Ground Zero-Chaplain’s Report

An Individual Report of the Lord Working at the World Trade Center Disaster
Bob Davidson, Chaplain of the Westwood Fire Department, MA
(Pastor of the Westwood Evangelical Free Church, MA)
Sunday, September 23, 2001

Last Sunday afternoon, September 16, I received a call from Dan Harris, the chief fire
chaplain of the Mass Corps of Fire Chaplains. He asked if I was available to go to New
York City for a five-day deployment to provide spiritual support for the rescue efforts at
the World Trade Center. After consulting with the Board of Deacons, Marilyn (my wife)
and the Lord, I headed down to the Big Apple in a van with 8 other fire chaplains.

At the same time, we. as a church, have been studying “Experiencing God” by Henry
Blackaby. As you recall, the 7 ways God works through His servants are:
1.    God is always at work around you.
2.    God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.
3.    God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
4.    God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church
to reveal Himself His purposes, and His ways.
5.    God’s invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a crisis of belief that
requires faith and action.
6.    You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
7.    You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His
work through you.

Therefore, I made a “major adjustment in my life to join God in what He was doing”,
packed my “Experiencing God” workbook in my luggage and I eagerly anticipated God
working in my life.

On Monday morning we were briefed that our job was to be in the morgue. As remains
were found in The Pile, as the debris was called, they would be brought to the morgue for
processing. We were called to say a prayer, much in the same way a prayer is said at a
graveside for the committal of a body to the ground. When prayer was not needed, the
chaplain’s job was to minister to the fire, police, National Guard and rescue personnel.
Since I was not assigned for the first pair of chaplains to go down to the World Trade
Center, I decided to go for a walk.

Since I grew up in Jersey and have worked at several places in the city, walking around
was not very eventflil, until I saw a piece of paper taped to a lamp post on Broadway
between 51st and 52nd Streets. It was one of those “Missing” flyers. It said that Jonathan
lelpi was missing since September 11, the day of the disaster. It stated that he was in the
FDNY in Squad 288. It had 3 pictures of him so people could identify him. Then it said
that his birthday was 7/15/72. This stopped me in my tracks. My birthday is 7/15/52. Same
date, but 20 years difference in age. I was old enough to be his father! I stood there as the
Lord connected me with a victim of the tragedy. Scribbled on the bottom was a request to
pray for his family. Did he have a wife? Probably, I assumed. I also assumed there were
kids. At this point I only had a name and a squad number.

As the day wore on I became aware of problems. Red laminated badges had been given to
workers as a pass to get them onto the rescue site. Now the powers-that-be were changing
to photo ID’s, This meant going to the Jacob Javitz Convention Center on 11th Ave. and
38th St. and getting the new badge. The problem was that there were state troopers
stationed at on the street on 11th Ave., and at the doors to the convention center and also at
the bottom of the escalator leading up to the ID area. The only way to get past the three
checkpoints was with a photo ID, and the only way to get a photo ID was to get past the
three checkpoints. At this point it sounded like a military operation! The chaplains
resigned themselves to wait until some high muckety-muck straightened out the mess.

Monday night the other chaplains decided to walk around and take in some of the sights of
midtown New York. I decided to hop on the E Train subway and head down to the
convention center, just to see if something might happen. I got off at 42nd St. and began
making my way towards the center. As I walked west on 38th St. I came to the corner of
1 lth Ave. right at the exact same time as a man walking down 1 1th Ave. got to the corner.
We struck up an immediate conversation as I shared with him that I was a fire chaplain and
the new hassle of needing a photo ID but not being able to get one because I didn’t have
one! He knew of the problem because he was a driver, ferrying people to and from the
convention center and the rescue site. Therefore, he did have an ID. As we came to the
state troopers on 11th Ave., my new friend showed his badge and was waved in. I showed
my Mass Corps of Fire Chaplains badge (which, along with $1.50, will get you on the
subway!) and was immediately stopped. My friend turned to the troopers and said that I
was with him. We both proceeded to the doors where he once again vouched for me. At the
escalator he came through a third time and I was on my way to getting my photo ID. I
know I’m Evangelical Free and I was in the convention center, but right there, regardless
of who was looking, my hands went up into the air and an audible “Thank You, Lord”
come from my lips. I experienced a little of what the Apostle Peter went through when he
was miraculously delivered from prison.

Now it was time to stand on line. One computer, one operator and his two fingers hitting
the keys made for a very slow process. After a while, I went up to the table and talked with
someone about something else, and was handed a form to fill out. I did and had a photo ID
made instantly from a second computer. All this time the other line barely moved. I
thought it was a second miracle, until someone informed me that my new badge would
only get me into the convention center, not onto the rescue site. So, back on the long, slow
line. Once again a high muckety-muck came and said that only USAR (Urban Search And
Rescue) people could get ID’s, The rest of us were sent home. But God was not done with
His miracles.

Tuesday arrived at 5 a.m. The early wake-up call was due to the straightening out of the ID
badge situation. By a little after the opening time of 6 a.m., all the chaplains were on 11th
Ave., coming up to the first line of troopers. I showed my new badge from the previous
evening and went right through. Everyone else showed their Mass Fire Corps of Fire
Chaplains badges and were stopped in their tracks. I admit that I did have a little smirk on
my face as I turned and said to the officers that they were with me and that I would
personally escort them to the badgeing area. I repeated the process at the door and
escalator, and got razzed by the other chaplains as we stood on line. Two hours later
(remember – one computer, one operator and two fingers) we all had our credentials!
Thank You, Lord.

That afternoon I visited the firehouse of Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 on 8th Ave. and
48th St. (This is the one that most TV networks photograph.) They had lost 14 fire fighters
in the twin towers. I asked about Squad 288 and found out that it was a HazMat team out
of Queens. I also got the address of Jon’s fire house so I could write a note of condolence
to “the family,” whoever they might be. By 4 p.m. I had my turnout coat and helmet and
was ready to go to Ground Zero. When it was shared that I didn’t have CIS (Critical
Incident Stress) training, the person assembling the 4 o’clock crew pulled me off. I was
upset, thinking that I was not going to get to the site at all. But I took comfort that the Lord
was in control, and maybe I needed to be around for the evening meeting.

I went for a walk with Dan P., one of the other chaplains, and took him down to the 8th
Ave. fire house (affectionately called the Hell’s Kitchen Fire House). When we got there
Dan immediately recognized two visiting fire fighters because he had just seen them
interviewed on CNN. They were from Los Angeles and were given permission to video
tape the rescue efforts for future training films. As they finished their conversation, the
LAFD people reached into a folder and gave my friend a copy of some of their video
footage. From a fire fighters viewpoint, this was pure gold in value, and something a
chaplain could bring back to their chiefs in Massachusetts.

The evening meeting was a gathering of the families of the 400 fire fighters who were still
missing. This meant that over 1,200 people were gather to hear the mayor, governor, fire
commissioner, and a few others talk about the rescue activities, and to prepare them for the
inevitable switch from the rescue of live people to the recovery of the deceased. I looked at
1,200 people and thought of Jon lelpi’s family. I thought, “Are they here? How can I find
them? Lord, I need a miracle!”

After the speeches, all the chaplains began to circulate and talked with the families. I met
Bill Dewan of Norwood, MA who had lost his brother Jerry. I silently and earnestly prayed
for Kerry who was still in.a complete state of shock after losing her fiancee. I talked with
many others, giving comfort and encouragement. All the time I was asking if anyone knew
of people from Squad 288. When 9:30 came they announced that the busses were loading
to take people back home, With 90% of the people gone I introduced myself to a woman
named Ollie. As our conversation progressed she shared that her brother-in-law, Lt. John,
was missing and he was assigned to Squad 288! She pointed me to a fire lieutenant, who
pointed out an older man with a FDNY Rescue 2 in Brooklyn T-shirt. That man was Lee
lelpi, Jon’s dad. I introduced myself to him and shared my story of the flyer on Broadway.
He pointed out his wife (and Jon’s mom), Ann, and then introduced me to Jessinia, Jon’s
wife. There was an instant connection as I shared my story. She and their two boys
(Andrew, 10 and Austin, 3) were the “family” I was asked to pray for on the flyer. We
talked for as many minutes as we could, and then they had to board the bus. As I said good
bye to them, hugs were exchanged as I experienced another miracle. Thank You, Lord.
Wednesday was a day of preparation for me. I mentally got myself ready for my 5 p.m. to
1 a.m. shift at the morgue at Ground Zero. Before I went down, though, God had another
little miracle in store.

We had a total of 11 fire chaplains from MA. (Nine came down in the van and two were
already in NYC.) We only had one video from the LAFD. I went to the lobby and asked if
there was a video duplicating business close by. The hotel employee made a quick phone
call and got permission for the in-house audio-visual people to duplicate the tape for us.
Within an hour we had 11 copies to bring back to our chiefs. The price – they thanked us
for the work we were doing down town. It was free!!! Thank You, Lord!

The trip to the World Trade Center was a 3 1/2 mile journey, similar to going from
Wollaston in Quincy to the Prudential Center in Boston. You travel down the West Side
Highway from midtown, past Greenwich Village, all the way to the lower tip of
Manhattan, called Battery Park. Once again, multiple checkpoints were visible. Our photo
ID’s and fire fighting gear got us through each one.

We arrived at the morgue by 5 p.m. It was located on Vesey St, just off West St. and just
around the corner from the twin towers. From that spot I could clearly see the remains of
building 7 and the smoke from the fire which was still burning next to the Verizon
building.

Visually I noticed 24 ambulances lined up and ready for service. I saw 12 to 18 TV vans in
a row, with satellite dishes for live, uplink coverage. Every once in a while I saw an office
paper float through the air. The ground was still littered with office papers and debris.
There were also things hanging in the branches of trees which looked like insulation of
some kind. There was a haze as the fires were still burning 8 days later. I watched an 18
wheel flatbed truck haul away a single 20 foot piece of steel which was thick enough to
hold up over 100 stories. There were also floodlights that gave off an eerie blue
illumination that gave The Pile and everything else a surreal image.

Then there were also the smells of Ground Zero – two smells to be exact. One smell was
that of burning plastic, similar to the odor from burning wire insulation, plastic desk chairs
or an overheated PC computer. The other distinct small was that of old meat, similar to the
odor to the way a street smells the day after it hosted an outdoor food market and butcher
shop. Some of this smell was due to the restaurant refrigerators and freezers losing power
and the meat going bad. The other source was the morgue, itself.

My job had two parts:
My first part was prayers for the victims. As rescue workers brought in a body bag, I and
the other chaplain would remove our helmets and offer a short prayer, thanking the Lord
for the lives of the victims and asking Him to bring closure to the families. This happened
many times over the course of the eight hour shift.

The other responsibility was to support the workers. They had been on a 24/7 schedule for
the past eight days. Their orders were to work The Pile, then cover the fire stations and,
whenever they could, get some rest. Day after day this routine continued. By Wednesday
they had run out of adrenaline and were simply continuing to function on sheer will power!
It was as if they were rowing a boat, the boat took a major hit and was taking on water.
They were told to keep rowing as their boat slowly sank. It was understandable to put in
the effort to try and rescue as many as possible, but these guys were becoming dead in the
water. My job was to help them see their situation and to seek some help – to find someone
who could bail out their boat and then fix the hole.

I came in contact with a lot of people – Chaplain Ray (from the FBI), Tom McCoy (a
bleary-eyed EMT), Gordon and Gail McDonald (formerly from Grace Chapel in Lexington
and working at the Salvation Army tent), Sgt. Fumalari (from NYPD. He was in Salt Lake
City at a Anti-Terrorist Conference when the disaster struck), Azrael & Tony (National
Guard), Sgt. Jones (He kept police order at the morgue), Vincent (a fascinating Forensic
Anthropologist), the EMT crew of Ed, Dan, George, Mike and Melvin, and Victor (an
exhausted fire fighter taking a break at Ground Zero). These are all simply names to you,
but to me each one has a face and a story, and a need to be touched with comfort and
healing by the Lord. Thank You, Lord.

Thursday had the chaplains packing their gear. I went down to the site one last time as I
drove in the car to deliver the next group of chaplains from New York who were taking
over for us until our next group comes down today. Going down the West Side Highway I
noticed the “Thank You Brigade.” These people lined the highway with signs of
appreciation for all who were involved with the rescue, and eventual recovery, efforts. It
was raining hard that day, but they, in their ninth consecutive day, were still yelling their
support and encouragement to all who were lending a hand. It was a fitting way to end the
week, remembering the words in the Bible, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Thank
You, Lord.

Some initial lessons I learned:
1.    Christianity is a teainsport – Lone Rangers, cowboys and yahoos need not apply.
2.    The fields are ripe for the harvest. Pray for workers – Opportunities abound everywhere
and everyday in our lives. The snag to His working is us! Live out the 7 realities of
“Experiencing God.”
3.    God is always at work, but He’s usually quiet in His activities – I think more miracles
took place in my life in midtown Manhattan, 3 1/2 miles away from the disaster site,
then occurred at Ground Zero.
4.    St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with saying, “Preach Christ – Use words if you must”
- There are times to act and times to speak. People need to see the good news in our
lives before they are ready to hear it from our lips.
5.    Life is precious – Love your spouse, hug your kids, say “I love you” to all the people
who are important to you.
6.    However, eternal life is essential – Life on earth is frail and fleeting. Eternal life in
Jesus is our only hope for now and the future. Franklin Graham made this the central
point in an interview on TV. He said, “All of us will appear before God one day. We
need to be prepared for that meeting.”
7.    God has gathered a phenomenal group of Christians at Westwood Evangelical Free
Church – I am truly humbled by your prayers and support. You had an extremely
important part in touching people’s lives in NYC this past week because you
commissioned me to go.

Thank You, Lord.