Healing began on 9/11 2001
In all of our lives, no matter how young we are now or how much longer we have to go, we will always be hearing new stories from Sept.11, 2001. This is largely a reprise on my column following that date.
First let me tell you what I learned about St. Paul’s Chapel, situated directly across Lower Broadway from the World Trade Center. Before the sun set on September 11, I heard news stories speculating that St. Paul’s – so close to Ground Zero – must have been destroyed.
Built in 1766, it is the oldest continuously-used public building in the City of New York. George Washington worshiped there in 1789, after he was sworn in as the nation's first President.
As soon as church officials were allowed to go and check on the little chapel on that awful autumn morning, they found what some have called a miracle. St. Paul’s was covered with smoke, soot and debris, but came through without so much as a broken window. Giant sycamore trees in the churchyard literally kept St. Paul’s from blowing away.
Almost immediately, as soon as enough debris could be cleared away, St. Paul's – “The Little Chapel That Could” – became a round-the-clock sanctuary to rescue and recovery workers. Until June 2, 2002, it served as a refuge from Ground Zero. Despite repeated attempts of the city health department to shut them down, meals were served, 3,000 a day, most contributed by downtown hotels, including the Waldorf-Astoria.
Counseling and health services were offered. Firefighters discovered the healing touch of massage, and a podiatrist set up his “clinic” in George Washington’s pew.
When they filled as many cots as the chapel could hold, volunteers slept on the old wooden pews. I remember an interview in which a church official said the scars left in St. Paul’s benches will remain as a testimony to volunteers who worked until they were exhausted, but wouldn’t go home.
Before it was over, thousands who had responded to the tragedy of the WTC met at this “neighborhood chapel” and were “transformed by the Spirit of St. Paul’s.”
Not long after 9/11 I attended a Lutheran gathering in Athens, and Dr. Frederic B. Burnham was the keynote speaker. Burnham was director of Trinity Institute on Wall Street, a continuing education program for Episcopal clergy and laity.
Burnham’s story: The Rev. Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and now the Archbishop of Canterbury, had just arrived for a conference, and was resting in a quiet room when there was an unbelievably loud percussion. Everyone looked for its source, and saw that the air around their building was filled with paper blowing from the direction of the World Trade Center, then black smoke.
They turned on television just as the second plane hit. In rising anxiety and fear, the Archbishop prayed.
“The lights went out,” Burnham said. “We thought we were being bombed, so we headed to the stair well. I thought we were going to die, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know of anyone I’d rather die with [than the Archbishop]. There was total bonding between us.
“On the street, everything was desolate and gray, debris four inches deep. We moved about a block when the second tower came down, and soot and debris, and this black cloud just rolling toward us.”
Buses were commandeered to evacuate the area around the WTC, but they walked to the hotel where the Archbishop was to stay, and Burnham remembers “the contrast – everything gray against that clear blue sky.
“The [shared] apprehension of death and the experience of vulnerability – that’s the only authentic pastoral care. A brush with death blew away any barriers between us,” Burnham said, then related stories of others who had a similar epiphany.
The volunteers – young, old, every color and culture, people of every description – brought with them countless skills, strength, kindness and dedication, day after day, after day. And in their bonding began their healing.
A wealthy woman from Long Island worked alongside a city sanitation worker and discovered they shared a love for roses. She brought him cuttings from her garden.
Joe Bradley was a retired construction worker who, as a 22-year-old, had helped build the WTC. He told of a little girl with pink hair who brought eyewash to hand out to rescue workers. Musicians came – a pianist, a string quartet – bringing all they had to offer.
Someone from the Salvation Army came with water and towels and washed the feet of those who wouldn’t stop working long enough to go home and shower.
“We were taken so off-guard by them,” Bradley wept as he told his wife, much later, what he’d seen, and she cried with him.
On this day, Burnham said, Bradley “prayed for the courage to stay together. He had a machine and a crew and four firefighters. There was no foreman, no orders given. Four or five times they thought the Liberty Mutual building was coming down. But they just kept working.”
And photographs testify to “a sign of life beyond suffering and death,” Burnham said. As steel workers wrested metal and concrete to allow rescue teams ingress, I-beams formed crosses over the rubble, clear against the sky, silent witnesses to faith.