Opinion: A ground zero chaplain remembers that day, and the years since

Workers make an effort to dismantle the remaining facade of One World Trade Center as the recovery and cleanup work continues in November 2001.

Workers make an effort to dismantle the remaining facade of One World Trade Center as the recovery and cleanup work continues in November 2001.

File photo

I was an on-site ground zero chaplain. It’s easy for me to recall the pained expressions and gruesome sights of that inexpressible human tragedy. Yet alongside those recollections are memories of happier times at the World Trade Center, when my dad had an office in the South Tower and I would chaperon field trips for schoolchildren there. Having watched the tower’s completion from my 16th Street Manhattan high school, I loved that place.

Yet the towers were gone. And we went on. Not in a callous way, but in a determined fashion, demonstrating that America is as strong as any concrete. She lives in the sturdy hearts of people like the ironworkers who so deftly lifted giant shards of twisted steel amid laboring firefighters and police. Over nine months of cleanup at the scene, not one additional life was lost.

Officially, 2,997 people were willfully murdered in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., in September 2001. How we responded as individuals and as a nation is what really tells the story.

With smoke still hanging in the air, tents were quickly put up to serve food and drink to all on-site personnel. The tents morphed into an oblong structure affectionately nicknamed the Taj Mahal. Inside, 12,000 meals were served every day by volunteers who’d come from nearby and thousands of miles away.

Fact is, 99 percent of people who were on floors below where the planes struck were saved. These souls survived, in part, because people in uniform, with families and friends and dreams, were willing to put themselves in harm’s way so that others they’d never met would find a path to safety. Our bravest and finest do this every day.

For me, September 2001 isn’t so much about a massive structural collapse, but a renewed appreciation for those among us who steadfastly exhibit the crucial human traits of kindness and integrity. Like the Middle Eastern guide on the observation deck who, the previous June, unlocked a door and allowed me to go back inside because I was scared by the perimeter walkway. He was likely on duty when the first jet struck. Then there was the Syrian immigrant at the Pier 94 response center who put his hand to his heart and stopped me mid-sentence while I was trying to give him money to pay his bills, because the daily noontime rendition of the national anthem had begun. These folks reminded me what America is all about. America is a shining star others cherish and I’ve too frequently taken for granted. I feel ashamed about that.

I was born in Venezuela, lived in Italy and Australia, and visited places like Hanoi, Sarajevo, Budapest and Belgrade. I’ve been made aware that our Constitution is the envy of the world, and our enterprise is unequaled. No, we do not live like the cartoon Jetsons or in some antiseptic utopian imaginary enclave where potholes do not exist and good things are magically provided. Our nation is a continuing melting pot of millions and millions from around the globe who earnestly came to America looking for opportunity and are finding it.

Two decades have passed since 19 depraved individuals carried out a suicidal plan. While we denounce those who deliberately embraced death, we should also consider how we have chosen to pursue life.

As we know, joy and contentment are not secured by any kind of immunity to heartache and disaster. They’re founded in response to adversity and the determination to seek life, liberty and happiness regardless of what may transpire.

Today, with a biological tragedy enveloping the world, yet with safe and effective vaccines developed in record time, it may be time for us all to remember that work is not how you make money. It’s how you personally decide to make an impact.

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists thought that by taking out our buildings they could destroy our spirit. Yet, with grief in our hearts, tears in our eyes and faith in our souls, we know our real towers of strength remain.

The Rev. Bill Keane is chaplain of the Branford Police Department.