By LEIGH C. MERRFIELD
News & Journal Editor
For most Americans, this week may have stirred many unpleasant reminders from 16 years ago when extremists hijacked four airplanes and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the U.S. – two of them piercing the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one hitting the Pentagon just outside the nation’s capital, and another crashing in a Pennsylvania field.
The unspeakable horror of so many lives being destroyed marked this day as one of the deadliest in U.S. history.
Since that day, Americans have remembered the vivid scenes they witnessed on television as cameras captured crowds of people trying to flee the streets in NYC amid a backdrop of billowing smoke. Americans vowed ‘never to forget’ the shock and sorrow that resulted.
This past Monday morning the Harrison County Commission hosted a ‘Day of Remembrance’ event to once again recognize that life has gone on but will never quite be the same in the U.S.
Local law enforcement officers, firefighters, telecommunicators, and emergency medical service workers were invited to gather on the Courthouse Plaza to pause and reflect on the past and pay tribute to the injured and fallen.
“Of course, this day is embedded in the minds of those of us who lived during this time, but it will only be a part of history for the much younger generation. Still, we must never, ever forget what happened that day. We have to remember to be vigilant to the threats of terrorism in America and celebrate our freedom every day,” commented Commission President Ron Watson.
The events of the 11th day of September, 2001 claimed the lives of over 3,000 people and the total of injured victims more than doubled that number! The lives of families who lost loved ones were forever changed, and while that sadness is difficult to get past, even dreadful tragedies provide opportunities to be thankful.
How can people find it in their hearts to be thankful following such a ghastly act? The answer is to look at the volunteers – the response teams who worked for months searching through debris for remains. They put themselves at risk and sacrificed much.
One local Shinnston firefighter, Gayle Fratto, was living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time, working at Georgia Tech University. A call went out for volunteers to help with the recovery effort, and with a degree in Safety Engineering and a master’s in Safety Management, Gayle felt he was qualified to offer some assistance. He volunteered and spent ten days at Ground Zero.
Although rather reluctant to talk about his experience, he did say that it was something he would never forget.
“I went there a couple of months after 9/11 occurred, but they were still bringing bodies out all the time. It was a long process. I mainly served as a safety consultant at the site,” he explained. “My job there was to help ensure that no one else who was a part of the recovery effort was injured or killed while they were searching for others. These rescue workers were on cutting operations, going underground at the World Trade Center. The building was partially collapsed, yet they were cutting through steel in very confined spaces, and not giving up on their search for victims in the rubble. They had access to heavy equipment, yet they searched with their bare hands. My team was mainly support staff. The firefighters were the heroes; they performed the real labor – sadly, often finding bodies of their brothers and sisters.”
Fratto said that being partially inside the Ground Zero site and working in the pit was a strange experience. He said it was hard to even begin to imagine what those individuals faced when the collapse occurred.
Gayle had served with the Lumberport Fire Department before going to Atlanta and while employed at Georgia Tech, he also worked with the emergency response training center there. He was certainly a qualified volunteer and said he would do it again if he felt he could be of service. Yet he speaks of his volunteerism to very few people.
“I was there for only a short time, but there were some I worked with there who came back for multiple stints at Ground Zero,” he added. “But, I can share perhaps a few things that some people may not be aware of – things that are a little more uplifting.”
For example, St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest church in Manhattan; it was built in 1764 and is located across the street from what was once the World Trade Center. Despite being that nearby, he said the church suffered no damage – not even one broken pane of glass! The churchyard, however, was covered with debris. Yet, when engineers inspected the building, it was pronounced a “sound structure” and soon became a safe haven for rescue workers.
Rescue workers, police and firefighters sought a little rest and a chance to wash up at St. Paul’s Chapel after long, exhausting shifts. Volunteers from other churches, residents of New York, and ministries from throughout the U.S. sent food, toiletries, first aid kits, work gloves, clothing, blankets, rain gear, socks, boots, hard hats, and all sorts of supplies.
Doctors, nurses, chiropractors, massage therapists, cooks, counselors, and clergy also volunteered for shift-work at St. Paul’s. Musicians, as well, appeared, and nearly every day someone played ‘Amazing Grace’ on the Chapel’s grand piano!
“This church became more than a resting place for weary volunteers,” Fratto said. “They could talk and unburden themselves of the grueling sights they saw. St. Paul’s doors were open every day for a long time to offer a sanctuary to the rescue workers. Letters were written to recovery teams by children from all over the world and they were taped up inside the Chapel for workers to read as well as posted on the fence surrounding its exterior. It was an outpouring of support that you had to see for yourself to fully appreciate.”
St. Paul’s was closed to the public during this time period. Only rescue workers, church personnel and other approved people were permitted to enter the Chapel while it served as ‘home’ to Ground Zero teams.
Fratto concluded, “They kept many of the cards, letters, and posters that people sent with messages of support. St. Paul’s was sort of a museum for nearly 15 years. There has not been a time that I have visited New York City since my short time there as a volunteer that I have failed to stop by St. Paul’s Chapel out of respect.”
While 9/11 will long be remembered as an appalling tragedy that left unthinkable devastation and sorrow, it also left strong evidence that people in the United States of America bond together and strengthen one another in times of crisis … and most of them seek no acknowledgement for offering a helping hand. Discovering this kind of human kindness is perhaps the only thing Americans can celebrate about 9/11 … and that, too, is something to never, ever forget.
Pictured above is a lone rescue worker making his way through the debris-laden courtyard at St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan. Notice that there are a few tombstones there marking graves, some of which date back to the early 1700’s.