Remembering My 9/11 Journey
Our clergy staff met after the second plane crashed to plan of response to the attack. That afternoon 5:00 PM I began the first hour of a three-hour prayer vigil. The following two Sundays neither of my colleagues spoke about 9/11 from the pulpit. I was to preach on the third Sunday. Something needed to be said, but Friday afternoon I still didn’t know say. Finally, it came to me! No rushing wind, no tongues of fire, but the Holy Spirit busted the logjam in my mind. “Tell the story of what was happening at Trinity Wall Street, St. Paul’s Chapel, and beyond. Share what your response will be.” Google had numerous 9/11 stories. One was the need for chaplains at St. Paul’s Chapel, a few blocks from Ground Zero. There recovery workers could rehydrate, eat and rest. I knew I’d volunteer.
On Sunday I shared 9/11 stories. Several miles uptown from Ground Zero, Bishop Catherine Waynick watched the smoke billowing where the Twin Towers once stood. She phoned home to share her 9/11 experience with her Diocesan family in Indiana. The Reverend Dr. Carl P. Daw, Jr., a noted church musician and composer wrote, When Sudden Terror Tears Us Apart… A Hymn for 9/11. He published it two days later. The Daily Telegraph would report, that on the morning of 9/11 Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, was meeting with a group of religious leaders at Trinity Institute, a couple of blocks from the Twin Towers. Shortly after the first tower collapsed the auditorium filled with smoke and dust. The Reverend Fredric Burnham, Director of Trinity Institute, knowing the size of the auditorium, believed there was no more than fifteen minutes of breathable oxygen. When the second tower was struck, Archbishop Williams was quoted as saying “We’re in a war zone.” Laying a hand, on the Archbishop’s shoulder a longtime friend said, “I can think of no one I’d rather die with.” The police busted the door open, and the group staggered onto the street as the second tower collapsed.
The Daily Telegraph wrote, “The next day Archbishop Williams was to preach at Saint John the Divine Cathedral. He recalled a chance meeting with a pilot earlier that morning. The pilot asked. “Where the hell was God?” His answer was shocking: “At times like this God is pretty useless.” He added, “God did not cause this and God [was not] going to stop it, because God gave us free will, and therefore God is suffering the consequences as we did.”
General Seminary was scheduling of chaplains to serve at St. Paul’s Chapel, and I was told to arrive the next week. A week later at 4:30AM an Uber took me to the airport. Travelers had been advised to arrive two hours due to new security measures. At 5:00 AM I walked into the terminal. There was no crowd, only a couple of ticket agents, and two men in fatigues holding AK 47s. The latter took my breath away. For the first time since 9/11 I was scared. On the usually full 7:00AM flight to LaGuardia, half the seats were empty.
After leaving my carryon at the Leo Guesthouse, I took the subway Rector Street and walked to St. Paul’s Chapel. (Hereafter the Chapel) Father Langdon Harris the Priest in Charge of the Chapel, gave me a quick orientation to the minister at the Chapel; then handed me an industrial face mask. We walked to Ground Zero. Ashes still swirled in the wind. The silence was deafening. Standing on a newly built platform, he explained that ferries brought the victims' families to Ground Zero. From the platform they could view those working on the Pile. We were to be a “pastoral presence” for those who wished to have a prayer or conversation. Our second assignment was to Bless human remains. When remains were uncovered, the workers would stop, bow their heads in a moment of silence. Then the remains were taken to a Chaplain. They were picked up and taken to 1 Church Street, where a make-shift morgue was set up in the Brooks Brothers Store.
The first day I was assigned to the front porch of the Chapel. An outpouring of fruit, snacks and beverages lined the porch. Breakfast, lunch, and supper were brought in from major hotel kitchens up town. Inside the Chapel, recovery workers could rest on the pews. There were several massage chairs, which were always occupied. The Holy Eucharist was celebrated at noon each day. At one service, Father Langdon Harris, reminded us that in midst of the tragedy of 9/11 we were called to have an attitude of gratitude. His words brought me up short. Yes, I was amazed at the out pouring of support given the Chapel, but in the moment I wasn’t thinking about gratitude. I was focused on meeting the next thing that needed to be addressed.
After my shift, I took the 8th Avenue Subway uptown to the 23rd Street Station and walked the Leo Guesthouse. After a shower I went next door to a Vietnamese Restaurant. I ate there every night. Then phoned home to debrief.
My shift began at 8:00AM. My job was to do whatever needed to be done next. Memories remain. None crazier than driving the red pickup truck in Manhattan and none more poignant than ministry at the Pile. The directions to the Waldorf Astoria were simple. Take the FDR Drive to the 49th Street exit and park beside the Waldorf. The FDR was closed except for recovery workers and support service vehicles. I began my first trip with the gas gauge was hovering over empty. After gassing up I drove to the Waldorf. With the truck loaded with food I made quick trip along the FDR, remembering numerous visits to the city when traffic slowed to a crawl on the FDR. Food pickups became a daily job. No trip was more challenging than a soup and sandwich pickup. It took a few blocks before I noticed the huge soup vats sliding around and slopping onto the truck’s bed. With a coil of rope and lessons learned on a youth camping trip, I secured the vats for the trip back to the Chapel.
One afternoon while on duty at the victims’ family platform, I saw the workers removing their hard hats and bowing their heads. I knew human remains had been recovered. At the Pile the foreman met me with a small ziplock bag. After Blessing the remains, I waited for the “morgue truck” to pick them up. The truck never came. After handing the bag the supervisor designated to care for remains, in the absence of clergy, I rushed back to the Chapel to pick up dinner.
The next day, shortly before my late afternoon trip to the Waldorf, I saw an elderly lady covered with dust an ashes standing in the middle of street. She looked lost. After bringing her to the porch and giving her some bottled water; she told me when the authorities made her evacuate her place, she couldn’t find her cat. She’d returned hoping to find him. Today the heat and grief overwhelmed her. After learning where she was staying, I told her I could take her to the Waldorf and would give her cab fare for the rest of the way to where she was staying. During the trip uptown I learned she was widowed, that her husband had been a well-known local artist, and friends further uptown had taken her in until she could return to her place near Ground Zero. When we reached the Waldorf, and I asked the bellman to hail a cab. She told the driver the friend’s address. I asked what the fare would be. When I handed her enough money to cover the cab fare and then some, she asked for my business card. A couple of weeks later I received a lovely thank you card. On the front of the card was one of her husband paintings.
Four months later, February 13th, I moved from person to person along the altar rail. I rubbed my thumb in a small glass dish filled with ashes. Placing my thumb to their foreheads I said. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” On that Ash Wednesday and everyone since, I remember leaving the Chapel homeward bound when a lone ash landed on my blue blazer.
I’ll never forget 9/11. Ashes still falling a month later. And that I am dust and to dust I shall return.
Robin Myers is a retired Episcopal priest. If one counts sermons as writing he has been writing “short stories” for forty eight years.
Three years ago he began exploring different genres for his stories, from memoir to Stephen King (Lite.) His greatest challenge is rewriting the rewrites.Robin is deeply indebted to the Indiana Writers Center for the classes offered and inspiration drawn from reading The Flying Island.