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Voices from Ground Zero

Joseph Bradley found new heroes at Ground Zero.

Krystyna Sanderson

Whether you’re a policeman or an ironworker, a commodities trader or construction worker, missionary or sanitation worker, fireman or rocker, in the pit of enormous human need at Ground Zero everyone seems to be discovering we’re all more generous, less fearful, more accepting, less judgmental, more compassionate, both more vulnerable and yet somehow stronger than we ever, ever thought we could be.

This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.

Within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center, people began to wrestle with the spiritual question, “What shall we do with our grief?” For thousands, the answer was to reach out and help others in any way they could. Soon it became apparent that their service would become an unparalleled American epic, showing the capacity of our people to pour out a relentless love for one another in the midst of suffering and pain.

As a scholar of New York City’s spiritual history, also volunteering in the midst of the recovery, I realized that one way I could help was to create an archive, recording stories of selflessness in the words of those compelled to lend a hand. As I’ve traveled the country, these five interviews have proved to be some of the stories most cherished by listeners from all walks of life.

Joseph Bradley, crane operator

Joe was playing golf at a Police Benevolent Association outing when the towers were hit. Within a few hours he had gone to the union hall and registered to volunteer. That night he received a call with his assignment, and headed immediately for the city, emerging from the subway at West 4th Street. (Photo above.)

As I walked down Church [Street] toward the site, I prayed for the courage to stay together, because at 22 I’d helped build the World Trade Center. My thoughts were racing and I was kind a mixed up. But the 23d Psalm came into my head. The dust and the ashes and debris — all I could hear was, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”

I finally reached the shadow o f One Liberty Plaza. I had just spotted a buddy when they sounded the emergency whistle. Suddenly 50 firefighters were running toward me and I didn’t know what was going on, I just ran with them. People falling. People picking people up. We ran to the Battery Park Tunnel.

Then I walked up West [Street] and saw my crane and the guy who dispatched me out. No orders. No money. No services. Nothing. Just volunteers trying to help. I ran into a fire chief who said he’d like to clear a debris field three feet deep with heavy iron on top. I turned around. There were four or five ironworkers. They asked if I had a crane and I said yes. So they said they’d like to work with me. So I had a machine and a crew. Like a miracle, 25 firefighters showed up right then with tanks and torches. Then we had a mission. So we went to work. No supervision. No foreman. We worked as smooth as you can imagine.

Everything went perfectly, but we were soaking wet, working in 18 inches of water straight through the night. And all night long they blew the whistle thinking Liberty Plaza was coming down. That happened four or five times, and I thought to myself, Joe, you came here to die.

I prayed for darkness because I couldn’t handle what I was seeing. The first body was a lady in a business suit. Middle-aged. It was remarkable. She wasn’t even dirty. We laid her down on the stretcher and fixed her eyes and her lapels. I remember the firefighter on the back of the stretcher fell, but he lifted his arms up over his head as he went down so the body wouldn’t hit the ground.

After that I was sitting on the curb with my head in my hands. It was the middle of the night. That’s when the Salvation Army kids appeared in their sneakers with their pink hair and their belly buttons showing and bandannas tied around their faces. One was a little girl pushing a shopping cart full of eyewash through the muck. They came with water and cold towels and took my boots off and put dry socks on my feet. And we kept going all night on the 12th and the morning of the 13th and were relieved in the afternoon. I’ve never seen so many people pull together. One unit. One thought. We were going to rescue a survivor. But that wasn’t to be.

When I was finally relieved and started to walk out, I thought to myself, you did pretty good. You did your part. You can go home and get back to normal. Then my mind flashed to the hostages coming home from Iran, and the ticker-tape parade when the Yankees won the World Series. I had always thought that’s what New York’s about. Those kinds of heroes. But it was the little girl with the pink hair that became my hero that night, not Tino Martinez.

When I got to Houston Street, a bunch more of these kids, all pierced and tattooed with multicolored hair, had made a little makeshift stage. And they started to cheer as we came out, and that was it for me. I never identified with those people before, but I started crying and I cried for four blocks.

I’ve been a construction worker my whole life and I’ve always felt I was viewed by the public as a pest. As rude. And now I was so vulnerable. Yep. I was taken totally off guard. I got home and saw my wife, who asked, "Joe, are you okay?” “Sure!” I said. You know, the bravado came back. But she said, “Are you sure? Go look in the mirror.” There I was with my filthy, dirty face, and just two clean lines down from my eyes. You become like a child after you get banged around a bit. She cried with me. Gave me something to eat. Drew a bath . I don’t take baths. She put me to bed for six or seven hours. I told her I wasn’t coming back here.

Now it’s December 3rd and I haven’t missed a day. I never knew anything about Episcopalians or Presbyterians, or gays, or people with nuts and bolts through their cheeks, or those Broadway people, but now I know them all. We’re not the heroes. They are the heroes. They’ve cried and prayed out loud for me. I never thought I ’d have a family like this one.

Jimmy Abbananto and Jerry Krusch, police officers, NYPD

Jimmy and Jerry are among those who worked at Ground Zero from 4:45 a.m. to 8:15 p.m., seven days a week, in the aftermath of 9/11.

Jimmy: Every time we come into St. Paul’s in the morning they pray for us. It’s like we’re a family. It’s our second home, and to tell you the truth, the beds are more comfortable than mine at home. Then there’s the thought that so many of these people have come from out of state. People are sticking together. Like the 11-year-old girl from Chicago I met this morning. For her birthday present she asked to come here and help.

Really, there’s an outpouring of love from around the world. The support of people coming to pay their respects means a lot. So we thought about it and figured out ways to keep busy, meeting people and listening to them express their feelings. But nobody ever trained us to do this. You know, in the police department they don’t teach that.

Jerry: We cover the area. We listen to stories. You can look into the crowd and see who needs help. People cry on our shoulders. They also express how sorry they are for the NYPD’s loss. They realize it could happen to anybody.

Jimmy: We see lots of family members coming for closure. If there are children, we go out of our way to take them down to the site. We go to the church and get the medals from Sr. Teresa or rosaries. Most are in awe when they come down. I remember one little 10-year old Spanish girl whose father died. We took her down to the site and said a prayer. Then we took her by the church and gave her an angel pin and told her she would always have a guardian angel.

Jerry: I remember the cousin of the pilot of the first plane who came down the last day of November, and she didn’t know if she could handle it, but we took her down and helped her through it.

Jimmy: This is what we do. But in our spare time we’ve written 130 thank-you letters to the kids who’ve sent us letters. We get a photo of the World Trade Center to send them in return. They took the time to write us, the least we can do is acknowledge their caring from so far away.

Jerry: Most cops don’t get to bond with people. Nobody calls us for happy occasions. Out of something bad, something good has come. This is good — the friendships we’ve made, the relationships. Did you know that at Easter we talked to a Sunday school class? That was more than “Hi, hello.” We’ve seen how it’s possible to touch people. It’s the sense that you’ve touched people more than you’ll ever know. We’ve never gotten to do this with people before.

Jimmy Abbananto, Manu, and Jerry Krusch

Manu, trader from the 84th floor

The conversation with the police officers was interrupted by a young man moving gingerly among the pews toward us. Although it was a warm day every inch of his body was covered. On his head was a hat. His hands were gloved. His name was Manu.

Excuse me. I’ve just been released from the burn unit at Cornell Hospital. I was on the 84th floor. I just want to tell you and the officers, thank you. I am blessed.

I was by the elevators, but not directly in front of them, when they blew up. Those who were, were killed instantly. I was to the side. Forty percent of my body was burned. It was so random! We were instantly hit, but I was strong enough to walk down. I’m so grateful. I didn’t have the hardest part. No, not like you. Not like the emergency services rushing in. I didn’t have to see it at all. I had friends who watched people jump. I was spared. I was blessed. I ’m so grateful. I saw you guys when I got close to the 20th floor. That’s where I saw all the emergency workers going up. That was the heroic path.

Before this I'd never been to a hospital. Now you can’t get me away from them. I just want to go and visit all the others. All the others in there. And now work — well, it’s just not important to me to be a trader. I guess I’m still healing. I am still looking for my places to heal.

Could I volunteer down here? I can come starting Friday. I want to do something for the workers whose units ran in, and died, while I ’m so blessed. And because I am feeling something different in here. What can I call it? It’s, it’s ease. Such a comforting feeling. I think everyone should experience this. Maybe this is where I can heal.

Katherine Avery, director of volunteers

Before 9/11, Katherine, 24, lived in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She’d never been to New York, but on September 21 was called by the director of relief of the nonprofit Labor of Love, saying, “You’re hired and leave for Ground Zero tomorrow.”

From my mind-boggling, all-consuming fear, from not knowing where I was going, to now, is incredible. Down here you see everything you do and you don’t want to see. You have to find a way to live amid the evil and the good, although the good definitely outweighs the evil. You have to live in the emotions, the hatred that caused this, and the unconditional love, which is what is so gorgeous. And live in all of it and not be afraid. Not run from it.

The only way to do this is to let go of control — of yourself and the situation around us. What’s beautiful about St. Paul’s is that none of us are in control. And it’s all those people and all their differences. All those boundaries between us we create, disappear and you have to be okay with letting them go. That’s what you see all over the place — the compassion and love. It’s not anything complicated. We’re just serving coffee, food, handing out medicine.

But it’s so powerful. It’s celebrating the lives of everyone. The lives of the sanitation guys, the construction workers. Like Jesus did. These people have been shunned in different ways. We’re reaching out and loving them all.

Dennis, a colleague, told me this story of Ladder 10, the one right at the towers that was so hard hit. The homeless around the firehouse brought the firemen their cups of coins. A poor old crippled woman from the Bronx came down to St. Paul’s to give us her cane. The little boy from Georgia who gave us his penny bank, and sent it to us via his mom. She was crying when she saw us. He’s seven.

Like when my mom found out she had cancer. After all the surgery and all the treatments, we went out to a swimming hole our family always liked to visit. There’s a cliff, but my mother would never jump off the cliff in to the water. But after all that, she was the first one up the ladder — ready to jump feet first. It’s like that. Total surrender of every fear, every inhibition. It’s like you’re Play -Doh being molded. Like, Lord, just break me down and build me up again! You can see the good come out of it.

Katherine Avery

Courtney V. Cowart, Th.D. was an adjunct professor at the Center for Christian Spirituality at the General Theological Seminary in New York in 2002. These interviews are excerpts from "Tragedy as Transformation," a presentation Dr. Cowart gives to universities, nonprofits, and churches around the country. She was a finalist for a grant from the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love to support a major two-year study of altruism, compassion, and service at Ground Zero.

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