One Year Ago

Sunday, September 23, 2001.



This morning I am here with Joe and Chris, two young Jesuits from Fordham University. Part of Jesuit training includes philosophy studies, and there is a large community of Jesuit scholastics studying at Fordham, for whom working at Ground Zero has become a kind of temporary ministry. Their companionship has been a signal blessing for me, and I have been moved by the generous response of their community. It is also good to work here alongside other Jesuits: it’s the kind of ministry that Jesuits have long donein places of crisis, in areas where the institutional Church is just beginning to organize, in regions of great need. For Joe, this is his second time at Ground Zero; for Chris, his first.

While the three of us talk to a National Guardsman from upstate New York, a giant tractor-trailer heaves to a stop on the street beside us. A steelworker with a few days’ growth of beard climbs down from his rig and approaches Joe. Can I speak with you, Father?

As Chris and I move away to offer them a measure of privacy, the man embraces Joe and begins to weep. As the two of them talk, I notice that we are standing beside an office building whose first-floor windows are covered with dozens of messages. Still thickly coated with soot, the dirty windows around the site have become a place for the rescue workers to express a variety of emotions.

God Bless America says one in tall, loopy letters. Rescue 1 Heroes, We Will Never Forget, Down But Not Out, and Payback’s a Bitch, Osama.

After 10 minutes Joe rejoins us. The man, he says quietly, is here for the first time. All I did today, he tells Joe, was drive my truck into the site, and people were cheering for me. I don’t deserve that, he says. I’m just a regular guy. I’m no hero.

Joe, visibly moved, wonders if he said the right things, or counseled the man the right way. Chris and I tell Joe that he did a good job by listening so intently to the man, who felt comfortable enough with Joe to weep. In places like this, I say, God seems to know which people need to be brought together.

Grace is everywhere, I say. Especially here. And I am convinced of this.

We walk only a few steps before catching sight of a white trailer. On its side are three large black-and-yellow placards bearing the name of the company that owns the van: Grace Construction Co.

Grace really is everywhere, says Joe, smiling.

. . .

The morgue is still the place where it seems that the rescue workers are most willing to talk. And today there is an even more obvious feeling of sadness and exhaustion. It seems as if people are much more willing to cry and to express emotion. Is it because it’s Sunday?

We come upon two people resting on leather office chairs next to a police car outside the morgue: a slight, blond-haired woman from one of the city’s Emergency Medical Service teams and a fireman who has been pulling out bodies over the last few days. The fireman says that the search for those still alive in the wreckage is rapidly drawing to a close; now it is more of a recovery effort. But even while admitting this, he is resolute about his job. We need to find those remains, he says. It really helps the families.

As he speaks, a policewoman approaches us. She is a young Hispanic-American woman with short dark hair. Can I ask you something? she says to me. Of course, I say.

Do you think that jumping from a building is suicide?

I hesitate, struggling to think of some spiritual insight that would help her. No, it’s not, I think, but how to explain this?

No, Chris says. They weren’t trying to die, they were trying to live. They wanted to live. That’s not suicide.

It’s a beautiful response, and I am proud of Chris for his insight and compassion. Once again, it seems that God knows how to bring people together. The policewoman begins to weep and the E.M.S. volunteer wraps her arms tightly around her. I ask if there is someone that she is thinking of and she says yes. She quietly utters her friend’s name. The six of us stand in a circle and pray for her friend.

. . .

After a quick lunch, we make our way over to the place that feels like an open wound: the rubble pile. There is a tall, fortyish police chief with thinning hair, staring at the remaining outer walls of the towers, which today are wreathed in milky white smoke.

Father! he says, waving me over. He’s worried about something, he says.

Yesterday, he explains, he spoke with a police chaplain who confided how depressed he was by the events of the past two weeks. The chaplain told him that because he hadn’t been able to minister to anyone who had been pulled from the wreckage alive, he wasn’t doing enough.

I told him that he was doing the best he could, says the police officer, and that just being here was enough.

The policeman pauses. Was that the right thing to say?

I assure him that it was an excellent responsethe perfect response in factand marvel at a policeman providing counseling and comfort for a priest, and at a policeman who himself wonders if he’s doing enough.

. . .

Around 4 p.m. Joe, Chris and I exit via the West Side Highway. As we remove our respirators and hard hats and talk about the day, Chris mentions that some of the steelworkers told him about finding a dove in the wreckage today. They were really excited about it, he says.

Chris says that while workers were excavating a small open space that had been spared in the collapse, a white dove fluttered around and flew up and away from the rubble. The men saw it as a sign, especially coming on a Sunday.

A mile or so from the site, we pass a chain-link fence onto which are tied hundreds of yellow ribbons, in remembrance of the victims. Dozens of Missing Person flyersXeroxed sheets with photographs and descriptions of those lostadorn the same fence a few feet away.

As we head farther north, a man sprints toward us and climbs over the concrete divider that separates the street from the path on which we walk. He asks for a few minutes of my time. Joe and Chris move away and sit down on the curb nearby.

He is a big man, whose gray hair is pulled back into a lank ponytail. He wears dusty jeans, a dirty T-shirt and a tan windbreaker. A steelworker with puffy, tired eyes, he has been working at the site since Sept. 12.

Over the last few days, I’ve come to realize that many of the remains are found not only by firefighters and police officers but also by the steelworkers, ironworkers and construction crews who have volunteered here. As they use their tools to slice through the huge steel I-beams littering the site, they inevitably come upon a body or body parts. But these are men whose trade has not prepared them at all for such labor, and I feel a great deal of pity for them.

The man before me tells me of the things he’s seen in the rubble. But now when I go home, I can’t bear to see my wife and child, he says, with tears tracing lines down his dusty face. Because every time I see their faces, I see the faces of the people I pull out.

It is a stunning statement that seems to encapsulate all of the emotions that people are facing here: grief, horror, confusion, pity, shock, despair. We talk more about what he has seen, and I tell him that what he’s feeling is certainly natural under the hellish circumstances. And has he found any of the grief counselors down at the site?

When he shakes his head, I tell him that there are many counselors who would be able to talk with him at the site. You can ask the fire department or police department or the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. I know that in a short conversation I cannot do much: I am not a trained mental-health professional, psychologist or psychiatrist.

I desperately want this poor man to get some help, so I ask him again if he will promise to seek out one of the grief counselors. He nods his head vigorously. We talk some more and he wipes away his tears. He stands up and shakes my hand deliberately.

You know, Father, he says, I used to be Catholic. But now I sort of mix it with Indian religions. You know, Native American stuff. Suddenly his ponytail takes on a different look. Because I figure it’s all one God in the end. You know?

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