An amazing spirit arisen from devastation

Published December 1, 2001

Canon Malcolm Wilson, a volunteer chaplain with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, recently returned from a week’s chaplaincy duty at the World Trade Center site in New York City. The following is excerpted from a report he wrote. ON MY first day at the site, a demolition worker jumped down from his hydraulic grab and tapped me on the shoulder. He said, “Say a prayer for me, Father.” (We found out that New Yorkers call anyone with a clergy collar, “Father.”) I said, “What’s your name?” and he said “Tim,” then ran back and climbed into his machine and resumed digging.

Two days later I saw Tim walking past and could tell that he wanted to talk, so I watched where he went. Later I went up to him and said, “Your name’s Tim, right?” He said, “You remember me?” He then went on to unburden himself for over half an hour.

It turned out that he had been working the grab for 12 hours a day for a solid month. With every bucketful he was mindful that it might contain human remains, so he emptied each one gently, spread out the contents so that the police dogs could check it out, then picked up another – hour after hour, day after day. This quiet, gentle man exemplified, for me, the amazing spirit, hard work and resilience of the people there.

He told me that if he hadn’t been able to go home and hug his wife and children every day he would have folded up. He talked to me about his feelings for more than half an hour. I hugged him and he went back to work.

Normal crisis intervention stress management practice did not work at this event. We talked to people at their jobs, let them vent, and then get back to work.

Officer Willie Jimeno of Port Authority Police Department was a deeply religious man of about 27. His wife, seven months pregnant, was at his side in the hospital.

Willie normally worked at the bus terminal but went to the World Trade Center that day to help. He had just taken confidential documents out when the building collapsed, trapping him for 12 hours. His overpowering thirst made him hallucinate, but he was not frightened because he expected to die and envisioned God waiting for him with a bottle of ice-cold water.

Miraculously he was found; his left leg crushed, his right leg cramped and his right arm torn from broken cinder blocks. He expects to return to duty after months of physiotherapy for muscle damage.

Willie is a person who will make a difference. He is already thinking more about others than about himself.

The fact that we had come from so far away moved many people to hug us. It was evident that the caring of others was motivating these people to extend themselves to the limit.

Overall, anger had given way to fierce resolve. Many workers had progressed, of their own accord, through the various stages of coping with trauma.

The effectiveness of properly accredited chaplains was very evident. As a Canadian, I was astonished at the open official acknowledgement of peoples’ personal religious affiliations. It was refreshing to see how each fire hall had its own chaplain, whether Christian or Jewish, and those chaplains were working right alongside their own crews, with exactly the same kit as the firefighters.

The New York Police Department had chaplains constantly working among their people, fully uniformed, and accepted as being full members of the department.

We worked in pairs. Chaplain Ron Alter from Spokane Police Department and I seemed to be “adopted” by the firefighters working in the rubble and we found ourselves spending a great deal of time with them. Whenever a body or partial body was found the firefighters brought the body bags to us for last rites.

As there was no knowing the origin or faith of the victims, I wrote a special prayer and had it printed up. Other chaplains of many denominations subsequently used it as reading it aloud had a beneficial effect on the firefighters and rescue workers. In reality the procedure was more of a “healing” for them than anything else.

After realizing that the chief chaplain of the New York Fire Department was a rabbi, I asked a fire chief about making the sign of the cross over the bodies, and he said, “No do it, Father, we expect it and God knows who the person is even if we don’t. It doesn’t offend anyone.”

Thereafter all chaplains touched the head, the feet and both sides of the bodies as they said, “May your rest be in Peace, and your dwelling place the Paradise of God.”

As usual there were intruders. Most were legitimate ministers, but had no training to be at such an event. Some were no more than sightseers. A few were there to evangelize and take advantage of peoples’ moral and spiritual dilemmas.

There was a large audience of clergy at one of the sites where bodies were being removed, but the workers ignored them and brought the remains to us, for we were clearly identified by our official hard hats.

Soon after, the checkpoints stringently enforced the pass requirements for clergy and there were no more problems. Actually, it meant that we were kept busy, and transported from one side of the site to another by police car.

I have never prayed with so many people of different backgrounds and faiths.

I have never seen the similarities so emphasized, instead of the differences.

I have never hugged so many cops.

I have never been so inspired by the value of every human being.


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