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By Father Paul Wierichs, C.P.
Everyone remembers, and will probably always remember, exactly where they were and what they were doing on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
I was chaplain for the FBI's New York office. After returning to my office after my morning run, but before I got to my desk, all of my phones began ringing – my beeper, my private line, my business phone – all ringing simultaneously. All were people alerting me to the horrific events that had begun to unfold, starting with a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers.
Traveling into New York City I was struck by the number of New York firemen and police being called back to work. Before I entered into the Queens Midtown tunnel, I stopped for a moment and looked over in the direction of the World Trade Center and saw nothing but billowing smoke. As I rushed into the FBI's New York office, close to the World Trade Center, the office was frantic – faces were grim – something I had never seen in this office.Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see in person at Ground Zero: the dust that permeated the air, the acid smell, the carnage, workers putting their own lives at risk to find survivors. I had lived in a monastery while many of my generation served in Vietnam. I could never truly appreciate the horror they went through. When I talked to people at Ground Zero who had served in Vietnam, they said this was more horrific.
During the first couple of days, standing there with my FBI raid jacket with "chaplain" on the back, I was overwhelmed by the number of firemen, policemen and other rescue people who came up to me saying, "Chaplain, may I speak to you for a moment?" I heard more confessions in two weeks than I had in years.
As a Passionist, I am called to preach the passion of Jesus. For me that means entering into the passion of people's lives, particularly when they are called to carry a cross. We offer them hope, consolation, and love. I am honored that I was able to be part of heroic people's lives. Looking into the eyes of everyone around I saw an inner wound to the soul itself. God was also present in those eyes, giving us all the strength we needed to go that extra mile.
Most law enforcement and emergency workers do not express emotion. This was not the case that day. I was standing inside the American Express building when six firemen brought out the body of one of their own. I said, "Let me offer a prayer." The lieutenant called them to attention, hats off, and brought those men but also myself to tears.
What struck me about the heroism of firemen, policemen, and rescue workers was their total dedication to the task at hand. When people were running out of harm's way firemen were running towards the crisis, risking their own lives to help others who needed assistance.
Their unyielding hope in looking for survivors amid all the tons of rubble, dust, glass and steel for more than two weeks showed the true character of each of them. Their outpouring of generosity reflected the outpouring of generosity from all people of all faiths, with their prayers and donations. People came together in unity that day. We can all remember where we were on 9/11, because we were all together.
Father Paul Wierichs, C.P. is director of Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center in North Palm Beach, Florida.
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