On this Sunday—the 10th anniversary of 9/11—my thoughts drift back to the first Sunday after the World Trade Center attacks and a story I wrote from Ground Zero for the Chicago Sun-Times.
The headline was, “No Sermons, No Singing, Just Prayers.” I was reporting from inside St. Paul’s Chapel, Manhattan’s oldest public building in continuous use and adjacent to the World Trade Center site. The story, dated September 16th, began this way:
In the foulest heart of the rubble of the World Trade Center, in a place the Bible surely must have meant when it described the brimstone and anguish that awaits in hell, there was church on Sunday.
There was no sermon. No voices lifted hymns. No hands held prayer books.
The wind that swirled and lifted the smoke and ash was the closest thing to music.
Yet all over this smoke-thickened block rose signs of a spiritual service as powerful as any mass, as full of hope and light as any benediction.
To say 9/11 was the most wrenching, harrowing story I’ve covered in my twenty-plus years as a journalist is to understate the experience by a skyscraper’s loft.
Here is the lead of the first story I wrote from the site, after catching the first glimpse of the devastation:
You cannot comprehend it.
You see the pictures on television. The chipped tooth of a fragment left from a 110-story building. The floodlit ground zero, where firefighters and medics and police sift through wreckage, grimed and grim, for hope and bodies.
But the actual sight of it, the 100-foot mountain of smoldering, twisted, charred rubble, and the awful, sinister roiling cloud of gray and yellow smoke, is evil and terrifying. It’s a gaping wound. It seems alive. And you cannot understand it.
People may not know, or may not remember, how hot it was in those early days. While the dark smoke, containing pulverized bits of buildings, glass, cinder, and, yes, human bodies, cast a dark pall over the site, above it the sun beat down hard like a blacksmith’s hammer.
My colleague, Frank Main, and I crawled over the area. We followed Chicago police and Chicago firefighters who had rushed to New York City to help.
I remember going into one apartment building in TriBeCa to talk to a couple. As we walked, stunned, through the ash-filled rooms, we heard the building groan and what sounded like a wire snap. One building nearby had partially collapsed in the days after the attack. We hurried down the stairs, terrified at what mercifully turned out to be a false alarm.
Respirators were handed out, and Frank and I wore them at times, But it was so hot that we, like many of the first responders, left them off after a while. To my regret. Not long after my time at Ground Zero I developed asthma. I can’t say for sure that it is tied to being there for a week or so after the attacks. But it seems an awfully strange coincidence.
What I do know is that that church, that defiant little church at the base of the now-downed towers—on that first Sunday after the attacks—is what still makes my heart hurt. Again from that story:
“Respirator masks, not ties, hung around the necks of the accidental parishioners. Trucks, not organs, rumbled.”
Where altar boys would normally bear candles, flashlights filled boxes.
Paper towels, not parchment, were valued.
In other churches Sunday, communion was wafers and wine. Here it was power bars and orange Gatorade.
There was no need to swing a censer. The smoke from the rubble was enough.
Many wore masks as they prayed.
When I returned to Chicago, to see its beautiful buildings still intact, I was grateful.
It may seem a flip thing to say, but when I watched the filming of Transformers 3 from the Tribune Tower last summer—looking at the stretch of mock devastation on Michigan Avenue—I had a flashback to Ground Zero. That’s what it looked like. Worse, actually. It was the real thing.
Anyway, I’m grateful on this Sunday morning, ten years later. Grateful, and sad. Many people have described their visits to Ground Zero as a spiritual experience. I know it was for me that day, particularly in that church. There was hope there, tempered by the knowledge that life as we knew it had indeed, as they say, changed. This is the ending to my story from the church. The last sentence, for me, holds true today, these ten years later:
“Only a few feet away, just past the iron fence of the graveyard, reared the two square bases of the trade towers. At the foot of the south tower stood an industrial trash container spray-painted with the words “airplane parts.” Next door, the 50-story Millennium Hilton tottered.
Trucks, ambulances, military transports rumbled past.
And throughout the day, in trickles, firefighters, police, medics, nurses, Red Cross volunteers ducked into the church for prayer, fresh supplies, some relief from the heat.
For them, it was a place that was safe. It was a place of God. And in the shadow of a place that has the markings of hell, especially on this Sunday, it had to do.”