A Lesson From ‘The Pile’

Ground Zero Cross

Midway through my time as a chaplain at Ground Zero, The City of New York decided to offer family members who lost loved ones the opportunity to see Ground Zero. A staging area was prepared and fifty at a time, these folks were ferried to an area near Wall Street. Accompanied by chaplains and mental health workers, the family members would disembark, and walk about an eighth of a mile to the staging area prepared for them.

Like so many impromptu rituals that took place, the workers on Wall Street would form on either side of the street and a procession of sorts took place (I have often thought since that day of how kind a gesture this was….for this was the only grave site these folks would ever see) Brokers and traders would take off their hats and lower their heads as our sad procession made its way to the Pile.

When the family members saw it many fainted. Not a few of them vomited. One lady pulled out tufts of her hair till her scalp bled.

Two of those ferry trips stick out in my memory. One day we heard that there was going to be a special ferry just for United Airlines personnel based in New York. They came in their uniforms. Keep in mind these were colleagues and friends of the crew from the ill-fated United flight the terrorists used. After staring at the smoldering ruins in disbelief, they formed up into ranks and produced a banner. They unfurled it facing the recovery workers, crane operators, firefighters and cops.

I sensed this was a holy moment and so I didn’t even attempt to read what was on the banner. I learned later they were actually thanking all the recovery workers for looking for their fallen comrades. I vividly recall a crane operator who climbed down from his machine and wept like a baby.

The other ferry trip that comes to mind was the first one. Mayor Giuliani went to each family member and took time with each one to hear their story. No cameras… no reporters… just a leader doing what a leader should do. Dr. Grace Telesco, the Mayors point person for assisting the families, gave a brief talk to the family members; telling them what they were about to experience.

She introduced the chaplains and other counselors who would be accompanying them to Ground Zero. Then she said words to this effect. “There is one other group I want to introduce. They have traveled here at their own expense because they felt that they of all people might be able to relate with how you are feeling right now…” Then she introduced the group—all of whom came all the way from Oklahoma City just to be with the families. Each one of them lost a family member. It was if a giant warm blanket descended on the family members.

I prayed that I would not say anything trite or even harmful to any of these traumatized people. Once after having made the sad procession a number of times, I told this one group of siblings (it was their mom who perished) “Now… if I may… I will tell you what happens next. We are going to travel by ferry, get off and then walk to the staging area prepared for you. This will be the hardest trip you ever make. If I may, I would like to be with you. I also want to ask your permission to do something before we come back.”

When they saw the Pile They collapsed into a group hug; weeping and trembling. After what seemed like a long time our leader started to steer us back to the ferry. I told these siblings, “Remember I asked your permission to ask you to do something before we came back?” They nodded their assent.

I said “I watched the pain and horror on your faces as you stared at all this destruction. Now I am going to ask you to look just once more…only this time, I want you to look away from the pile an up at the crane operators, and the dog handlers, and the construction workers who are expressing their condolences and offering comfort to you as they look for your mom.” Almost as if on cue, an exhausted, filthy, sooty, recovery worker stared right them… took of his hard had and covered his heart. They grabbed me and heaved sobs and told me they would never forget. I knew I never would forget either.

On this 14th anniversary of 9/11 let us remember that from the ashes and the horror, we were able to get a glimpse of the reality of evil, and to see The Comforter, The Holy Spirit of God, model for us what love looks like.

Dr. J.

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