Note from Author:
I’ve had a lot of encouraging responses regarding my other post on my experiences at Ground Zero after 9-11. So, here’s another one. Let’s never forget.
“In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all;
and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony,
because it takes them unawares.”
President Abraham Lincoln
–From the December 23, 1862 Letter to Fanny McCullough
I stood in a drizzling rain just yards from the “pile” at Ground Zero. It was nearly sundown and the day had not gone well. The frustration of not finding anyone alive for the past several days had clearly demoralized all of us on-scene. Even the search and rescue dogs were becoming depressed, having been trained to find living victims. Looking around at the strained, dirty faces of firefighters, ironworkers, and police personnel working nearby, I reflected on all that had happened since I arrived at this horrible scene six days after the attack on 9-11. As a Critical Incident Stress Debriefer and a Chaplain in my local fire department, I had felt compelled to take the earliest flight possible from my home high in the mountains of Colorado to this smoking ruin. What I found was far worse than I had imagined.
When I first walked up to the wreckage at Ground Zero, I nearly staggered backward, and had to fight off an almost overwhelming feeling of disorientation. The magnitude of the destruction was far more than televised images or my eyes could take in, let alone get my mind around. For as far as the eye could see in every direction, while standing at the base of a nearly five-story pile of grotesquely twisted steel girders, pipes, wires, metal ductwork, and unidentifiable debris, the once-proud and beautiful World Trade Center lay in humiliation and ruin. Acrid smoke and steam rose up, giving the scene an ethereal sense, and the smells emanating from the pile burned my nose and eyes. The scent was of burning metal, insulation, wires, and aviation fuel. There was also another scent however, infinitely more disturbing. At times, I could detect an odor of burning flesh, and my heart and mind reeled at the thought of the thousands of people trapped in that hellish pyre.
Looking around, my eyes took in the faces of the firefighters and policemen frantically working around me, fighting desperately against time to find someone, anyone, alive in that rubble. Many of their faces were totally expressionless, drawn and weary, yet extremely focused on the one thing on everyone’s mind… finding someone alive. Some of these men had labored here since the first morning of the collapse, sleeping and eating only when they had to, refusing to leave the side of their buried brothers. I stood there, in the midst of this hellish scene, clad in my firefighter bunker gear; the rockers of my yellow helmet emblazoned with the word “Chaplain,” and fought back tears. I felt so small, so insignificant among these giants and heroes of our land, who were suffering so much, and I prayed that God would give me grace to encourage, strengthen, and comfort them.
As darkness began to envelope Ground Zero, the clouds of smoke rising from the debris gave an eerie effect to the huge lights erected at the site. The search would go on and on, through the long night until the dawn of tomorrow, and for countless tomorrows to come. For some of these people, the desperate search would continue for the rest of their lives. These unspeakably horrible scenes, imprinted upon their minds and hearts, will be with them… forever. No eraser but the grace of God could ever cleanse the mind of such scenes.
In the midst of this of this scene from hell, I heard the faint electronic ringing of my cell phone inside my rain-drenched firefighting jacket. Groping for the phone, I finally pulled it up to my ear. “Hello,” I heard my own voice say in a croaking response. Barely discernable over the noise, a small delicate voice answered.
“What are you dooo-ing, Daddy?”
It was my five-year-old daughter, Hannah. She had gotten my cell number from her mommy and wanted to call me. Her sweet voice seemed to me at that moment like a transmission from another planet, and it drew me back into a reality that almost seemed a dim memory. She was calling from her innocent, childhood world, with days filled with Winnie the Pooh stories, the wonder and fascination of watching multi-colored birds visit the feeder on our deck, or staring at the clouds and trying to figure out what they looked like. I ached to be back in her world again, with the innocence of unsullied childhood gazing in curious wonder at the world. Her melodic voice was like a cool drink of water to my parched soul.
At first I couldn’t speak. My mind raced for some appropriate response that would satisfy her curiosity without frightening her. What could I say to a little girl who was reaching out to her daddy, expressing in the only way she knew how, her concern and fear for me?
Hannah’s life had been a study in contrasts. Born in Nanchang, China, and abandoned by her parents at the tender age of four days old, her only crime was that of being born a girl. Abandoned beside a lonely, dusty road, wrapped in her only earthly possession, a filthy rag of a blanket, she was found by passers-by and brought to a government-operated nursery. She spent the first thirteen months of her life lying in a tiny crib, with only one caretaker for her and the other 27 little girls around her. Her hunger for love and affection would have to wait.
My wife Claudia and I, along with our two older children, traveled to China and adopted her when she was thirteen months old. It was a long and difficult wait, with fund-raising projects and piles of paperwork to wade through. At one point, I walked across Death Valley, California, with my two older children, selling our miles to anyone who would invest even a nickel. We felt it was not too difficult to walk through a valley of death in order that a little girl in China might have a chance at life. Since coming into our home, she has proven to be a sensitive and extremely intelligent young lady. I have often joked that we may have saved western civilization by bringing her to America before the Chinese Communists could exploit her amazing intellect and talents.
Standing there in the rain, with heavy equipment clanking all around me, my mind raced. How could I answer my little girl’s question without alarming or spoiling even in the slightest her sweet innocence? I knew that soon enough the harsh realities of this broken world would hurt her, and even break her heart. As much as I wished this could be avoided, I was painfully aware that the “road rashes” of this sometimes cruel, sin-sick world come to us all. I desperately did not want to wound her heart on this particularly rainy September day.
Over the blaring noises of Ground Zero I could hear her breathing into the phone, as small children often do, patiently waiting for my answer to her question. Taking a deep breath, as my eyes swept over the smoldering wreckage just feet away where thousands lay trapped, I answered. “Honey, some really mean bad guys made a big mess here in New York City, and I’m just helping to clean it up.”
There was a pregnant pause on the phone as she thought about this. Then, in her sweet, innocent voice, she replied; “Daddy, can I come with my little broom and help you?”
My knees became weak. I plopped down in the mud as her words sank in. I tried to respond, but the effort to choke back sobs made it impossible to speak for several seconds. Finally, I mumbled something about how much her mommy needed her at home to help clean up the messes there. My heart was breaking. Barely managing to suppress my emotions, I thanked her for calling and told her I loved her before hanging up. She seemed happy just to talk to her daddy. However, I felt like I had just had a phone call from God. He had just spoken powerfully to me through my precious little girl.
Slipping the cell phone back in my bunking jacket and despite my best efforts not to, I began to weep uncontrollably. There in the rain, sitting in mud that was mingled with the disintegrated bodies of thousands of innocent people, I realized that little Hannah had just expressed as clearly as human language could describe exactly how I felt at that moment. For all I knew, whatever training and willingness to serve I possessed, all I had managed to bring to this horrendous disaster was a “little broom.” I am certain that most of the people around me, frantically sifting through that horrible rubble, felt the same way. The need was so great; the loss so overwhelming, that nothing we did seemed very significant. This was especially true in that we could not find anyone alive.
All I had was a “little broom” to help clean up millions of tons of twisted wreckage, shattered dreams, and broken hearts. The feeling of insignificance and helplessness to make any real contribution was almost overwhelming. I felt like I was being sucked down a long, dark well of despair. It was as if a fissure in the rubble had opened up under me, and the pile had sucked me down some dark void.
At that moment of deepest depression, a sudden realization came over me. This situation was not in the slightest bit about me! It was about tens of thousands of broken-hearted children and parents and husbands and wives and friends living in a traumatized city who were facing a long future of crying themselves to sleep each night, longing for someone they loved who would never come home again, ever. It was about people in this city looking up every day at a gaping void in their skyline, bereft of the gleaming towers, and reliving the memory of that horrible day in September.
The loud metallic clanking of one of the cranes dragging a huge chunk of twisted metal out of the rubble pulled my broken heart out of the rubble of my dark broodings and back into the moment. Scrambling to my feet, and feeling a little embarrassed about my emotional display, I wiped the tears from my face with a grimy glove and looked around. The people nearby seemed to ignore me, pressing into the work at hand, but I’m certain they could relate. Some things don’t need much explanation in the fellowship of suffering.
Wandering back toward the makeshift morgue tent near the World Financial Center where I had worked for several days previous, I thought again of the medical and support teams I had met there who were enduring the horrifying task of processing and cataloguing the hundreds of body-parts we were bringing in. A weeping firefighter Chaplain would again take his “little broom” there for awhile, seeking to comfort, encourage, and try and sweep away a little of the filth of that horrible place from their souls. A “little broom” can do something useful if made available.
Even a little girl from China was sharp enough to know that.