Three weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, the retired Bishop Father Andrew France was in New York City as part of his denomination’s pastoral care program. Even if that was 20 years ago, it is still fresh in France.
“They asked clergymen, especially pastors, to go there for a few days. So I volunteered. “ France said.
At the time, France’s daughter was living in Brooklyn. He stayed with her for the four days he was there.
Trinity Wall Street is one of the largest episcopal churches in the country. St. Paul’s Church, part of Trinity, is just a few blocks from Ground Zero and the collapsed twin towers. It became the headquarters for this area.
“I went to the subway station across from St. Paul’s and walked two or three blocks down to Ground Zero.” France said.
“Everything revolved around St. Paul’s. Outside on the porch there was plenty of food around the clock so that people could eat anytime. ”The customer review has been automatically translated from German. he said.
“It was incredibly quiet in the church. There was a masseuse. There were places to sit and meditate. One person would play the cello; someone else would play the violin. The helpers came to church to take a break. Some would sit alone. Others sat in a small group and talked very quietly. Many just stretched out on the benches and took a nap. “ he said.
St. Paul’s is an old historic church with an extremely valuable chandelier. During World War II, it was dismantled out of fear that Nazi submarines would send missiles into Manhattan and destroy the church. There is a cemetery behind the church. Two to three inches of ashes from the attack on the World Trade Center covered the cemetery, although France said it did not “A bit of damage to the church, inside or outside.”
“It was unbelievable. In the months after the event, the church was gradually rehabilitated and, with one exception, restored from its heavy use. They did not remove the scratches from the benches. The scratches would have been from sitting and lying first responders, had the keys and all other kinds of equipment strapped in. They would make scratches. To this day the scratches are still there to remind you “, he said.
There France walked a few blocks past the shops. Everything was like the day of the event. He would go to the chaplains area to be there just to talk to anyone who wanted to talk.
“Many of the forces who worked down there had badges, like the badge of a police officer or a firefighter. Many of them liked the clergy to bless the badges. I saw this as a way to bless the work they were doing and to bless the dead and those in mourning. “ he said.
The crews working on Ground Zero had just started moving from search and recovery to demolition when France was there.
“The first day I got there I got out my cell phone and called my wife and said you need to see this. There is no way to explain what I am seeing. Organized chaos … constant movement … eight to twelve large excavators working around the clock to fill trucks … trucks driving off laden with rubble. “ he said and described the area.
“Some of the superstructures of the two buildings were still standing. It’s almost when you open your palm and spread your fingers apart and point the palm of your hand towards you, you see your fingers sticking up. That’s what it looked like. These pieces of steel, the structure, protrude from the rubble. “ he said.
France told how a siren sounded every now and then. When that happened, everything would stop. He said that meant someone saw something they thought might be part of a human or something.
“Everyone went to this place and everyone who had instruments like a shovel in hand – others dug desperately with their hands until they found something or saw that there was nothing there.” he said.
“Once when that happened I was going down to where they were digging with their hands and that one responder got up with that angry look on his face and said, ‘1300, where the hell are the 1300?’ He looked up, pointed at him and said, ‘You’re over there.’ What he did was work on the rubble from the south tower and he pointed to all of the rubble where the north tower had fallen and the salvage work had not yet started. He pointed to the hill of the north tower and said they are there. It was just amazing. “
In working with the first responders, France found that they were in a state of “Half shock, overwhelmed by the enormity and rudeness of it all.”
“But at the same time the responders were incredibly angry, like all of us. I had to find ways to deal with my anger and I saw that they were dealing with their anger and pain, doing everything they could to find those who survived and starting to see more and more there who did not survive. To do everything to clean up the chaos for the living. “ he said.
“They processed their anger that way. They would talk about it. They want to dig and find what they can. You didn’t necessarily want to take a break “, he added.
France found that the big shovels that cleaned up debris never stopped. Neither do the local workers.
“Nobody stopped. Everyone went on and did what they could to clean up, to see if they could find someone or something. “ he said.
Towards the end of his shift, France would go back to St. Paul’s to see if anyone wanted to talk.
France said normal compared to what happened just a few miles away at Ground Zero seemed so strange as he was enjoying a beer with his daughter at the end of the night.
“If you walked into this restaurant you would never know that Ground Zero is two miles away. It just blew me away. The way in which people could distance themselves from what was happening there. “ he said.
So how did France step back from its work to offer comfort to those who had to deal with the appalling scale of their work at Ground Zero?
He and the other chaplains and a group of Salvation Army workers would be talking.
“It was about just being able to accept the fact that I don’t understand. It is not right. It’s not fair. Then just bring thoughts and prayers for the souls of these thousands and for the further lives of those who survived, who at that point did not really know what had happened to their loved ones. “ he said.
France visited the site about three or four years later. At this point in time, the remaining rubble was concreted in and the foundation for the memorial was set up.
“I just stood there and looked at it and tried to remember what I saw when I was there. You couldn’t see that except that there were still all sorts of papers in which people were still looking for loved ones. People were still hanging up posters with pictures of their loved ones. “ he said.
For France, Ground Zero is sacred ground.
“It has that very special feeling of life and death. Massive death, but life rises and goes on. “ he said.
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