On the morning of 9/11/01, I stopped to say hello and have coffee with my aunt and cousin, just outside Albany. I had a meeting with the Runaway Homeless Youth Advisory Committee of NYS Office of Children & Family Services the day before, so would be returning to Buffalo.
While chatting over coffee with the television on, the news hit about the World Trade Center. My stomach tightened, especially as a member of Emergency Services in Erie County. Secondly, so too were my aunt and cousin in a panic as their daughter and sister worked just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. We prayed, cried, and I rushed out the door to return to Buffalo.
Along the thruway, I could see emergency vehicles, and probably FBI vehicles going towards New York City. At the rest stops where I pulled in for gas and coffee, people were huddled around the television monitors, crying.
It was kind of surreal. I was in touch with my youth shelter as well as our Department of Emergency Services. Emotions were high for all. I actually made it to Buffalo in record time, even without using my red lights and siren. I reported directly downtown to our Emergency Operations Center.
A particular moment of emotion for me, among many, was seeing the coverage of fellow Franciscan and Fire Chaplain, Father Mychal Judge’s funeral. I broke down and wept with some dear friends at a dinner where they had the television on.
Erie County Emergency Services received the official request for personnel to respond to help at Ground Zero. Our commissioner at the time called me and asked me to accompany our FIRE/EMS personnel to New York as their chaplain and support system. We gathered at the Fire Academy for a send‑off by the county executive and commissioner. Our convoy of 23 ambulances with crews of volunteers headed down the thruway in late afternoon of Sunday, Sept., 16, 2001. Again, at our brief stops at the service areas people cried, cheered and wished us well on our journey and mission. This was humbling and moving to say the least. When we entered New York City close to midnight, smoke hung over the city. We met at the staging area near Chelsea Piers. Our EMS crews and ambulances would be sent in a few at time to do shifts at Ground Zero. I went in with the first crews and remained for the duration of our shift.
Having visited the World Trade Center many times over the years, a friend who was a port authority officer used to take us on the roof at night to see the fantastic view of New York City and New Jersey. What we saw now was almost frightening. The destruction, dust, subdued hum of the rescue equipment, the army of police, fire, emergency medical personnel, and so many other professionals working at the site was beyond overwhelming.
What did I do while in the midst of such tragedy? My role as chaplain for Emergency Services is a “ministry of presence.” That is primarily what I did and what I was. I roamed around Ground Zero in my turnout gear, speaking to the rescue personnel as they came off the smoking burning pile that was Holy Ground. I shook hands, hugged, gave bottles of water, and often prayed quietly with them, including the chief executive officer of Cantor Fitzgerald, who lost more than 700 of his staff.
I spoke with police and firefighters. In true St. Francis of Assisi style I patted and blessed the rescue dogs as they came off after their shift. Tears rolled down my face mixing with the dust and my eyes hurt, but nothing as heavy as my heart and inner spirit.
A very moving moment occurred during a break. Some of my Erie County EMS personnel and I went into one of the WTC buildings still standing and still safe, despite its windows being blown out. This spot allowed us to go up a floor or two and literally look down into Ground Zero. Here, I stopped my crew of friends and said, I need to pray for Father Mychal Judge, FDNY chaplain.
They instinctively huddled around me, joining hands, and surrounded me in support. I prayed quietly then openly and I wept. The bond among fire personnel is deep and strong. We had lost 343 fire fighters from FDNY, although at the time we didn’t know the exact number. It was like a “sword piercing our heart,” to quote Scripture, as the Blessed Virgin Mary felt at the crucifixion.
This experience changed me in some ways. I’m still a sinner, still a bit of a workaholic, still at times trying to “save the world, with my messiah complex.” But, this tragedy, and the humbling opportunity to minister at Ground Zero, made me reflect on the gift of life, relationships, on making every day good in some way and using the opportunities and gifts God pours upon us. It made me be more conscious of trying not to sweat the small stuff, as my dad had taught me, before he died in the line of duty as a Baltimore firefighter in May 1977. Life is so precious and yet so fragile. A hug, a smile, an embrace, a kind word, a strong or gentle handshake, all took on new meaning for me.
As a follower of Francis of Assisi, I’m challenged to bring joy to a broken and sorrow‑filled world. I tried to do that at Ground Zero, and even mustered some smiles and laughter here and there. I have given many testimonials about my experience there. Now 10 years later, I still feel the emotion and tears flow easily and freely.
Back in the days following the tragedy, we often heard in the media about people supposedly seeing the face of the devil in the smoke at Ground Zero. Many asked me about the same. I said then and now unequivocally that I did not see the devil’s face at Ground Zero. But, I saw the face of God in the people working there, caring, seating, crying, rescuing, recovering and being very spiritual in their very humanness. I was moved and changed and felt God’s hand in the goodness that followed such tragedy. “Lord make me an Instrument of Your peace.”
Father Joseph Bayne, OFM Conv., is Erie County Emergency Services chaplain, Buffalo Fire Dept., and executive director of The Franciscan Center (Runaway Homeless Youth Shelter) in Buffalo.