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The burdens of prayer: FDNY chaplains remember 9/11 every day

Victim 0001 was the Franciscan priest Mychal Judge, FDNY chaplain.

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 Victim 0001 was the Franciscan priest Mychal Judge, FDNY chaplain. He had rushed down to the World Trade Center catastrophe where he met up with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The city leader asked him to pray for the city and the victims. Judge then went from dying person to dying person to administer Last Rites.

Soon after entering the North Tower, Judge started praying out loud, according to his biographer Michael Daly, “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”  Then, the South Tower collapsed bombarding the lobby of the North Tower with debris. At that moment Judge, age 68, was hit in the head and died. He was officially tagged as the first victim of the attack on the World Trade Center. However, his death did not end his ministry.

As five men--two firemen, one Port Authority policeman, a man from the Office of Emergency Management and a man with FBI on his jacket, cradled his body in a chair to carry it out, a journalist Shannon Stapleton of Reuters photographed the priest positioned like the dead Jesus in Mary’s lap as portrayed in the sculpture “Pieta” by Michelangelo. It was a singular photograph.

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There were no flies on the corpses of 9/11. There were very few corpses.  The photo of Judge is the only one of a body coming out of the trade center that was recognizable, intact and viewable. The sight then was inspirational.

At his funeral Senator Hilary Clinton recalled that the priest in particular “loved his firefighters.”  and even now its memory brings other fire chaplain to tears.

Father John Delendick was there that day after the South Tower collapsed. He discovered that Judge, his dear friend, had been killed. He hardly had time to register his grief when the North Tower collapsed.

"People I was standing with were all of a sudden dead," he said. "I just looked one way and they went another way and didn't make it out."

Father John Delendick is always at home with his memory of his friend & firefighter chaplain Mychal Judge who served the fallen heroes of 9/11 lives.

The death of Judge brings him grief to this day. "The new normal is that there is a layer of sadness under my skin that doesn't take much to come out," Delendick said.

A FDNY chaplain since 1996 and priest at Shrine Church of St. Jude in Brooklyn, Delendick is one of three Catholics—including Judge’s friend and Franciscan successor Christopher Keenan and Marc J. Filacchione, one Episcopalian (Reverend Stephen Harding) and one Jew (Rabbi Jospeh Potasnik) who make up today’s FDNY chaplaincy. (In March 2015 Pastor Ann Kansfield of the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn became the eighth and first female chaplain in March 2015.)  

Whether Jewish or Christian, the chaplains visit each other's services and plan monthly get togethers and dinner outings. Through being spiritual counselors to so many, the FDNY Chaplains find that they can also be the same for each other.

"When you are a chaplain, you are not a chaplain for your own (faith) but for all," Potasnik said. "We learn that we are here for one another."

The chaplains join the fire department as part-time paid employees. Their duties include ministering to the needs of the firefighters and victims during an emergency, making hospital visits, visiting families of victims and firefighters, conducting memorial services and being a spiritual presence in the fire department. Coming from various denominations, and doctrines, they unite to serve under one purpose: God and New York City.

"Whoever needs our help we will be there for," Joseph Potasnik said, serving as FDNY Chaplain since 1999. "We are part of one family."


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Called into Hell

Eleven years ago, over 11,000 uniformed firefighters responded to a call that heroically helped their city as it underwent America's gravest terrorist attack. The men and women inside the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) are remembered for their valiant acts. The FDNY chaplains are the ones who serve the heroes.

"Some firefighters look to chaplains as the guy that will be there when 'all hell breaks loose,'" said William Miles, the Executive Secretary for the New York State Association of Fire Chaplains (NYSAFC). "Everyone needs that spiritual person to turn to in time of need. Sometimes chaplains are the only religion that our members have."

In the midst of the WTC attacks, Delendick didn't have time to contemplate death since the living needed so much help. Command stations like the one in the North Tower were obliterated. The commanders were killed or scattered. The injured had no one to turn to and nowhere to go. Friends, colleagues and relatives searched for their loved ones through the tick curtain of the chaos. There were almost no bodies to identify, so no one could say whether to hope or mourn.

Delendick served as a pathfinder for people to safety, first aid, and ambulances. Along the way, he stopped to minister to the desperate who were losing hope, and searched through hot and smokey rubble for the lost. Delendick stayed in the scene until 4 a.m. and arrived back the next day at 8 a.m. to help continue the search for those missing.

"There's not much you can say to people. It's a matter of listening," he said. "For the most part people come to look for answers, and I don't have any answers. I couldn't even direct them to the place that could tell them where their son was working or where their loved one was."

Little pieces of the murder victims, as firemen universally call those who were killed by the attackers, were gradually found. A finger, a hip bone, a ring never taken off the finger found lying loose in the ashes. Gradually, medical examiners sorted out clues to make up their lists.

Funerals came in big and small waves, exhausting the officiants. Volunteer bag pipe groups from around the country would rotate in and out of the Pan American Hotel in Queens. In the morning their doleful sounds from their practice in the parking lot signaled to Queens residents a new round of funerals that day.

In the eight months following the attacks Delendick, attended funeral after funeral for the 343 firefighters who died in the line of duty. He attended as many as fourteen funerals in one day. But he never did exactly count how many in all he went to; the reality of the number would cause too much pain.


Post 9/11 FDNY Chaplaincy

Attending funerals occurs at a slower rate for Delendick nowadays, but he is finding that more and more firefighters are facing terminal illnesses from exposure to the harmful substances emitted as a result of the attacks. The chaplains are well into their post-9/11 challenge.

"We are doing a lot more hospital visits than we did in the past, and they are very serious hospital visits," Delendick said. "These are people who you know are not going to be cured or outlive this [illness]."

Recent data is beginning to make sense of the health effects for 9/11 firefighters. The NYC Department of Health released a 2011 Annual Report on 9/11 Health disclosing that among the 11,000 WTC firefighters, physician-diagnosed respiratory problems were higher than the general population. Another study released last September in the scientific journal The Lancet indicated that 9/11 World Trade Center firefighters were having a "modest excess of cancer cases."

FDNY researchers believe about 263 new cases of cancer attributed to the effects of the attacks were diagnosed in the seven years since 9/11. As of last September, a memorial wall unveiled at the FDNY headquarters show 55 FDNY members dying since 9/11 from WTC-related illness.

"This year we are going to be adding a lot more," Delendick lamented, estimating around 20 will be added to the list.

As Delendick continues the hospital visits and family counseling, he has learned lessons from 9/11 that endure to this day.

"All you can do is guide people through their various stages of grief," he said. "I'm at a point in my life where things that were important before 9/11 aren't so important. The things that became important since 9/11 have grown considerably."

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik offers comfort but no easy answers.


For Rabbi Potasnik, leader of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights and FDNY Chaplain, the most common question he receives in a crisis like 9/11 is "Where is God?"

He offered a cautious response in interpreting events. "I don't have an answer," he said. "I think faith doesn't always provide us with an answer, but provides us with the strength to live with the question."

Each passing 9/11 anniversary reopens unhealed wounds. Yet, the chaplains show by their service to the firefighters that healing others is a matter of pride.

"I can't imagine a greater honor than being part of the FDNY," said Rabbi Potasnik.

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