my neck. The conductor walked by. "I'm on my way
to Ground Zero," I said. He nodded. "Good for you"
he mouthed, as he looked at monthly passes and punched day tickets.
A huge American flag is suspended from the ceiling
of Grand Central Station. Hanging just below gold stars and constellations
on the blue sky ceiling of the terminal, "Old Glory" grants
a blessing. The stars and stripes blend together in unity...as all
of us do in this country. Very few of us are hyphenated something-Americans
anymore, living separately in our own components. The courtesy of
shared seats, picked-up papers, and thank you's, heard amidst the
busy morning commute, testify to the new reality of our blended,
At 10:10, the 5 train pulled into Fulton Street,
the third downtown subway stop from Grand Central. As the doors
opened the reality of the day became inescapable. Burnt, ozone,
sharp smells fill the air. My mind raced back to what I'd encountered
a decade earlier in the aftermath of a massive suburban Main Street
fire. It felt like my tongue was coated with the communion elements
of horrific catastrophe. Up on the street the acrid genie of consumed
buildings, dreams, and human kind takes hold, through your nose
and your eyes. It's almost like walking onto the set of a disaster
movie, except no director was about to shout, "Cut. That's
a wrap." and restore the scene to its original vitality and
Waiting for a clergy colleague, I sat for a
few minutes in the museum hall of the Old John Street United Methodist
Church. Barely two blocks from the frozen zone of the carnage, John
Street is a "listening station" and receiving point for
cards, letters, and banners from across the country and around the
world. Red, white, and blue hand prints, arranged in the pattern
of the flag, from Alvarado, Texas. A banner of footprints from Madison,
South Dakota. The world, in names, from Harbor Springs, Michigan.
An envelope of cards from Sarah, Bridget, Ashely, Jim, Kate, Ryan,
Robert, Heather, Ana, and many others from Ballston Spa, New York.
Words of encouragement. Prayers of hope. Reminders of connection.
Humanity linked together, sharing the burden, the wonder, and the
My friend, the Rev. Dr. Charles Ferrara, "Chuck,"
and I went from the sanctuary of the John Street sanctuary, out
into the world, strengthened by prayer. Chuck is a retired lieutenant
of the New York City Police Department. He's been to the site three
times a week for the past several weeks, and even twice a week last
week. It's "his mission" to be available to people working
We carried a supply of small pamphlets with
us. Juxtaposed with an image of three firefighters standing in a
cloud of smoke, silhouetted against a backdrop the fallen aluminum
facade of the upper floors of the World Trade Center, are the assuring
words, "God is Our Shelter and Strength." We walked down
Liberty Street, a fitting name, indeed, ready to go to the firefighters,
police, medical personnel, and City workers, with the message of
that Booklet..."God Will Take Care of You" because "God's
Love Is Sure."
Just inside the access gate were three unformed
police officers. One recognized Chuck and held out his hand to greet
me. He talked about being on a "12 on, 12 off" shift.
Two days before we saw him the motorcycle officer had the opportunity
to be home on a Saturday night and was off on Sunday. "It was
good to be with my family and it was good to be in church,"
he said. "It really helped a lot.
Chuck asked our highway patrol friend if he
could find me a hard hat. Everyone wears one, or a fire helmet.
In the makeshift requisition supply depot another officer jumped
up and handed us each a respirator filter mask. The hard hat I was
issued was donated by a bank in Pennsylvania. On the front is a
flag and the motto, "United We Stand!"
With that we said "See ya later" to
our church-going friend. No one wants to say "goodbye"...that's
been said too many times, through tears, there. The "see ya"
carries the promise of a return, something, it seems, that everyone
wants to experience.
The first thing you see is a GIANT red crane.
Local 15 of the Operating Engineers shift the monster mover with
surgical precision. It lifts. It brings iron workers, in suspended
baskets, to new sites on "The Pile." It's a visible monument
to the unfathomable enormity of what unfolds just beyond.
No 25" television, no wide screen HDTV,
can begin to capture the overwhelming vista of what was once the
World Trade Center towers, adjoining buildings, and plaza. Walking
around, people look like ants. Trucks look Tonka toys. Water streams
from 5 inch hoses look like squirt gun spray on a mountain. I remember
saying to Chuck, "I need to stand here for a minute and try
to take it in. Fifteen minutes later I was still looking, probably
with my mouth hanging open, not able to comprehend the unbelievable
wasteland that stretched out all around. Firefighters were standing
on the pile. Dark smoke was being doused causing it to cool into
white vapor. The cathedral-like facade of the Twin Towers was resting
against what was once a smaller glamorous cousin and now is merely
a supporting, burned-out pile of concrete and steel. Blue overalled
cops sifted through debris. Iron workers directed crane operators
as twisted I-beams were lowered onto waiting flatbed trucks. Battalion
Chiefs walked by, mud coating their shiny black dress shoes. Black
vans drove by. Army reservists stood watch at the perimeter, directing
onlookers to "move on. No pictures, please."
At one point we stopped to talk with some firefighters.
Some were sitting on salvaged office chairs outside a canvas-covered
site headquarters. One had a "Mickey's FD" pin attached
to a rubber band on the side of his helmet. By the way they liked
it was easy to tell that they were totally exhausted, physically
and emotionally. A wooden table sat in the middle of the space where
others of them were standing. One showed it to us, reverently. A
makeshift plaque, written in black marker, on a piece of plywood,
commemorated the "altar." Two sections of heavy towing
chain were found in The Pile. They were fused together, forming
a 3-foot high cross. This focal point hallowed the prayer of a child
who had scrawled a message hoping that her "daddy would come
home." This silent, sacred witness "helps us a lot,"
one firefighter said. "We walk by to get new batteries for
our lights, or gloves, or gear, or a bottle of water, and we see
it." It enables them to "remember our brothers who didn't
get out," he said. "It reminds us why we're here and why
we keep going," he added as he went back to The Pile. He took
one of the Bible booklets with him and tucked it in the front pocket
of his bunker pants as he walked away.
A little way down the street-you know, intellectually,
that it's a street but experientially it's just an area near The
Pile, stands a "T"-shaped concrete support. An iron I-beam
cross rises from it. As if on a hill outside a city of another time,
the empty cross witnesses to the possibility of resurrection, even
in the shadow of such awful devastation. We paused to look, to pray,
to notice others stopping, looking, taking off hard hats and helmets,
momentarily, reverently. A gray cloth was draped over one of the
cross beams. Caught from the swirling winds, it might as well have
been a seamless garment of perfection, blessing those who labored
in the shadow of the silent symbol of peace and hope.
The extraordinary path of destruction seemed
to have had a mind of its own. Twin tall buildings imploded in the
aftermath of the plane strikes. Yet, the tiny firehouse nearby remained
standing, sending out help, like the "little engine that could."
The "I think I can" was, and continues to be, "I
know I can." Another building, in The Pile, really, will need
to come down, it's so badly damaged. Yet another structure, on the
perimeter of The Pile, looks more like the victim of an earthquake.
All the glass is blown away. The top 6 floors were single-story
office spaces; the ground level looked like a two-story atrium.
On the top office floor, desk chairs are right up against where
the glass walls would have been. Computer monitors are visible.
Rows of horizontal files sit ready to be pulled and distributed,
were it a normal day. Ironically the next two lower floors are totally
burned out. It seemed like a giant flame thrower blew through, charring
everything in its path. Only dark scorch marks remain. The lower
three office floors are tossed every which way, but are otherwise
intact. Oddly, a white-bladed table fan dangles out one window,
suspended by its cord over the edge. Down just three windows is
a blue table fan, likewise hanging down. Like the blue tarps that
cover the broken concrete facade of an older adjacent building,
the fans swayed gently in the cool autumn breeze.
Among the unsung heroes of the World Trade Center
site are the iron workers. Local 40 has a trailer office on site.
Barely equipped with a makeshift plywood "table," some
"seats" constructed of plywood and 2x4's, and a single
line telephone, this "headquarters" dispatches professionals
who are doing some of the most dangerous work. We stopped in to
thank them. I shook the largest, strongest hand I've ever grabbed.
It belongs to a man who is as gentle as he is big. Our conversation
gave him, and an older man sitting at the other end of the trailer,
the opportunity to admit that, yes, it does seem that "sometimes
we're overlooked in all that's going on here." Rather than
carrying angry, negative energy, his admission carried a "but
that's O.K." spirit with it. I gave him one of the Fairfield
Police patches I had in my pocket and his eyes lit up like a little
boy's do when he sees his first train set under the tree at Christmas.
"Thanks, man," he said. "Thanks for this...and thanks
for noticing us." "You know," he added, as we were
walking out the door, "we're just here to help, to do our part."
He made you believe that that's what it's all about...everybody
doing what they can, together.
When then trucks rumble through, carrying the
I-beams and other debris that's painstakingly examined at the landfill
on Staten Island, they pass through a washing station. High pressure
sprays clean the tires and wash away loose dirt. Any contamination
stays on the site. Yellow suits. Blue suits. Masks. Gloves. The
washers stand on the ground and are perched on scaffolds. Every
effort is made to keep the streets of nearby communities clear and
Command headquarters of the Port Authority Police
Department is just across the street from the washing station. An
Emergency Service Unit officer was leaning against the temporary
site-coordination trailer, taking a smoke break. The sergeant, Keith,
told us that he'd lost 13 officers from his unit. Fighting through
fatigue, he told us about the frantic efforts to find and save the
Director, command officers, and others. He said that when the focus
shifted to recovery, "a weighty burden settled in on us."
With some disappointment in his voice he described the "turf
disputes" that have taken place between the police ESU's and
the fire Emergency Rescue workers. At one point, he said, some of
his own ESU officers were on The Pile, along with some firefighters.
The body of a firefighter was pulled from the rubble and a "Battalion
Chief ordered all of us off. It was fire department area, according
to the Chief." We asked Sergeant Keith if he left. "No,
but some of my guys did." He went on to say that he "helped
honor the firefighter, carrying him down, and saluting him"
for his bravery. "Then my guys said that if we found one of
our own we'll order those...firefighters off our hill." Shaking
his head, Keith went on to say that "I told my guys that that's
why we're here...because some people couldn't get along with other
people. We have to be different, and stop that cycle, now."
We left Keith with a Bible pamphlet, department patch, and firm
pat on the shoulder. "Thanks for listening," he said,
as he walked back inside and we headed off in another direction.
2:20pm. Time for lunch. The American Red Cross
has a Respite Center in the Marriott World Financial Center Hotel.
A majorly deluxe hotel, before September 11. Now, a place of comfort
and refuge for everybody working the scene. Like the truck washing
station, there's a shoe washing area outside the Hotel. You step
up on a grate and hold a 2x4 railing. A green-gloved Red Cross volunteer
gently grasps the heel of your shoe, to support your foot and block
the spray as the bottom of first one shoe, and then the other, is
washed off. That tenderness, like a sacred foot washing of another
time and place, is just the prelude to a time of total hospitality
and care. A volunteer holds open the door. "Welcome,"
she says, as you're invited inside. Another volunteer sits in the
elevator, pushing the button to 2 for food or 3 for therapeutic
massage. Even the automatic elevator has a resident host. Stepping
off the elevator on 2, another volunteer welcomes you "to the
dining room." October 29th's buffet included a cauliflower,
broccoli and corn medley, pasta, creamed spinach, stir fry chicken,
and salmon. Cold soda. Bottled water. Milk, including very cold
chocolate milk! Hot coffee. Cookies. Cake. Brownies. Fresh fruit.
Everything you want. As much as you want. After being served, another
volunteer ushers each "guest" into the dining room. Cloth
table coverings. Salt, pepper, sugar, and sweetener on each table.
Soft, padded seats. That day's newspaper. And if a worker comes
in and sits alone, a volunteer immediately pulls up a chair, says,
"hello," and begins a conversation.
We sat with some Army reservists. One had worked
for 18 days and was "discharged" back to his usual job
as a sanitation worker for the City of New York. He was pressed
back into service because he's a chaplain's assistant. "There
aren't too many of us," John revealed. "We're here, doing
what you're doing. Listening. Encouraging. Just being available."
We talked with some firefighters. They're on rotating shifts. A
red wrist band, attached to the buckle of their bunker pants shows
the code of the day. One had an ash-covered trowel in his pocket.
"Sometimes we dig with our hands, or a trowel and a bucket.
At this point we're trying to find anything-some gear, a glove,
anything so the families can have something to hold on to."
He looked away when he finished talking, to wipe away a tear. Even
seven weeks after it all happened it still hurts!
The dining room was filled with cops and firefighters
from the City, EMS workers, and some out-of-towners, including some
with Boston Police Department patches on their shoulders, and one
from West Hartford, Connecticut.
Attention to comfort was thorough. A visit to
the restroom before heading out wasn't, in anticipation, a pleasant
particularly thought. So many in and out. What a mess is would surely
be. But, no! Clean. Pleasant. Even the amenities, as if the hotel
were being occupied in its intended way. Soap. Hand cream. Mouth
wash. Toothbrush and toothpaste kits.
When a table became empty, volunteers came over,
pulled the old table cloth, and reset the table with a new, clean,
white cloth. The room was ready for the next "guest"...and
they keep coming 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!
Back on the street Chuck and I met a police
lieutenant from Brooklyn. He was on perimeter duty, "flown
in" from the outer boroughs to help out with crowd control
and traffic flow. The lieutenant usually has desk duty, "but
I had to get here help do what I could." "I knew some
of the guys who didn't make it out," he admitted, "and
I had to be here to do something." We offered him one of the
Bible pamphlets. "I got one already, but give me one for a
buddy-he really needs it right now." He told us about his Uncle
Mike, who "works in pensions. When this is all over, he'll
be a real popular guy. A lot of people will need out after this.
It's changed all of us." Would he leave soon, we asked. "No.
I'm sixth on the captain's list. I'm gonna stay in for that, stick
around a while and help the new guys after everything settles down."
"Hey, nice to meet you. Hope I'll see you around," he
saluted as he went back to his post and we went out the gate. (We
did see him three more times before the day was over; each time
he was being helpful to a fellow officer. And each time he gave
us a smile and quick salute.)
Under two square tent coverings, one green and
one blue, an impromptu memorial has been set up to honor missing
and lost firefighters and police officers. It lifts up the human
side of the tragedy. Honor guarded by a cop, the site is filled
with pictures, flowers, and letters. Two United Methodist chaplains
were standing around the edges, available to persons in need. A
large photo board bore the images of the fallen firefighters, including
Firefighter Dennis Mulligan of Ladder 2, the brother/brother-in-law
of members of my congregation. Other patches formed a ring around
photos of missing City and Port Authority Police Department commanders
and officers. Patches from police departments, local, distant, and
even London, stand in silent honor guard on an adjacent wall. I
had the privilege of adding one from the Fairfield Police Department
to the domestic and international witness.
One of the cards, protected by the shelter of the tent, was written
by a six-year-old to his Dad. It said, "Dear Dad. Happy Birthday.
I wish that you're happy. Even if you're dead we still celebrate
your birthday. From your son, Ryan." Ryan's little league baseball
card and pictures of his baby brother and older sister were attached
to the crayon lettered note.
The police officer assigned to patrol the area
was leaning against the wall, reading some papers. "Something,
isn't it?" he asked. "Tears your heart out." He wanted
us to be sure to know that "it's an honor to be able to be
here." "You know," he wanted us to understand, "this
did something to me. It got me going again. I'm on the job seven
years. I'd been coasting. Seeing what some of them did got me motivated...See,
I'm studying for the Sergeant's test. I wanna have the chance to
lead like some of them did that day."
Across the street, by the river, is a memorial
to the civilians who died on September 11. Mounds of cut flowers.
Piles of stuffed animals. Banners from employers. Missing posters.
Photos. Cards. One message, pinned to a blue stuffed bear, includes
a photo of a mom, dad, and newborn baby-the typical first day, hospital,
family photo. The message, written to the baby's grandmother, reads,
"Mom, this is Rachel Joan." Another message was hand-lettered
on white cardboard. It says, in part, "Dear Daddy. I miss you.
Please come back. I miss you very very much...Whenever I think of
you I start to cry...If you died let your Spirit visit me...Love,
Veronica. P.S. I love you."
Michael is a police officer in the housing division.
He came to The Pile on his day off to search for the missing daddies
and grandmothers, and to do something to help the living. He was
doing an extra shift on Monday, "because I needed to try to
make a difference." He talked about being on The Pile on September
12th and 13th. "Even with all the modern technology, we were
digging with shovels and buckets. It was a race against time, then.
Now, the stuff we're finding is for the living, to give them something
to hold on to of their loved ones." He told us about a shield
that was found, about service weapons that, through serial numbers,
make a link to those who carried them, and about digging up a service
citation ribbon. "Ya do what ya gotta do," he said.
Chuck Ferrara and I walked away from The Pile
at about 5pm. And yet, it will never really be possible to walk
away from The Pile. It's "his mission" to be available
to people on The Pile and around the edges. It's a contagious mission
that's grabbed hold of me. I will be back, along with chaplains
from the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and a whole host of other
communities of faith. I'm a United Methodist Pastor. Yet, even more,
at the site of the World Trade Center, I prayed to be a person of
God, helping to bring God's presence to those who, in their struggling,
are doing "a mighty work." And in that "mighty work,"
they are, individually and together, with hand trowels, mechanical
cranes, and every ounce of their being, witnessing to the power
of God that will overcome evil with good.