Nearly 11 years to the day, a group of about 40 Massachusetts chaplains returned to the World Trade Center site to visit the 9/11 Memorial on May 29 – a day before the anniversary of the May 30, 2002 ceremony that marked the formal end of the recovery efforts at the site.
Accompanied by New York City Fire Department chaplains Monsignor John Delendick and Rev. Stephen Harding, they came to reflect upon the time they had spent in New York City in the 9/11 aftermath. Members of the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains, most had served at Ground Zero, many at the temporary morgue blessing the bodies and remains of those who had been killed without reference to any specific or particular religious traditions. The chaplains also comforted grieving family members who visited the site.
Father Don Milligan brought the container of holy oil he had carried with him during his two six-day tours of service at the site in September and October 2001, as well as his badge for the Winthrop Fire Department in Massachusetts and the front piece from the helmet he wore during that time. He plans to donate those artifacts, as well as the respirator he wore on the site, to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
Now a chaplain with the Kingston Police and Fire Departments, Father Milligan recalled approaching the site for the first time and the instructions he received from a New York City firefighter to select a pair of sturdy work boots from a box of donated supplies before stepping onto the pile. Not all worked at the site. Father Larry Esposito, a chaplain with the Auburn Fire Department in Massachusetts in 2001, said simply, “We did what we were asked to do.” He then described visiting firehouses around the city, offering comfort and consolation to those searching for the 343 missing active duty firefighters. (Those firefighters were killed. Three retired firefighters also would lose their lives on 9/11.)
Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan, who coordinated the visit to the memorial, explained that the chaplains group was formed in 1999 and that some of its members were currently serving those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing. The visit conjured up the emotions that many had felt in 2001, while serving in New York and upon returning home. One chaplain eloquently described a feeling shared by many, saying, “It is etched in our bones and our hearts.”
By Amy Weinstein, Associate Director of Collections and Senior Oral Historian for the 9/11Memorial Museum