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.

One after another the firefighters opened up and told me their stories. Grieving people don't want advice. They don't want sermons. They only want someone to listen to them. And that's what I did all night and into the morning. Then the firefighters got the call to go. "Chaplain, you coming with us?" I stood up. How could I say no after the conversation we'd just had?

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?

You carried me through the collapse of my family, Lord. You healed me and called me to be a chaplain for a reason. But why? What use am I here?I passed up a ride back to Homeport on the police boat, instead opting to take the Staten Island ferry. I couldn't be with the other rescuers anymore that day, listen to any more outpourings of grief. I headed to the dock in Battery Park. It was misty, and a stiff wind blew in off New York Harbor. I turned up my coat collar. Were those footsteps? An elderly woman came up from the subway stairs. Beside her was a boy, dark-haired, maybe 11 years old. Both carried overstuffed black garbage bags on the verge of bursting. "Need help, ma'am?" I asked. "Where are you going?"

"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."