The Rev. Richard Del Rio is the head of Abounding Grace Ministries in New York City and was among the first pastors on site after the World Trade Center towers collapsed on September 11. He ministered among firefighters, police, and rescue workers. He described his experiences for ct senior news writer Tony Carnes at the Port Authority Police Crisis Command Post at Ground Zero. Across from them stood a chart listing missing officers and recovered dead officers. The chart included a prayer writ large: "Lord, my brothers have lost their way. Give me the strength to bring them home."
I always ask the local police precinct where the toughest drug-crime corners are and then set up our ministry truck right there.
So, when the World Trade Center towers were attacked, I instinctively thought that that was the place where I could pastor effectively. Besides, our ministry's trucks feature the towers outlined in red, and as a construction-company owner, I had helped to build the towers. It was personal. That's my building and those were our guys getting destroyed out there.
I dropped my toast, ran out and jumped on my big hog, a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. On the way, I put on my pastor's collar and police identification tag.
Ash, Debris, and Fire Hoses
Coming down FDR Drive on the east side of Manhattan, I rolled through the smoke at Houston Street, then the ash piled up, beginning at the Fulton Street Fish Market. Rolling off the drive, I parked my hog because there were too many obstructions for a cycle.
Right away, a cop came running up. "Father, can you come over here and bless these body parts?"
He had mistaken me for a priest, but I came over. There was a torso, a detached head, shoulders, and a leg all piled up. I prayed with him, while cars exploded and burning papers floated through the air. All around us, cops and firefighters with looks of utter despair were running through the roar of noise and the awful smell.
After praying, I then joined the stream of rescuers. I had hardly gone a block when an Asian woman came running out of a novelty store, crying, "Please help me! My husband is in a wheelchair and trapped!"
The store was filled with ash and smoke, but the old guy still had a little fight in him. He insisted, "I'll be okay." Of course, he wasn't and he couldn't move his wheelchair through all the ash, debris, and fire hoses.
I told him, "Don't even try! You can't get there by yourself. Let me try." It was tough to get him out, but we made it over to a safe zone.
I went back to join up with some cops from my home precinct, the Ninth. They were trying to dig out a police van so that they could drive to the World Trade Center site. We used bottled tea to clean the windows and [bottled] nectar to fill the radiator. We got it going and made it to pretty close to the site. There was just utter devastation on the way. A bridge had fallen on a fire truck and had crushed it down to 2 feet high.
We hopped out and struggled through the ash and smoke. On my right was the cemetery of St. Paul's Church. Some of the tombstones had been blasted down, and all around them were little fires like burning bushes in the cemetery. There were men's and women's shoes scattered around.
I also passed my friend's church, Faith Exchange Fellowship. It was in a building next door to the Marriott Hotel. A fire was raging in it, but I was pretty sure that my friend had gotten out.
No One to Be Found
Going up with hundreds of rescuers, we scoured the Pile, as it came to be called, for anybody moving or any sound. There just was not time to think, but I kept praying to myself.
It was an indescribable and pathetic sight. Someone would call out, "Move this!" Someplace else on the Pile, another person would cry, "Over here! Bring a ladder!" Sometimes, when we pushed a big piece of metal over, fire would come whooshing out. It was hard to listen for cries of survivors because of the roar, yelling, popping, and the sloshing of the fire hoses.
And we didn't find anyone. There wasn't anyone to be found.
So, I went back to the morgue, which was being set up in the Brooks Brothers clothing store. Unbelievably, some of the dummies were still standing in the windows. They were elegantly dressed, with their shoes laid out, and all of it was covered by the white ash from the death of the towers.
Inside, there was one body in a dark green bag laid off to the side. People were trying to clear out space, so I grabbed a shovel to make a path out front.
I remembered back to when I was a young punk kid, messing with girls and drugs, and how Arlene, who became my wife of 28 years, told me about the Lord. Now, I wondered, What can I say? There was no joking around and little conversation. The rescuers really just needed someone to be there. So, I thought, That is what I'll be, a presence and a symbol that God is present and available. I kept praying to myself for everyone. For a week, I only slept an hour or two or three a day.
Of course, the rescuers would come up to me for comfort and prayer. I didn't realize at the time that I was the only pastor there. I found out latter that the firemen's priest [Mychal Judge] had been killed. I made the prayers simple so that the men and women could remember and repeat them later.
Worse than Vietnam
A few days into the rescue effort, a big, burly fireman came over. I put my arm around his shoulders and asked, "How are you doing?"
He told me, "Rough. I was in Vietnam, and this is worse."
I noticed that he had numbers tattooed in different places on his body, so I asked what they stood for.
"That's my Social Security Number," he said, "because there is no guarantee that they can identify me if I am in parts."
I was stunned. Not knowing what else to say, I asked him if he would like to pray. He said, "Yes," and started weeping. As we prayed, he called out, "Jesus, save me!"
I was absolutely unprepared for this catastrophe. Most everyone in the church was. And I am absolutely changed by it. Perhaps we all are. The people are gone. That's the reality—that will hit us. But Jesus gives abounding grace even where sin has reigned unto death.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's previous coverage of the September 11 attacks include:
Books & Culture Corner: Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
Now What? | A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)
To Embrace the Enemy | Is reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)
After the Grave in the Air | True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Film Forum: Shock Waves Tear Through a Shock-Value Industry | How can we think of movies at a time like this? (Sept. 20, 2001)
Was September 11 the Beginning of the End? | Observers say geography and gravity of attacks have led to little prophecy speculation. (Sept. 19, 2001)
The End of the World (Trade Center) | Dispatches from out of the dust. (Sept. 19, 2001)
Active Christian on Flight 93 Hailed as a Hero | Wheaton College graduate and others "figured out how to do extraordinary things" aboard United plane. (Sept. 19, 2001)
With Grief and Anger, the U.S. Mourns Its Losses | A week of official services and impromtu demonstrations follows shocking attacks. (Sept. 18, 2001)
Orthodox Church Near Ground Zero Hopes to Rise Again | Members hope to rebuild 169-year-old structure, which stood only 500 feet from the World Trade Center. (Sept. 18, 2001)
Churches Meet Needs at Ground Zero | Brooklyn pastors and parishioners thank God for survival, but help victims and families cope. (Sept. 17, 2001)
Church Mourns 'Father Frank' | Fond memories comfort those who knew retired priest killed in World Trade Center attack. ? (Sept. 17, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
Taking It Personally | What do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)
'Is That Thunder?' | With metal cracking at the World Trade Center, New York pastors cry out to God. (Sept. 14, 2001)
Shaken Christians Turn to Prayer | Impromptu services usher in the bereaved by word of mouth, road signs, and e-mail. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Christians Provide Comfort in the Shadow of Calamity | Still "stunned and reeling," New Yorkers seek support at prayer service. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Illinois Pastor on Fatal Flight | Jeffrey Mladenik, 43, was involved in workplace ministry, international adoption. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Communication Troubles Challenge U.S. Church Relief Agencies | Aid work continues amid atmosphere of shock, fear, and sporatic harrassment. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Reflections on Suffering | Classic and contemporary quotations for dark times. (Sept. 13, 2001)
When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
In the Belly of the Beast | Christians, calling terrorist attack "satanically brilliant," minister at epicenter of World Trade disaster. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Churches, Agencies Respond to Attacks | Leaders call for prayer, justice, and mercy. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Muslims Fear a Backlash | No matter who is responsible, observers feel a reaction will still be present. (Sept. 12, 2001)
A Wake-Up Call to Become Global Christians | The deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Nation's Religious Leaders Urge Calm, Pray for Peace | Churches will maintain prayer vigils for victims and leaders. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Church Leaders Around World Deplore 'Unspeakable Horror' of Attack | Christians urged to unite in prayer as they unite in shock and denunciation. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Experts Say Spiritual Roots Will Aid in Coping With Catastrophe | Pray and connect with others, advise nation's chaplains. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Fear and Hate | In times like this, as in all other times, Christians have a responsibility to love above all else. (Sept. 11, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of Events | In the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Yahoo has also compiled aid organization contact information, closure notification, and survivor lists.
The Text This Week, a resource for pastors, has collected sermons and reflections in response to the Sept. 11 events.
Slate.com explained who responds to crisis situations.
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