Retired minister shares memories of being a ground zero chaplain
Like most of the nation on Sept. 11, 2001, the Rev. Robert Wallace lived through the horror of terrorists weaponizing airplanes to launch four attacks on the United States.
“The day of 9/11, like most of us, I went through all sorts of feelings — despair, disgust, anger, and it actually got to the point of hatred, and that was stuff I hadn’t felt,” Wallace, a retired United Methodist minister, shared recently.
Seeking to work through those feelings, Wallace said that he participated in local prayer vigils and an ecumenical program in Brandon Park.
“One of the things I talked about there was this issue of hatred and how it was just churning inside of us, including myself,” he said.
Through all that and spending time in prayer, Wallace realized he had to do something more. For him, that meant going to Manhattan to be a part of a program set up by his denomination called, “Listening Stations,” which had been initiated after the attack on the Twin Towers. He began his time at one of the stations on Oct. 29.
“Basically we set up a table and a couple chairs and some snacks. I wore a clerical collar, which I am not used to, but, for eight days while I was there, I wore a clerical collar everyday,” he said.
Wallace was assigned to an area at Metropolitan Duane United Methodist Church which is near St. Vincent’s Hospital. Wallace noted that St. Vincent’s was the main hospital asked to respond to the victims of the terrorist attack. Some of the people he dealt with were employees there.
“On 9/11 they had all been called in, they set up triage centers, they set up extra portable operating rooms. They set up counseling areas and no one came … the victims were dead,” he shared.
He added that the only people who showed up at the hospital after the attack were desperate family members seeking to find information about their loved ones.
“And they (the hospital employees) couldn’t answer any questions, they couldn’t provide any help at that point because they had no idea either. Some of them were so stressed. It was just unbelievable what they were carrying, that burden,” he said.
In addition to the employees of the hospital, throughout his time at Metropolitan Duane, Wallace responded to people who had witnessed everything from the second plane hitting one of the Twin Towers to the collapse of both structures.
“One of the things that many of them told me was that once you saw the plane hit they couldn’t do anything but stare. It was such a trauma, such a ‘What’s happening, what’s going on, what’s causing this, why is this happening?’ “ he said.
Wallace shared that the response of many of the people he ministered to was anger.
“I had an elderly woman come up to me and said she had never felt hatred before and she didn’t know what to do. I was able to relate very quickly with her. We went into the church and did a lot of soul searching and praying and that was a good thing for her and for me,” he said.
He shared how many people were questioning why they were still alive, similar to what soldiers experience after a battle in which they witnessed their team members die. Wallace shared that many people wondered what they could do, asking if there was any hope. They questioned if there was any meaning to the world anymore and if God really existed.
“One young man came up to me, he was an Hispanic-American from Florida. His sister worked in Manhattan. He was between construction jobs so he was visiting and, on 9/11, he heard the crash. He had the TV on and saw the news flashes. Immediately he put on his construction shoes and headed to the site. Even when they crashed, he headed to the site. Burnt off the soles of his shoes that day. By the time I got there, he had been through a dozen pairs of shoes,” he said.
Wallace noted the number of people who volunteered, like the young man from Florida, was “astronomical.”
“They were putting themselves in harm’s ways, obviously still, we know that 18 years later,” he said.
In Manhattan there are a lot of little kiosks and benches and, after 9/11, many had been turned into memorials decorated with flowers and photos.
“There were notes — ‘Dear daddy’ — those were the hardest ones to read,” he said with sadness.
Wallace said a police officer took him over to one of the makeshift memorials, which was about 100 feet from where the Twin Towers had stood, and he pointed to one after another of the pictures of his deceased colleagues.
“One of his struggles was he didn’t know why he had made it through that day,” he said.
Wallace talked of people who worked near the site of the attack and how they witnessed the planes crash into the buildings and the horror of watching people jumping from the buildings before they collapsed.
One woman, he said, was having difficulty returning to work because of what she had seen. Eight weeks later, when she met with Wallace, she was still struggling.
“She was trying to go back to the office and she couldn’t do it … I just held her and she wept and wept. We talked to her and prayed with her,” he said.
There were children at school near the Twin Towers who watched the attack unfold before their eyes like a horror movie. The mother of one child met with the group at the Listening Station and said that her daughter couldn’t sleep because of what she had seen.
“I’m sure 18 years later that is still with this child,” he said.
Wallace shared story after story of people who witnessed the tragedy or were touched in some way by it, through the loss of friends, colleagues or even business people who interacted daily with those employed at the Twin Towers. Throughout his time there, Wallace said, he tried to help the people he met to find a bridge of hope.
“Which, to me, is God and God’s love for us and God’s love for each person. I dealt with people that were drug addicts, prostitutes, lawyers — the whole gamut of people. All of them were trying to figure out, am I a person of worth? Is there any meaning anymore to life?
“Hopefully some of them rediscovered meaning and that they had to start living each day. We need to find hope in each day and we need to teach love,” he stressed.
“The more we learned afterwards about the terrorists, they had been taught hate for years. We still have groups, the white supremacists, come to mind, that teach hate. That is so wrong. Even those who claim to do it in the name of God, like the terrorists that day and like the white supremacists. It’s not in God’s name and we need to teach that and love and peace. We need to re-educate people here. We need to get them open to God’s love,” he added.
Wallace will share more about his time at ground zero at the Ecumenical Luncheon at 11:45 a.m. Sept. 11 at Pine Street United Methodist Church, 441 Pine St. To make reservations for lunch, call 570-322-1110.