My late father was the senior fire department chaplain for the New York City Fire Department at the time of 11 September 2001. This is the report he made to the NYC Fire Commissioner of his activities at that time. I thought it was time it was shared more widely.
REPORT TO FIRE COMMISSIONER
Rev. Alfred C. Thompson
Senior Chaplain Fire Department City of New York
I arrived at Ground Zero about 11:20 a.m. September 11, 2001. The dust and smoke and ash had a brown tint and so thick that I needed to use my window wipers to see where I was going. The street seemed to be covered with two inches of ash, dust and litter papers covering the entire area. I could see flame coming out of the windows of several of the buildings.
Leaving the car I immediately put on my turn out gear and experienced difficulty in breathing. I hadn’t walked a block and my eyes began to burn from the heavy dust that had made the air a light brown in color I held a handkerchief over my mouth and nose. (The next day simple masks covering the mouth and nose were made available to those on the site. Later respirators and safety glasses were distributed to those on the site) As I walked closer to the site saw a group of firemen and asked where the triage area was located. The department had set up a triage area in the lobby of a building a block away from the WTC.
I met our Chief Medical Officer who advised me that a number of men had been removed to hospitals and that the men in the lobby had been stabilized and waiting for transport to the hospital. After visiting and ministering to each, I learned that one of our Department Chaplains, Fr. Mychal Judge, had been killed. A portion of the building had collapsed at the Command Center where he and 1st Deputy Bill Fehan and Chief of Department Peter Ganci and others were missing and presumed dead.
Firefighters had removed Chaplain Judge to St. Peter’s RC Church about 2 blocks away rather than send him to the morgue. I went to the location where Mychal had been laid on a white sheet, covered with a sheet, his badge placed on his body. Shortly thereafter Chaplain Delendeck arrived and together we knelt and prayed. I then went on to St Vincent and Bellevue hospitals to visit the firefighters who had been admitted.
About 5:00 p.m. I heard over my Handy-talkie that Building No. 7 was in danger of collapsing. Everyone within a block or two was order to evacuate the area. About 5:20pm the Handy Talky announced that the building was beginning to collapse and I ran north looking back to see the 47 story building begin to implode. Brown dust and ash began to rain down again as the floors pounded down on each other.
A number of years ago six persons fatally jumped from the Schlumberg Towers in the Bronx. Following that The FDNY began a Critical Incident Stress Training program, which I attended. Returning to Ground Zero I began inter-acting with the firefighters to minimize post-traumatic stress. There was no time for group or even individual debriefing and my ministry took on the role of trying to provide one on one support which included providing solace, encouragement, appreciation for their bravery and dedication as well as listening to them as they shared their anger, sorrow, hope, and their voluntary sharing of what they, saw, heard and their overall feelings and concerns and fears. On a number of occasions firefighters would come along side and ask for a personal prayer or request a prayer for a particular missing brother they knew. The request seemed to always indicate the personal stress the firefighter himself was facing.
That night I drove home, arriving about midnight, to bring back personal gear. I returned to Ground Zero at about 9:00 am the next day. Not having a place to stay in the city I slept in my Blazer with the front seat leaning back. Used the men’s room of the closed Marriott and went to the Command Center. Later that morning I was informed of the need for special ID. I went to the Sheraton Hotel on 53rd Street, Headquarters for FEMA and the IAFF, obtained proper identification and cell phone, to be able to communicate with that Command Center. They also arranged for me to use one of the rooms that they had set aside for their use. From there I visited the Family Center at Pier 94 returning there regularly in the early evenings after leaving Ground Zero.
As the firefighters and others began searching and digging for the missing I remained at one of the command posts relating to the firefighters who were waiting for their tour on the “hill. When it was determined that what was found might be a firefighter a request was made for the Chaplain to respond to the location. I would mount the hill of debris (sometimes four stories high) to the location where I was summoned. There I would wait and provided encouragement and solace to those standing by and the others who were passing out buckets of debris. When the body was finally retrieved it was place in a red plastic bag, then in a black body bag and placed on the stokes stretcher covering it with an American flag. As I began to pray those present removed their helmets and when the prayer was completed four firefighters would lift and carry the stokes stretcher and follow me as we left the site and proceeded to walk to the temporary morgue. While walking to the morgue firefighters, policemen and would render salutes and others would stop and remove their hard recovery had to be dug out from between debris and twisted steel. While waiting for the morgue pathologists to make preliminary identification of the remains I would wait with the “bearers” offering comfort and encouragement until the remains were then carried through an honor guard to the “bus” to be escorted to the morgue at Bellevue by two motorcycle police officers. I then accompanied the firefighters back to the command center or location where further recovery was being conducted.
Between trips to the “hill’ or “pit” to perform the above I would move between the three site Command Centers continuing to provide encouragement, solace, and appreciation to those firefighters and others who were engaged in the rescue/recovery operation. From time to time I would leave Ground Zero to attend funerals for a firefighter. But always returning to Ground Zero before going back to the hotel for the night.
On many occasions I would accompany the boat bringing families from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the Hudson River pier, or meet them when they arrived, where they would be escorted to the southwest corner of Ground Zero to see the sight where their loved ones were still buried. After sharing knowledge about the area the family members were requested to take a brief time of silence to reflect, think about their loved ones and say in their minds and heart what they would want to share with their deceased. I would then offer and prayer and proceeded the Port Authority Memorial where the names and later pictures of missing firefighters were displayed. At that time brief comments were made indicating that as a result of these brave, dedicated firefighters who entered the buildings while guiding others to safety over 25,000 lives were saved. And then including the appreciation of the Mayor and Fire Commissioner and others. This short memorial ended with a reading of a Psalm and prayer. Members of the family then left cards, flowers and such mementos as they brought with them to leave behind before returning the boat.
I ate my meals at varied Salvation Army, Red Cross; St. Paul’s Chapel and others such as McDonald’s meal centers. This provided me with better opportunities to talk, listen, and counsel with the firefighters and others who were taking a meal or coffee break and they had more time and were open to talk, share their feelings, reactions and unburden themselves.
While our two Roman Catholic Chaplains were busy attending Masses (some days several) I spent most of my time at Ground Zero. Visiting, volunteer Chaplains were directed to me by FEMA/IAFF and the Mayor’s Office for advice/guidance as to how they could be used on the scene. Well over fifty such clergy met with me from time to time. I was asked by the OEM to come and give similar information to forty Hispanic clergymen who were given ID and permitted to enter Ground Zero.
After my first day I returned home about midnight and was back at Ground Zero by eight the next morning. From September 12th until October 14th I stayed at the Sheraton where the IAFF and FEMA had make arrangements for visiting chaplains and counselors to stay. After three and a half weeks,. On October 13th I was feeling weak and tired and when home. The next day I called my son, Erik, telling him I was having trouble walking and not feeling well. He came to pick me up and took me to the Crystal Run Health Care Center and within a half-hour I was sent by ambulance to Horton Hospital having been diagnosed with pneumonia.
I returned Ground Zero Nov 9th to continue my ministry.