Written by the Chaplain of the Coast Guard, Capt. Gregory Todd
This might not be a story that you have heard before, but Coast Guard chaplains were at Ground Zero following the attacks of 9/11. While I would love to take credit for all the good chaplain work that went on, I have to be truthful and tell you that God Himself was really at the heart of our entire ministry. He brought thirty great chaplains from around the Coast Guard to support not only the influx of Coast Guard personnel who were aiding with the response and security, but also other local emergency workers as well as the victims’ families.
I’d also like to note that the Coast Guard chaplains were just one group out of many different clergy who responded to help. Navy chaplains were on the USS COMFORT. National Guard chaplains also served. The Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Seamen’s Church Institute, Trinity Church Wall Street and the Episcopal Archdiocese, the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains, and many other clergy offered themselves in service to the people of New York in our time of need. All these communities of faith contributed to “being there” for those who needed them.
I know we all have our stories and will be able to remember till our dying day where we were during the attack, so please forgive me this indulgence. I happened to be in an airplane flying over the Hudson River.
I was going to a Coast Guard District One Chaplains Conference on Cape Cod that day and was able to take a Coast Guard Auxiliary flight from New York to Massachusetts. We happened to be crossing the Hudson just north of the city at about 0850. The co-pilot looked out and said, “That’s odd. Look at the smoke at the World Trade Center.” We became concerned, so we tuned in commercial radio and hear that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
While we were listening to the radio, we heard the report of the second tower being hit and knew that it must be a terrorist attack. We were grounded by the FAA. Since we were already fairly close to Cape Cod, I contacted the chaplains there to ask for their help. The senior chaplain at Cape Cod, Chaplain Ron Brown, sent Father Denny Boyle to come pick us up. In the mean time, the situation became worse with the collapse of the towers and the attack on the Pentagon. I knew I needed to get back to New York. I contacted Chaplain Brown and told him I was “kidnapping” Father Boyle to go New York. Of course he gave his blessing. When Father Boyle showed up, I said, “Denny, I’m sorry but we’re heading to New York.” Denny smiled and said, “I thought you’d say that so I packed a quick bag and threw it in the back.”
We headed for Staten Island. The bridges were shut down and there was a lot of congestion as we approached the Goethels Bridge—so many people trying to get across, but being turned away. When we got to the bridge, I got out of the car and explained to the police lieutenant that we were Coast Guard chaplains and needed to get to our unit on Staten Island. He simply shook my hand and said, “We’re really glad you’re here” and sent us across. That wouldn’t be the last time Coast Guard chaplains received that response.
We finally made it back to Activities New York that evening. I spent the rest of the evening until midnight going around the command center checking on people and asking how they were doing. That’s the way much of a chaplain’s work is, just being around. Through presence, attitude, and reassurance, you let people know God is with them through difficult times. Sometimes people want to share their hurt with you, ask you to pray with them, but often they’re like that police lieutenant and just want to be reassured that God hadn’t abandoned them. They were glad we were there.
The following day, the senior staff at Activities New York began the day by coordinating our assets and focusing our efforts. For a chaplain, the first priority is to take care of the crew and their families. Miraculously none of our active duty crewmembers or their family members were killed or injured in the attack. That’s saying quite a bit since many of our spouses worked in the World Trade Center or the financial district, and several of Coast Guard children attended high school in Manhattan. As I walked around and talked with the crew, much of the conversation centered around a thankfulness to God that He had spared our Coast Guard family.
In our coordination meetings, I was concerned with the spiritual support of our operational units, but also expressed a concern for the police and fire fighters who were at the scene. Father Boyle and I spent the rest of the day visiting operational units, particularly the units that were closest to the action. In the afternoon, I was able to visit the Coast Guard Cutter KATHERINE WALKER, which was moored in Manhattan to support the rescue effort.
After visiting with the crew, we went all the way to what we now call “Ground Zero”. While there, I spoke with quite a few of the workers and offered encouragement, support, and hope. Remember, one of the chaplain’s main ministries is to remind people that God had not abandoned them; that He was still with them and would give them the strength they needed. There were many needing that kind of assurance at Ground Zero. But, as I was there and saw the long line of firefighters going in and coming out, it became obvious that we could use a lot more chaplains than just one.
As God would have it, Chaplain Wilbur Douglass, the Chaplain for the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area, was attending that same chaplain meeting in Cape Cod that I was heading for. His plane had also been grounded, but he was able to reach Staten Island on the evening of September 12. Chaplain Douglass and I had worked together before in the recovery effort for Egypt Air Flight 990. We knew how each other operated and trusted each other. I recommended 10-12 chaplains be called in to help.
The next day, Chaplain Douglass and I went to Ground Zero so he could see the site. He saw the pain in the emergency workers’ eyes and the need for ministry. He contacted the Chaplain of the Coast Guard, got permission to call in more chaplains, and formed a Chaplain Emergency Response Team.
As I indicated earlier, chaplains do their best work when they’re out with the people or, to put it another way, “Chaplains are like manure: if you stack ‘em up in one place, they stink—if you spread ‘em around, they can do a lot of good.” So where did we spread ‘em?
The chaplains’ first priority was to take care of our Coast Guard folks. All of our cutters and their crews were working hard. There were also reserve units called up like the Port Security Units and reserves augmenting our regular active duty units. With the horror of the attack, the stress of the atmosphere of war, the long hours, being away from home, worried families, and being pulled out of civilian life—there was plenty of opportunity for chaplains to lend a listening ear, a prayer, reassurance, or encouragement for our Coast Guard folks. I don’t want to make it sound like the Coast Guard personnel was falling to pieces—far from it. While many of our folks are young, they have an admirable strength and maturity, and a desire to serve. Much of what the chaplains did was give these great people a chance to talk and pray before their concerns became big problems.
But, this was also an opportunity for Coast Guard chaplains to reach out to the community. This happened almost immediately at the Family Center that was set up at the National Guard armory. Father Tom Hall, one of our chaplains from Puerto Rico, was at a meeting of his order in Manhattan on 9/11. He immediately went to work at the Family Center comforting the families who had lost loved ones. He was there for a couple of weeks doing marvelous work ministering to the grieving families. Father Tom thought he had come to New York for only a meeting, but God had other work for him to do.
Of course we also sent chaplains to Ground Zero. We found it worked best to send chaplains there in pairs. Coast Guard Chaplains, through training and experience, are uniquely able to function in crisis areas, but Ground Zero was so horrible and overwhelming that we asked chaplains to minister there in teams to look out for one another. A chaplain’s day at Ground Zero often included talking with rescue workers, helping them cope with their experiences, or praying over a body that was found in the rubble, or encouraging those who are discouraged, or just weeping with a firefighter grieving at finding the body of his lost comrade. Over and over again, Coast Guard chaplains heard the echo of the police lieutenant who had greeted me at the Goethels Bridge, “We’re glad you’re here.” Again, the ministry of the chaplain is primarily one of presence to remind people that God was still with them.
Soon after the attacks, a staging area for firefighters was set up at the old Navy homeport on Staten Island. I received a phone call from a friend of mine, a retired Coast Guardsman who was helping at that staging area, asking if a chaplain could come by every once in a while. We ensured that a chaplain would stop by everyday to check on the firefighters and support them as well.
A few days later, September 14, President Bush asked for a National Day of Prayer. We held a prayer vigil at Activities New York, but the firefighters also wanted a chaplain to lead a prayer service at the staging area. We sent Father Boyle to lead that service—he had served with the Marines and was comfortable with doing services “in the field.” Father Boyle arrived at the staging area and was told the prayer service would be held outside in a parking lot facing Manhattan. Out of the couple hundred firefighters there, Father Boyle thought he might get 20 or 30 to come out for prayer, so he set about preparing himself. He could hear feet shuffling behind him but he was engrossed in his prayer book. When he was ready, he turned around and looked up, and there in front of him was every single firefighter at the staging area, a couple hundred—all quietly waiting for Father Boyle to lead them in prayer. They were hanging on his every word. He said it was a humbling experience.
Another area where Coast Guard chaplains served was with the Disaster Mortuary Recovery Team (DMORT) as they sifted through the remains of those found at Ground Zero. Coast Guard Chaplains were asked by the Red Cross spiritual care team to support them in providing chaplains for this particular job. (Our relationship with the Red Cross spiritual care team began at the Egypt Air 990 recovery and grew from there.) DMORT is an emergency team of mortuary technicians that are mobilized in response to disasters. Chaplains spent a lot of time at DMORT helping people talk through their sadness and anger.
A couple weeks after 9/11, it became clear that many of those lost in the World Trade Center would not be rescued, but many of the families were still holding on to a vain hope of their recovery. In an effort to help families through their grieving process, the mayor’s office set up ferries that went from the Family Center at Pier 94 to North Cove Marina near Ground Zero. Families were then escorted into Ground Zero to allow them to come to grips with what happened to their loved one. In talking with the people setting up these ferries, they asked me if we could put chaplains on them. Again, it was God’s leading us to ministry.
Chaplain Jim Jenkins, a Coast Guard Reserve Chaplain from Cottage Grove, Oregon, was one of the first chaplains on those ferries. On his particular trip, he joined Mayor Giuliani and about 50 families to Ground Zero. Here are his words that describe the trip:
“When we got to Ground Zero, the family members were appalled. Some screamed; others got sick. One man, however, turned his anger on the Mayor. ‘You knew about this. You could have stopped it! My only son is dead, and it’s your fault!’ After railing at the Mayor for a few minutes, the man began to heave huge sobs and appeared to totter. I grabbed one arm, and the Mayor grabbed the other. There we were, patting the man’s chest and saying, ‘I am so sorry for your loss.’ Later, the Mayor grabbed my arm and said, ‘Thank you for being here.’”
Again, the chaplain’s ministry is one of presence, reassuring people that God is with them.
The Marines have a saying that whenever the chaplain visits, it is Sunday; meaning when you’re out in the field you hold Divine Service whenever the chaplain shows up. This sentiment was also true following those horrific attacks. Wherever Coast Guard Chaplains found themselves, they often found themselves on a Divine mission.
I remember visiting #1 Police Plaza to just say hello to some friends and finding myself talking with several police officers about their experience on 9/11. It wasn’t my plan to minister to these officers, but it was God’s. Walking through the Office of Emergency Management Command Center, Chaplains often found themselves being approached by people to talk about their experiences. It wasn’t part of our official plan, but it was a Divine appointment set up by God.
Coast Guard Chaplains were part of these Divine appointments for about 40 days after 9/11. I am very proud to have served and continue to serve with these committed people of God. But I also hope I was able to communicate where the true credit for this ministry lies. None of us was truly sufficient on our own to minister in this horrible occasion, but it was God Himself who guided us and opened doors to us to share His Divine comfort with people. This ministry is not ours, it belongs to God; and we simply followed His calling.
Today we remember those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks, we honor those who gave their lives in order to save others, we grieve with those who lost loved ones, and we thank those who aided in numerous ways following the tragedy.