World Trade Center Journal: Part Two

Robert Peraza, who lost his son Robert David Peraza, pauses at his son's name at the North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial during 10th anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center in New York Sept. 11. (CNS photo/Justin Lane, pool via Reuters) 

Read: World Trade Center Journal: Part One

Friday, Sept. 14

On my second day at the site that the press now calls ground zero, it has become more difficult to gain access, even in a Roman collar. Today at Chelsea Piers, a sports arena turned supply warehouse, I hitch a ride in a huge tractor-trailer with two ironworkers from New Jersey. Because of President Bush’s visit, their truck ends up being parked two miles from the site. The driver, however, expresses no impatience. Why get angry? he says. There are more important things to worry about. I thank them, climb down from the rig and continue on foot. I make my way past four checkpoints, where one has to explain in detail one’s intentions and show photo identification. Even here, though, there is the opportunity for ministry. The police officers and Army personnel are dog-tired after three days of work, little or no sleep and an inhuman level of stress. Moreover, many have lost close friends in the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. Still, they echo what so many say: they feel they should be at the site helping out more. Those guys down there... says one, and shakes his head.


When I arrive, President Bush is about to appear; fighter jets and Army helicopters patrol overhead. Waiting to enter the area is a great crowd of firefighters, ironworkers, police officers, search-and-rescue teams, engineers, doctors, truck drivers, counselors. A firefighter stands beside me wearing a dusty yellow fire jacket. He tells me he’s from Broward County. Isn’t that in Florida? I ask. He nods, and says that his chief had hesitated to send his company to New York City, since many of the surrounding counties had already done so. Then how were you able to come? I ask. My guys and I borrowed the truck and took two weeks as vacation time. We drove up. I am amazed by his generosity, but it is commonplace here.

We wait for two hours before the president leaves. When the Army M.P.’s finally open the cordon, the huge mass of humanity streams in to begin their work. Here, everyone wants to work; everyone is motivated. As I walk in, I meet another firefighter. He is a tall, big man, covered in ash, who extends a cut and bloodied hand to shake. Hi, Father. We talk about his work over the past few days. Again, like many of the rescue workers, if he is not directly working on the bucket brigade at ground zero, he feels as if he is not doing enough. But today he has been able to be there. And suddenly he begins to weep. They just pulled out a baby in a baby carriage, he says.

Saturday, Sept. 15

This morning a fellow Jesuit named Bob and I plan to go to the World Trade Center together. As we approach the first checkpoint, we see a phalanx of police officers and wonder if we will be allowed in. We say a prayer asking the intercession of Pedro Arrupe to help us get into the site. We pass easily.

Once inside, we slowly make our way around, talking to rescue workers. After an hour, we stumble upon the center’s Catholic chapel, which has been commandeered to serve as a supply depot. It is dark and filled with boxes of shoes, socks, hardhats, underwear, gas masks, flashlights.

The man running the supply depot is named Flick, a cheerful, efficient New Yorker. By virtue of his position, he seems to be in charge of the chapel, so we ask him: Would it be O.K. if we said Mass for the rescue workers tomorrow, outside? Sure, he says. We tell Flick that we hope to celebrate Mass at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. While we are talking near the altar, someone asks us to be quiet and points. Behind the altar, where a priest would stand during Mass, two firemen sleep next to each other, fully clothed, covered in grime.

What I fear the most here is helping with the dead bodies, or the body parts that the rescue workers are recovering. A chaplain we meet says that much of his work is praying over the bodies, for the consolation of those gathered. But I wonder if I will even be able to do this. My friend Bob, though, has less fear than I do, and convinces me that we should visit the morgue. The temporary morgue is a large white tent, cordoned off from the rest of the site. Stepping under the tent is like entering a chapel. An Episcopalian priest prays quietly, and the police officers are utterly silent as they stare at the full body bag lying on the ground.

Before we leave, Bob and I pause in front of the wreckage of the World Trade Center, a few yards from where they have pulled out the body we have just seen. Behind us looms the monstrous rubble: mangled steel girders, broken glass, ground-up concrete, rising six or seven storiesit’s difficult to tell, so disorienting are these surroundings. It is a malevolent site: a symbol of evil. But it is also a sacred site: the tomb of innocents. We say a prayer for the victims, and I think of the thousands of people who lie here: people we do not know, but who are all known intimately by God.

Sunday, Sept. 16

Today I have returned with Bob, as well as a group of Jesuit scholastics, three of whom are studying at Fordham UniversityAndrew, Joe and Phillipas well as Pawel, a Polish Jesuit who works at the nearby Nativity school. We meet at 7:30 a.m. in the Nativity community, and before we leave, we pray for the work of the day.

We make our way to one of the checkpoints, but we discover an immense crowd of workers and trucks already gathered, waiting to enter. Our own entrance now looks unlikely, and we are worried about the surfeit of Army M.P.’s, who may not be as accommodating as the Irish-American and Hispanic-American policemen who have greeted us in the past. As it turns out, officials are sweeping the area this morning as a crime scene, and ground zero is effectively shut down. Our collars prove ineffective in securing entrance. Bob recalls that we had forgotten to pray to Father Arrupe. Two hours pass, and Bob and Joe have to leave for other appointments. I am disappointed they will not be allowed in. I also wonder if anyone is waiting for the 9:00 a.m. Mass.

Eventually, a police officer named Kelly says we can enter. What about the M.P.’s? I ask. Don’t worry, Father, he says, and waves us in. Once inside, Andrew, Phillip, Pawel and I move around, meeting rescue workers as we go. When we find our way to ground zero, we see a group of family members of the police officers who were lost in the collapse of the towers. As they leave in a jeep, one shouts back at the site, We love you!

At 11:00, we set up for Mass a few yards away. In the dusty plaza, we discover a cast-off table, which we cover with a sheet. Borrowed chalices and patens from a nearby Jesuit church sit next to a Poland Springs water bottle, a hardhat and a gas mask. But before we can begin, a firefighter warns us that an electric transformer has been found in the rubble and will be exploded, which may release carcinogenic P.C.B.’s into the air. It is best for us to avoid the area, he says. I worry that I have placed the Jesuit scholastics in some sort of danger. We duck back into the chapel, and when it seems that there will in fact be no explosion, we again assemble outside with our gas masks. In a few minutes a small group of people gathers around the tableall visibly tired, all covered with sweat, all blanketed in ash.

We move through the Mass quickly; these are busy people. The Gospel reading today, from Luke, is heartbreakingly appropriate: the shepherd who rescues his lost sheep and the woman who searches for her lost coin. We speak of searching, rescuing, hoping and loving.

After Mass we stand by the makeshift altar with the ciboria, as dust and rescue workers swirl around us. Many come to receive Communion. Some ask for confession. Some ask for a blessing. An African-American man approaches Pawel, and I hear him ask for a word of comfort. Though I wonder how a Polish Jesuit new to the United States will be able to communicate with the man, they talk for 10 minutes.

After they finish speaking, Pawel comes to me and says quietly, Have you seen the sign? Around the site large plywood boards have been spray-painted with neon orange paint to indicate various functions. Morgue, says one sign. Eye wash station, says another. I follow Pawel to the sign that someone, unknown to us, has placed a few feet from our little altar. It reads: Body of Christ.

We decide to walk around the plaza and talk to as many people as we can. At 2:00, a firefighter runs up to Andrew and me. Father, he says breathlessly, are you still saying Mass at 2:00? I had forgotten that yesterday we had promised that we would do so. Of course, I say. And I think: here is devotion. A man working in an unimaginable setting, on his short break, though exhausted, decides he will go to Mass, and, finding the priest not there, sets out to find him.

The next day the Gospel reading will be about the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to heal his slave. When Jesus offers to come to his house, the Roman says that there is no need. All Jesus needs to do is say the word. I have men under my command, says the centurion: I say Come here’ and he comes, or Do this’ and he does it. Jesus says, Not even in Israel have I found such faith. When I read this story, I think of the firefighter who searches for Mass at the construction site. When have I seen such faith?

I think of everyone else here, too, in this place of death, where the Holy Spirit is more present than anywhere I have ever been: here, at this site, where God has said to so many rescue workers, Come here, and they have come, Do this, and they are doing it.

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13 years 4 months ago
As an American and a Franciscan friar preparing for the priesthood, I continue to grapple with the tension between war and peace. I want to thank America for devoting your Oct. 8 issue to this pressing and relevant issue. I found the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir’s article (“What Can Be Done? What Should Be Done?) extremely insightful and balanced. I can relate to his call for a prudent and well thought-out response. He penetrates to the heart of many of the deeper issues at stake.

I also benefitted from the article of Robert P. Waznak, S.S., regarding preaching in the midst of this crisis. His words reminded me of the power that words carry in the midst of such tragic experiences. I hope to be able to learn from those pastoral ministers who have used the proclamation of the word as a means of communicating a sense of the mystery of unexplainable events and the hope and consolation that the Gospel offers.

Finally, I was moved by the personal reflection of James Martin, S.J., on his experience as a chaplain in the midst of the wreckage, “World Trade Center Journal.” Reading about his experience reminded me of the power that individuals can have in bringing Christ to the most broken of places. I was moved with a sense of pride in reading how Father Martin and his colleagues made themselves available to all in need.

13 years 4 months ago
Every week since Sept. 11, when America’s staff surmounted insurmountable obstacles to publish on schedule, America has been healing faithfully. In sharing grief and anguish, and in bringing understanding and wisdom to bear on both, your writers and editors have soothed spirit and soul.

Throughout 11 weeks, the healing has persevered. In the Nov. 26 issue Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., traces “The Roots of Muslim Anger” with deeply assimilated understanding; articulate, coherent, his fine scholarship and gentle wisdom pacify (as does his admonition that imagery from Wild West movies should be banned from rational political discourse). In the same issue, the Rev. Donald Heet probes “Preaching From the Sacred Text” with fervent compassion.

Father Heet asks why some homilists did not address their people’s pain on the Sunday after Sept. 11. His anguished query makes me realize more fully than ever the deep gratitude I feel for the extraordinary ministry my own parish priests began to give on that date. Beginning with a memorial liturgy on the night of Sept. 11, they addressed our pain through their own, with Scriptures and liturgy.

In one of his later homilies, our young associate pastor quoted the heart-stopping narrative of James Martin, S.J., about offering the Eucharist at ground zero (10/8). Every day he selected entrance and recessional hymns and anthems appropriate to the suffering of parishioners; parishioners sang in tears that began to cleanse.

Just as each succeeding issue of America has brought healing, each succeeding liturgy and homily of my parish priests has brought healing.


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