Counseling people in crisis has been my life since I finished Bible college in 1987. I was there after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area. I've helped students who have survived school shootings. I was on the scene at Oklahoma City in 1995. But nothing could have prepared me for what I'd find in New York City in the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Shaken by the specter of death and destruction on an unimaginable scale, I had to wonder if one man could really make a difference in the face of so much suffering. Could any of us?
I was up early on the West Coast that day, on my way to a 6:00 A.M. meeting in Sacramento, when I heard something on the car radio about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. It took a morning of rumors, sound bites and television images to clarify what was actually happening on the East Coast. We feared the worst as rush hour came to a head at 9:00 A.M. California time-some of the hijacked planes were still unaccounted for. But the targets that day turned out to be confined to the East Coast. Physical targets, that is. Every American had been hit emotionally.
I wanted to get to New York immediately. But I'd trained myself to wait for an invitation from some group. Disaster sites are always chaotic, and help-even professional help-has to be organized if it is to be effective. I also believe that God directs me through these invitations to the places where I can do the most good.
I packed my bags so I'd be ready. "Meeting in the kitchen," I called to my family. My wife, daughters and son crowded around the table. "I might have to go away again for a while, but I don't want you to be scared." I looked at Katie, my younger daughter, sitting across from me, and leaned in toward her. "Remember, what can you count on?"
"That you'll be back as soon as your job's done," she said with confidence.
"That's right. I'll be back soon."
I always made a point of saying that. A seven-year-old should know for sure she can count on her parents. That was not the case in the house where I was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1960. My truck driver father drank up his pay instead of feeding and clothing his wife and nine children. My mother had problems of her own. Dad eventually went to prison for failing to support us. By that time we were living hand-to-mouth on welfare. One day Mom just walked out the door, supposedly to get a loaf of bread.
Hours passed. No bread. No Mom.
We stopped being a family that day. My brothers and sisters were sent to foster homes. I was hospitalized, near death from malnutrition and infection. Dad died a few years later of cirrhosis of the liver. We never knew what happened to Mom. I was adopted by the Giuntas, the only family I knew until I was 27.
That was when my wife got pregnant the first time. Her doctor encouraged us to find out everything we could about my family medical history. At the time I was a criminal investigator for the state of California. I could have laid my hands on the information a hundred different ways. But I'd had my reservations about learning the truth. "It's for our child," my wife encouraged me.
A 1960 Trenton, New Jersey, phone book showed three listings for Lanigan, the name of my birth parents. One of them was my uncle. One call led to another, and on Easter Sunday 1986, the nine of us were reunited. The older siblings talked about the fear, the heartbreak, the confusion of being abandoned by our parents and separated.
To me, it was nothing short of a miracle that now, here we were, all of us together. "Everybody get in close for a picture," my oldest sister said, taking charge again all these years later. God has restored a family broken beyond hope, I thought. For the first time I truly felt the depth of God's love and all its powerful possibilities. I wanted to help other people see that power in their own lives. I quit my detective job and became a pastoral counselor. I wanted to be where people's needs were immediate and raw.
After landing in New York, I made my way down to the church. "You the chaplain from California?" a woman asked when I came in the door. I nodded. "Ready to talk to some firefighters?" "Sure," I said, expecting to walk right over to Ground Zero. "They're out on Staten Island," the woman said. "We'll take you over there in the van. Come on."
How strange it seemed to be heading away from Ground Zero after coming all this way, but I wound up at Homeport Naval Station, a staging area and recovery point for the Staten Island-based firefighters and relief workers going to and from the disaster site. "We've got infirmary units, showers, laptops, food and money," said the woman who welcomed me. "What we didn't have until now was God in the house."
I went over to a group of firefighters waiting to be called to Ground Zero. They were anxiously tapping their feet and fooling with their gear. I introduced myself and asked about a New York firefighter I'd worked side-by-side with in Oklahoma City, the leader of an elite squad. He was an inspiration then, and I hoped to run into him here.
"Have a seat, chaplain," one man said. The firefighter I'd asked about had rushed down in the first moments of the crisis to set up a command center at the base of the towers. He was lost in the collapse.
Speechless, I sat down on a pile of equipment. "We know, chaplain," another firefighter said. "Believe me, we know." So this is what it feels like. Everyone here has lost someone they care about.
Thirty minutes later our bus approached the smoldering ruins. We deployed three blocks away. The noise, the smell, the destruction-my senses were on overload. The tangled pile of debris rose more than 20 stories high in some places: Ground Zero. Smoke billowed up everywhere, as if issuing from Hell itself. The last survivor had been rescued less than 30 hours after the attack. No one had been found alive since. But of course we were all still hoping. Hope was a hard thing to let die.
I pulled on protective gear, and we walked through an entranceway cut into the mountainous pile, heading deep inside. The pile shifted constantly, rumbling as construction equipment passed. We had to step cautiously. Under our feet were voids-sections exposed when a beam was hoisted away. That's where we looked for signs of life, or death. We inched along, working with gloved hands and shovels and picks. The temperature on the pile was close to 110 degrees, and our heavy gear was suffocating. For the duration of the 12-hour shift, I dug, I watched, I listened. I searched for my friend who was lost. No one was found alive.
The next day I went back to Ground Zero with the firefighters. We pulled another 12-hour shift. Again our search was in vain. It was 2:00 A.M., rainy, foggy and cold. Yet the scene was eerily bright with giant Hollywood-style floodlights, so that workers in yellow slickers and huge machines could continue moving about on the pile, day or night, rain or shine. I was surrounded by people in utter anguish-a retired firefighter digging for his two sons, one a firefighter, the other a policeman; the detective who returned every day to the exact spot she was standing when everyone around her was crushed in the towers' collapse-tormented heroes who wondered why they lived and so many others died. In the midst of such despair, how could I give anyone hope?
"To Staten Island," she said. I took the garbage bags. Maybe it was my clerical collar again, because the woman started talking. "My daughter is a drug addict, and tonight she kicked my grandson out of the house." The boy hung his head. A shiver ran down my spine. This night was never going to leave him, I knew. I reached out to put my arm around the boy while we walked. "My mother has lots of problems," he said. "And I don't know where my dad is."
My steps were slowed by the feeling that gripped me, that unmistakable sense of God's love I'd felt at my family reunion. I felt it again now, powerfully, in the midst of my own doubts. I felt him working through me to reach this one unhappy boy.
I told him a story. About another boy whose parents had abandoned him. "Do you know what he's doing now, all grown up?" We'd stopped under a street lamp. The boy shook his head. "Helping people at Ground Zero."
"Really?" he said. "At Ground Zero? How do you know?"
"Son, that boy was me."
He opened his eyes wide and they pooled with tears. Then I hugged him. "You'll cry a lot," I told him. "That's what I did. But remember, God brought me to you tonight. He loves you, never ever forget that. And he will keep sending people to help you if you just look for them wherever you go."
The boy slipped his hand in mine and we joined the grandmother on our way to the dock. I saw the arriving ferry, its lights burning bright through the mist. One person could make a difference. A little boy had just shown me how.