Ground Zero

November 20, 2001

It was late Wednesday when we finally made it to Ground Zero in New York City. Our team of five men left Oak Park Sunday afternoon at 4 PM and drove through the night to High Point, North Carolina. From there we traveled to Washington, DC, then on to New York City. That’s a strange itinerary but in our case we had to go to North Carolina to pick up 6000 copies of the book An Anchor for the Soul. A few days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, a church in New Jersey asked us to send 5000 copies of the book. A different team made an overnight trip and got them to the church by Sunday, September 16. Two days later people were receiving copies at Union Square where so many of the makeshift memorials were first set up. The shipment was given away in four days. And that’s why we made a second trip two weeks ago.

Now we were at Ground Zero. The first thing you notice is the security. To say it was tight doesn’t begin to cover it. There were police officers everywhere, on every corner stretching for blocks in every direction. You had to pass through a gauntlet of checkpoints to get within a mile of the disaster site. When you get out of the car, the smell envelops you from many blocks away. It is an acrid smell that is partly something burning and partly something else that the mind struggles to identify. Then it hits you, though this is hardly a technical explanation, it is the smell of a collapsed building. As you walk closer, there is dust everywhere, a fine film that settles over everything. Although great care has been taken to clean the surrounding streets of loose debris, the dust rises from the smoldering heap and drifts across the surrounding streets.

There were people everywhere. That seems strange, and it seems so in the memory, until you remember that hundreds of thousands of people live and work on the southern tip of Manhattan. Chinatown is nearby, and so is Wall Street, and city hall, and a long string of high-rise buildings. People have asked, “What was it like?” The first answer seems to be that no matter what you thought you saw on television, the devastation is so much greater, as if some giant hand had reached down and ripped up the buildings, smashing them into a twisted heap, scattering the pieces everywhere. On television you only see parts of it but in person you can walk around three sides of the World Trade Center area. It took more than an hour to make the journey.

Not surprisingly, there are tourists and shopkeepers selling souvenirs, little flag pins, and hats that say, “NYFD” and “NYPD” and sweatshirts that display the flag, the fallen towers, and the words United We Stand. I even saw one that said, “I made it out alive.” Hard to believe anyone would buy that, much less wear it. At each intersection (we were about a block away from the piles of rubble), you could stop and get a different view. There wasn’t much to see (except for the tall cranes) on the north side. The east side offered clearer views of the rubble and of the surrounding buildings that remain standing (though mostly unoccupied). The south side was entirely different. The sidewalk is narrow, there are very few shops, and not many people. At the very last intersection a small crowd had gathered. This is where the trucks enter and leave the site. Here you can see the “cathedral” view and watch the men with their hardhats coming and going. There is total silence. The feeling is somber, reverent, quiet. No one speaks as we stand and ponder what has happened here. This is a crime scene, a mass grave, and a war zone. The mind reels as you ask yourself, “What sort of people would do something like this?”

But there is more to Ground Zero than the remains of two massive buildings. There is another story happening in New York City, a story of sorrow, valor, pain and heroic courage. It’s a story much different from the rubble and ruin we see on television. Early that morning, we decided to visit Central Park, which was only about four blocks from our hotel. There we happened to meet a woman walking her dog who, when she found out we were from out of town, offered to give us a tour of the park. Judy has lived in New York City for 25 years, walks her dog in Central Park almost every day, loves the city, loves the park, and loves to show it off to visitors. She was the perfect guide because she is enthusiastic about Central Park and knows it like the back of her hand. Along the way, she told us that she is Jewish and attends a large synagogue not far from the park. Eventually she discussed the terrorist attacks and how they had profoundly changed everything and everyone. She talked about Rudy Giuliani, Bill Clinton, and about her own personal theology of good and evil. When we left the park, she told us she wanted us to visit the fire station near where she lived. We arrived there about 8:15 a.m. She banged on the door but no one answered. She banged again and no one came. I thought it was time to leave but she kept on knocking until a man opened the door. “These fellows have come from Chicago and they would like to talk to you,” she said. The man said that would be fine and opened the overhead door. Her mission done, Judy excused herself and left.

It turns out that six men from that fire station died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Outside the station on the sidewalk there was a shrine honoring those six men. It was covered with pictures, notes, cards, letters, poems and flowers. As I studied the faces of the six men who died, I thought that they were All-American types, the sort of people you would want for next-door neighbors. They didn’t look like heroes in a special sense. They were just good guys who showed up one day, answered the call, and died in the line of duty. True American heroes.

We talked for a while with one of the firefighters who told us that he got to the World Trade Center shortly after the second tower fell and didn’t leave for 24 hours. His eyes spoke of pain and sadness and determination. When we offered him a copy of An Anchor for the Soul, he said he would read it and would be glad to give copies to his buddies as well.

Then Mike came up to talk with us. He was older and taller and seemed more in charge. I gathered he had served with the fire department for many years because he said he had known 40 of the nearly 350 firefighters who died on September 11. His eyes were a window to his soul. There was sadness there and frustration and incredible intensity and a sort of weariness you see in a man who has been through a terrible ordeal and is struggling to make sense of it. He wasn’t nervous but he kept moving, always talking, gesturing, saying how stressed they all had been, how they hadn’t been able to sleep, how they had been working day and night since the attacks. He said the city sent counselors to the station, but who wants to talk to counselors? He would rather be back in the kitchen with his buddies. He didn’t seem angry, just a man pushed past the limit of normal endurance who is nevertheless still doing his job. On September 11, he was at the station but was off duty so he wasn’t at the World Trade Center when his friends died. No doubt that fact played on his mind, too.

We told him why we had come, offered words of encouragement, and he thanked us very sincerely. He shook our hands and we turned to leave. But he kept on talking to us so we stayed. No one knows what it’s like, he said. We work all day, never stop, always answering calls, no time to rest or think, always under pressure. He wasn’t complaining, just stating facts. Then he thanked us again, shook our hands, and we started to leave. This time he followed us out and kept on talking. He had just heard from one of his friends who said that some of the firefighters were freaking out, drinking, partying, refusing to go home, not talking to anyone. He had a girl friend, he said, but he wouldn’t talk to her, he kept her at arm’s length because he didn’t feel like he could open up to her. He had a good family he could go to, but what about the guys who didn’t have that? We listened, he thanked us again, shook our hands again, and we turned to leave. By now we were out of the station and on the sidewalk. This time he followed us a few feet and kept on talking. Eventually someone asked, “How can we pray for you?” He said we should pray for all the firefighters because they were all having a hard time. So we made a circle and prayed for Mike and for all his buddies that each one would find God’s peace. After our prayer, he thanked us profusely and turned to go back into the fire station. One of our guys said, “I wish we could stay here all day. He wants to talk to someone.”

And there are many more like him in New York City. Their lives have been changed forever by what happened on September 11. And yet they show for work every day. Long after the rubble has been cleared from Ground Zero, there will be many hurting people who need hope and a listening ear. Evil has been let loose in the world in a way that has shocked us out of our false sense of security. Now as never before, people are looking for hope. To put it in biblical terms, they truly need the Lord. The mighty twin towers have crumbled to the dust. Where will we go to find safety? Solomon gave us the answer 3,000 years ago: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). During our trip we handed out decals (printed here in Oak Park) that show an American flag with this phrase underneath it: “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow.” And underneath that three words: “The Lord reigns.” We gave out hundreds of them in New York City and no one turned us down. Since we returned, we’ve learned that some of the fire fighters at Ground Zero are putting those decals on their helmets as a statement of their faith. This awful disaster has revealed the good heart of millions of Americans and awakened in our nation a new patriotism and a new dependence on God. We saw evidence of it everywhere we went, especially in the strength of those whose goodness the terrorists could not destroy.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?