Two days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I made my way to one of the emergency trauma centers in Manhattan. It had been hastily set up in a cavernous sports facility called Chelsea Piers, on the Hudson River. I had been there earlier, on the evening of Sept. 11, still stunned from the day’s events like many New Yorkers, and, also like many New Yorkers, wanting desperately to do something. But on that surreal and awful night, I simply waited with dozens of doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and volunteers for what officials expected would be hundreds of survivors. I ran into three young Franciscan friars, who were planning to spend the night there. They were full of energy and devotion. But though we wanted to help, after a few hours the stunning reality dawned: there would not be many survivors to attend to.
When I return to Chelsea Piers two days later to offer assistance, I discover that I have already been preceded by scores of members of the clergy. Another priest, says one harried, sweating volunteer as I enter. Go upstairs and ask for Ellen. Ellen tells me that she already has plenty of priests, ministers and rabbis. I wander downstairs, trying to think about where I might be able to help most. The day before I had spent at a center set up by a local Catholic hospital, where family members painfully searched dog-eared sheets of paper that listed the names of survivors. But at that hospital too there was a surfeit of help: there are so many mental-health care professionals in Manhattan.
Outside, surrounded by ambulances, U.S. Army vehicles, police cars, fire engines and dump trucks, I ask a police sergeant a question upon which I had reflected not at all. But it seems the right thing to ask: Do you think they might be able to use a priest downtown?
He knows where I mean. And I am terrified he will say yes.
Of course, he says; yes. Almost instantly a police car materializes to bring me to the site of the former World Trade Center. One of my spiritual directors used to say that sometimes if God wants you to do something, he removes all roadblocks, and I feel this intensely as we sail downtown. I ask, he answers, we go.
My own fear increases with every southerly block. With me in the back seat is a well-dressed psychiatrist. Have you dealt with trauma victims? he asks, as we speed through the streets. No, I say; please give me some advice. He does.
The sights of the first few minutes of the drive are familiar, comforting: the river on the right, the Manhattan skyline on the left. We make a lefthand turn, and there are fewer and fewer people walking on the street. When we stop briefly at an intersection, crowds of people surround the car, cheering and clapping, waving flags. My window is open, and a hand is thrust in, offering muffins, donuts, bottled water. We turn again, and presently there are many parked cars covered with fine soot. Our car passes the line that cordons off the press from the rescue area; I see cameras, reporters, news vans. And then we make another turn: here are cars crushed by falling debris, papers floating in the breeze, and more and more pale grey ash. We continue on and I catch sight of a burned, twisted building. The psychiatrist gets out of the car, wishes me well and sprints away.
The car turns once again, and I see the sight familiar from repeated viewings on television: the horrible remains of the Trade Center, issuing forth a brown, acrid smoke that chokes one and brings tears to the eyes. It is repellent. I feel the urge at once to vomit and to weep.
A U.S. Army soldier walks over and greets me, providing me with a sort of friendly escort. Ashamed that I cannot tear my gaze from the site of the embrowned buildings only a few yards away, I make an effort to ask after the soldier’s welfare. But, instead, he ministers to me. That’s O.K., Father, he says. Everybody stares when they see it. It’s hard to see, isn’t it? He hands me a face mask, which I notice everyone is wearing, to protect against the smoke and dust.
Okay, Father, he says and points. Just over there, that’s where everyone is; it’s the morgue. The temporary morgue is a formerly tony office building that, though I know the area well, I am now totally unable to recognize.
The streets surrounding the morgue are covered by two inches of soot. More paper blows around; I notice an office memo with its edges charred brown. Twisted girders covered with grime must be stepped over. All I can think of is a banality. But, though banal, it is true: this is like hellfull of immense sadness and terror and pathos.
And yet, here is grace. There are hundreds of rescue workers: firefighters and police officers and army personnel and construction workers and truck drivers and counselors and doctors and nurses. Almost all are in motion. They are purposeful, efficient, hard-working.
Some of the the firefighters and police officers sit by a staging area near the doorway of the temporary morgue, resting. Though most are New Yorkers, a surprising number are not, having traveled great distances (from Massachusetts, says one; from Florida, says another) to help. We talk about what they have seen, how they feel, what they think. In the midst of this hell, they are inspiring to speak with, and say simple things, made profound to me by their situation: Just doing my job, Father. One day at a time. Doing the best I can, Father. I cannot resist the urge to tell them what great work they are doing.
Suddenly I realize that I am standing beside grace. Here are men and women, some of whom tell me I lost a buddy in there, who are going about their businessa business that includes the possibility of dying. Greater love has no person, said Jesus, than the one who lays down his life for another. And this is what that looks like. Here it is.
As I think this, four men carry a small orange bag past us holding the remains of a victim of the attack. I am afraid of what I might see, so I do not look.
Next to the building, three African-American N.Y.P.D. officers sit on salvaged office chairs in front of cardboard boxes that are stacked perhaps six feet high. We talk about their work here. All are New Yorkers, who say how disorienting it is to consider downtown without the World Trade Center. We talk about friends we know who were at or near the Trade Center at the time.
One of my friends, I tell them, who worked at a nearby building, emerged from his subway station at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, as crowds of people raced by. What happened? he asks someone. A plane hit the World Trade Center! He goes to his office anyway; he thinks it must have been a small plane that hit. No need to worry.
Once at his desk, he looks out the window and sees the appalling sight of the Trade Center wreathed in smoke. When he tells me the story, he pauses, and says what many New Yorkers say, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand it. Now he rushes to the stairwells with co-workers, and begins racing down 18 floors. Once outside, a police officer shouts at him. Run! Run! Run! As he runs, dazed, someone cries out, It’s collapsing! He tells me he thinks to himself: don’t be surprised if you die.
The police officers nod. They know many similar stories, and, of course, far worse ones. It is hard to take it all in, one says. They talk more about their experiences and say they are worried that it will get worse once the recovery of the bodies begins. Here are the bags, says one, gesturing behind him, and it is suddenly clear what is in that tall pile of boxes.
When I feel that I have talked with as many people as I can (at least those who are not busy with their work), I leave. One police sergeant tells me the way out: walk up this path, he says. As I do, streams of fire companies pass me, and almost everyone greets me. Hello, Father. They touch the brim of their helmets. They shake my hand as I leave and they move in toward the wreckage.
Leaving is stranger than coming. All I have to do is walk north. The rubble eventually recedes, so there is nothing to step over; the soot becomes less distinct and the pavements are cleaner; the smoke clears and I remove my mask; there are more and more pedestrians. And then I am back in New York on a sunny fall day: people in Greenwich Village sit in outdoor cafes; women in tank tops jog by; taxis race past. I remember reading about soldiers in World War I who would fight in the trenches in France during the day and then, granted a day’s leave, would be in the theaters of London in the evening. Is this what it is like for the rescue workers?
A subway entrance presents itself. A policeman sees me and walks over. I suddenly realize I must look strange: in clerics, sweating, covered in grey soot, a face mask dangling from my neck. What subway do you want? I am astonished to find out that I am so disoriented that I cannot tell him, but can only say that I want to go uptown. I feel foolisha New Yorker takes pride in knowing where he’s going. Were you down there? he asks. I nod and he brings me downstairs, past the ticket counter, and motions for the subway attendant to open up the gate, to allow me in for a free ride, a last gesture of kindness and solidarity in a city overwhelmed by grief but united in overwhelming charity.