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A Day at Ground Zero
Dr. Arthur Lee McClanahan, Pastor - Fairfield Grace United Methodist Church, Fairfield, CT ©2001

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 wreckage.

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 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, common life.

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 beauty.

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 grief.

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 "the job."

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 clean.

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.