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Ground Zero
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See how St. Paul’s transformed itself into a safe haven for rescue and recovery workers. To begin your journey, click on one of the formats below.
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On the Edge of Destruction

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Photographs by James Wheeldon, and (inset) Leo Sorel

After the towers fell, a tiny 18th-century Episcopal church became a relief center. Clergy counseled, cooks dished out meals, and medical workers treated stiff muscles and burned feet. 

An associate for ministry at Saint Paul’s shares his thoughts on 9/11.

On September 12, after having escaped the maelstrom of 9/11, I returned to Lower Manhattan to survey the damage to St. Paul’s Chapel—just yards away from where building 5 of the World Trade Center stood—and to find ways to be helpful in the rescue effort. At that point we assumed there would be many survivors. As I walked down Broadway from my apartment in Greenwich Village, my heart was pounding, not knowing what I might find. I assumed the chapel had been demolished. When I saw the spire still standing, I was overwhelmed. It took my breath away. Opening the door to enter St. Paul’s was an extraordinary experience; except for a layer of ash and soot, the building survived unscathed. Many proclaimed that “St. Paul’s had been spared.” It seemed clear to me that if this was true, it was not because we were holier than anyone who died across the street; it was because we now had a big job to do.

Taking this challenge to heart, we set up a cold drink concession and hot food service four days later for the rescue workers, and men from our shelter, and many others, proudly flipped burgers at what came to be called the “Barbecue on Broadway.” The relief ministry at St. Paul’s was supported by the labor of three local institutions—the Seamen’s Church Institute, the General Theological Seminary, and St. Paul’s, in the parish of Trinity Church—and volunteers from all over the country. More than 5,000 people used their special gifts to transform St. Paul’s into a place of rest and refuge. Musicians, clergy, podiatrists, lawyers, soccer moms, and folks of every imaginable type poured coffee, swept floors, took out the trash, and served more than half a million meals. Emerging at St. Paul’s was a dynamic I think of as a reciprocity of gratitude.a circle of thanksgiving—in which volunteers and rescue and recovery workers tried to outdo each other with acts of kindness and love, leaving both giver and receiver changed. This circle of gratitude was infectious, and I hope it continues to spread. In fact, I hope it turns into an epidemic.

There are so many stories that illustrate such selfless giving. One of the earliest, which continues to inspire me, is the story of the elderly African-American woman, probably in her 80s, who heard that a man working at ground zero had hurt his leg. So she got on the subway in the South Bronx and came all the way down to Lower Manhattan. She talked her way through the police lines, which at that time was no small feat, and came to St. Paul’s. Once inside she presented us with her own cane and then hobbled off. In that moment the universe became a little more generous.

A poet once said “midwinter spring is its own season.” The period from the terrorists attacks to the end of the recovery efforts at ground zero was its own season, lasting 260 days. Although the calendar tells us that it lasted for three seasons—fall, winter, and spring—many of us have little recollection of any climate changes. We just got up, day after day, dressed accordingly, and went about the monumental task of trying to make sense out of absurdity, bring order out of chaos, and reclaim humanity from the violence that sought to make human life less human. This was also a season of remembrance as we mourned the loss of loved ones. It was a season of improvisation as we tried, often at our wit’s end, to respond to the needs emerging from these never before experienced acts of terrorism. It was a season of renewal as we sought to look toward a day when our commonalities will overcome our divisions, when compassion will overcome violence, and kindness will swallow up hatred. Ultimately, what began in hatred evolved into, in the words from that great song from the musical Rent, a “season of love.” It was a season in which people of love and goodwill, compassion and generosity, sought to practice the art of radical hospitality.

The relief ministry at St. Paul’s has now come to an end. The chapel that once housed massage therapists, tired workers, and thousands of love notes colored carefully by schoolchildren and others has been closed for cleaning and restoration. I’m not quite certain what awaits this marvelous church when it reopens, but I do know that it was a rare privilge to take part in the work of these past months, and I have been forever changed by it.

Now when I make my morning commute on the N or R subway to my office on Rector Street, I pass through Cortland Street Station, the station underneath the WTC site. Traveling through it, I see American flags, red tape, and signs that read, “Do not stop here.” My mind floods with memories, and all I can do is fold my newspaper and say a silent prayer for those who died there and for those who still suffer from the devastation. It’s a moment that is rather surreal as the past intersects with the harsh realities of the present and the hopes for a brighter, more humane future.

— The Reverend Lyndon Harris

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Joseph Bradley Audio
Hear relief operator Joseph Bradley describe the triumphs and terrors of cleaning up the “pit.”

Photograph by Krystyna Sanderson

Lyndon Harris Audio
How did St. Paul’s become a “full-service chapel”? For the answer, join the Reverend Lyndon Harris in an interview about his ministry at ground zero.

Photograph by Krystyna Sanderson

 “Meditation of the Thin Space From St. Paul’s Chapel” was played at the closing of the chapel as a relief center. Composer Peter Ostroushko plays the mandolin, accompanied by Richard Dworsky on the piano. 

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Time Lapse

Watch a full-24 hour-work day in three minutes at ground zero in this time-lapse video, taken by James Wheeldon.  

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The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States left the nation reeling from the magnitude of death and destruction. How have you been affected? How can we help families and the nation heal? Tell us your stories.

View a 360°  image of the WTC site taken two months after the attacks.

More to Explore

Still Coping With 9/11
With the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks drawing near, counselors and clergy are bracing themselves for a second wave of emotional turmoil.  “I think you have to expect it and prepare for it,” says Terence M. Keane, director of the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Boston. “Past experiences show that  traumatic and violent events like 9/11 can create an aftermath of physical and emotional problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.”

Studies from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 show that these difficulties peak around the six-month and one-year mark and can linger on for years afterward as the affected make the transition to everyday life. Although seven years have passed since the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, dozens of people are still receiving mental health services in Oklahoma City. One study found that 45 percent of survivors had some psychiatric disorder and 34.3 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In New York, researchers from the Academy of Medicine were already seeing a rise in substance use two months after 9/11. Of the 988 Manhattan residents they surveyed, 24.6 percent were drinking more, 9.7 percent were smoking more, and 3.2 percent were using marijuana more than they did a week before the attacks. Those who smoked more cigarettes and marijuana were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder than those who did not. The American Red Cross also reported that a third of adults in Greater New York are at risk for post-traumatic stress.

These kind of studies and the suicides of two paramedics who worked at ground zero have put government agencies and private organizations on a mission to help people cope with long-term emotional suffering. “Even heroes need to talk, too” read posters tacked on bus shelters by the New York Department of Mental Health, promoting free counseling (websites with information about these services are listed below in our Related Links section.) The Federal Emergency Management Agency  has allocated more than 173 million dollars to provide mental health care to those traumatized by 9/11, and the September 11th Fund has budgeted almost 55 million dollars for the next five years.

“It’s important for folks who think they have a problem to turn themselves into a program or their agencies and say, ‘Help me out,’” says Robert A. Ungar, counsel to the Uniformed EMTS and Paramedics of the New York City Fire Department. “Everyone understands that 9/11 created huge post-traumatic stress for everyone involved. And it’s not something to be afraid of. It just shows that you’re human.”

— Miki Meek

Related Links
St. Paul’s Chapel
You will find photo galleries of ground zero workers and relief efforts at the church, along with message boards, news updates, and prayer requests.

Trinity Church
The parish of St. Paul’s Chapel lists volunteer opportunities, services, concert performances, and audio galleries.

American Red Cross
The site gives information about free psychiatric help for those affected by the 9/11 attacks.

The September 11th Fund
This website lists information about counseling and other services available to those who were directly affected by last year’s terrorist attacks. 

Project NYCope
Gives information about free counseling services available to New York City employees and their family members.

Project Liberty
This site provides information about free counseling for New Yorkers struggling with emotional stress related to 9/11. 

Safe Horizon
You will find information about crisis support counseling and hotline numbers for those who need help recovering from 9/11.

World Trade Center Photos
In this photo gallery James Wheeldon catalogs a series of photos taken from, or near, his apartment that overlooks the WTC site and St. Paul’s Chapel. 

New York City: After the Fall
This moving multimedia presentation captures the feelings of New Yorkers after 9/11.

Peter Ostroushko
The site offers performance dates and mp3s for this accomplished mandolinist, fiddler, and composer who wrote “Meditation of the Thin Space From St. Paul’s Chapel.”

Radical Hospitality 
Created for ground zero workers and volunteers, this site features forum boards, newsletters, and photo galleries, including one of St. Paul’s Chapel. 

The Episcopal Church and Visual Arts
An exhibition on this site is devoted to artistic reflections of 9/11. It features artwork and photographs from amateur artists, sunday schools, youth groups, prayer memorials, and other outlets.


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