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Ground Zero - A Chaplain's Diary
By Chaplain David J. Fair, PhD, CHS-V, CMC
 
Ground Zero - A Chaplain's Diary

David J. Fair, PhD, CHS-V, CMC, is a member of the ABCHS Executive Advisory Board and chair of the ABCMC. Fair is president and CEO of Homeland Crisis Institute. As a Master Chaplain, Fair has served at dozens of disasters including ground zero following 9/11, hurricanes Katrina and Ike, the NASA space shuttle disaster, the Fort Hood shootings, and the Haitian earthquake.

I was honored to be called to deploy to Ground Zero as a police chaplain 10 days after the attack on the Twin Towers. I captured my experiences and thoughts in diary form. I delivered these thoughts in a Patriot's Day speech to a group of citizens in Brownwood, Texas in 2002.

It was a great honor to be chosen to respond to New York last year following the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse.

I went as a Police Chaplain attached to the New Jersey Critical Incident Stress Management Team, assigned to the Port Authority who operated the World Trade Center.

A Stress Management Team helps emergency workers such as police, fire, and EMS deal with their emotional response so they don't burn out or have a nervous breakdown.

While in New York, I worked at ground zero, at Belleview Hospital and morgue, and assisted in the command center.

I talked to dozens of emergency workers, visited with surviving family members, and visited some of those hospitalized after being pulled from the collapsed towers.

At Ground Zero we were required to wear the same dress as the rescue workers—hard hats, gloves, and masks—to filter out the dust and smoke. It was still burning at 1,600–2,000 degrees.

My first day there was actually night. The scene was lit with portable stadium lights giving it the look of day.

It was all so surrealistic. I stood there not fully believing I was actually there. If anyone had told me a month before I would be standing where the World Trade Center once stood, I would have said they were crazy.

There was just so much devastation piled five or six stories high. It looked like the world's largest trash heap.

There were two kinds of work going on. First there was the rescue effort—firemen and policemen digging by hand to try to find survivors or recover bodies.

The second effort was large construction equipment moving the huge steel beams and other debris. Certain areas were given specific names. There was "the pile," where the debris was heaped; there was "the pit", where workers were digging by hand. Ground Zero became known as Ground Hero in honor of those who lost their lives saving others.

As sad and devastating as the loss of over 3,000 lives was, we must remember there were many thousands more in the towers. That means over thousands of people made it to safety.

Police, fire, and EMS workers risked and many lost their lives guiding these survivors to safety. Some actually carried or drug them out.

Of the dead, over 300 were New York City firemen, with over 50 New York and Port Authority police officers. The FBI lost one agent, and as a side note, that agent who had just retired from the FBI, had started work for the Port Authority two weeks prior and was killed in the collapse. A friend of his told me that if he hadn't retired, he would have been heading up the federal investigation.

Less than a week after the tragedy, no other survivors were found. However, rescue workers hoped against hope they would still find someone alive.

Firefighters have a saying: "No one goes home until the last man goes home," referring to their fallen brothers. So they continued to dig by hand until they were forced to stop and the operation was ended.

Sadly, many bodies will not be found, hampering closure for many friends and family. The heat incinerated many of the bodies.

Some police officers were identified only by the serial number on their gun.

The City of New York amassed tremendous resources. An entire school gym was filled with rescue supplies, rain gear, lights, and everything else that was needed by rescue workers.

Food was never in short supply. Because the Port Authority operates LaGuardia, JFK, and the Newark airports, they contracted with Marriott for food service, so food was delivered to a number of places for rescue workers and support staff.

Because there was fear of contamination, there were hundreds of portable hand-wash stations. There were even places where they washed your boots before we left certain areas. There were hundreds of portable toilets to meet the needs of workers.

The Red Cross brought in a three-deck cruise ship, docking it near Ground Zero. Two decks were used to feed us; the third deck had cots to rest and volunteer chiropractors and massage therapist helped get workers back in the recovery effort.

The attitudes of the workers, and even the survivors were much better than I expected. They seemed to have a purpose. If they could recover bodies, they would be content. Each time a body, or even body parts, were found there was a sense of relief. If the body was a fireman or policeman, a color guard accompanied it to the temporary morgue.

I went there to help them, but they helped me to come back with their high spirits and gratitude. I expected to come back devastated, but instead came back blessed. God keeping me above the cloud of total despair.

Rescue workers were working 12 hours on and 12 hours off, seven days a week to start, and then reduced to six days a week. The chaplains worked the same schedules.

There was a makeshift canteen at Ground Zero where food was served, and each night some celebrity would come to help serve. I met Brook Shields, and there was also some pro wrestlers, the mayor, and then New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

Everyone had a story. At Belleview Hospital, there was an area called the "Blue Wall," where—during construction earlier in the month—workers put up a plywood fence and painted it blue. Survivors now put up pictures of their missing friends and relatives on that wall, in hopes someone would find them among the injured or recovered. A makeshift memorial was started along the wall with flowers and candles.

Other memorials were at Fire Station 10 across from the World Trade Center that lost 14 men, and at the Port Authority Headquarters, as well as existing police and fire memorials near the river.

There were stories of those who survived the 1993 WTC bombing only to perish in this attack. Others survived both terrorist acts.

Every cloud has a "Silver Lining." To me there are four very positive things that came out of the 9/11 tragedy:

  • Patriotism. This is still seen nationwide. Everywhere you go, even today, there are flags and plenty of red, white, and blue on T-shirts, caps, and bumper stickers. And of course now 9/11 is called Patriot's Day.
  • People came together in time of need. I saw rescue teams from Mexico, Colorado, California, Illinois, Texas, and many more. One officer I visited in the hospital, though in great pain, told me to thank everyone who came. He couldn't believe how much help was there.

On September 10, people on the streets of New York wouldn't even make eye contact. But after the attack, as I was walking in downtown New York City, I saw a man drop something on the sidewalk and people stopped and helped him look for it.

  • There is also increased awareness of God, in a positive way. Not where was God, but rather God was there, with us.

Because I work as a chaplain around so much death and trauma, let me give you my insight as to why "Bad Things Happen To Good People." I don't believe tragedy is caused by God.

There are, in fact, laws that are in effect.

First is the law of gravity. A wheel comes off a car, it is apt to wreck. A wing breaks off a plane, it will crash. The second law is, "Man's Free Will." We are free will moral agents. Man makes bad choices and suffers the consequences.

God will not override a man's free will.

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve not to eat the apple, the fruit of the forbidden tree. Yet they did any way. God didn't stop them. He allowed them to make a choice, even a bad choice, and to suffer the consequences: Banished from the Garden forever.

In the Old Testament, God says, "I set before you today, life and death, blessings and cursing. I want you to choose life." But God says you must choose. Man chooses and God lets him live with even the bad choices, although it breaks His heart.

  • The final positive thing I saw was a renewed respect for law enforcement. Even crime in New York was down—it affected even the criminals.

I want to begin to wrap up on this note: one night I was standing on the deck of the Red Cross ship. I had been at Ground Zero. I was hot and tired. Behind me, I could see the lights at Ground Zero. But as I looked across the water I saw another light, another site. I saw the Statue of Liberty standing tall in the harbor, and it was if God was saying to me 'Dave, it's gonna be alright.' And I fully believe it will.

Here we are at 9/11 2002 Patriot's Day. We live in the greatest country on earth.

We have a choice to be either victims or survivors. It's time now, a year later, to be survivors. We need to keep on praying, keep on loving, and keep being faithful to do what we know in our heart is right, just, and moral.

God is with us in the storms of life. The Bible tells us that He will never leave or forsake us. Thank you and may God Bless the United States of America.












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