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Out of Hell, Stories of Hope and Courage: People of Faith Respond to September 11, 2001

"Every ferry, every tugboat, every vessel that could move—alongside the banks of Manhattan—picked up people to bring them to safety…but [they would] not surrender their City."
—Rev. Christopher McMahon

Rev. Christopher McMahon, Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South Fork in Water Mill, NY has a second job. McMahon, a licensed Captain, is Director of the U.S. Merchant Marine Global Maritime and Transportation School in Kings Point, NY. A 1977 graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, McMahon earned a Bachelor of Science in Marine Transportation, a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and a U.S. Coast Guard license. In 1993, he graduated from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA, and he's been involved in a joint ministry at sea and on land ever since.

McMahon recalled waking up on the morning of September 11 on the waterfront of New York: "The usual 0615 wake of the New York Fast Ferry awoke me on my boat rocking gently alongside the dock at the United States Merchant Marine Academy—the place of my home, my work, and partly, my ministry. I admired the warm and clear morning air—the result of passing storms the evening before. A gentle cool breeze and a warm sun promised a beautiful day."

Soon, the once-beautiful day had exploded into a frenzy of activity and horror in the aftermath of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the subsequent collapse of the twin towers and buildings that surrounded them. McMahon was suddenly thrust into duty, along with all the other boat captains along the waterfront on Long Island at Kings Point and throughout the boroughs of New York City.

McMahon, in his sermon, "A Day That Changed the World," wrote, "…from the community they came—police officers, firefighters, doctors and nurses—rushing from hospitals, rushing from village halls, rushing from homes, rushing from work, rushing from vacations—all saying, "I must help—please get me into the city, I am a doctor, I am a nurse, I am a surgeon, I am a firefighter, I am a police officer—you must get me there. I am needed. I must go."

"And so go we did," McMahon continues, "into a nightmare, into a wrenching horror—into a scene so beyond reason it was a dream—a fantastic dream. …Alongside the battery and around the West Side of Manhattan—a sight never seen before. Every ferry, every tugboat, every vessel that could move—alongside the banks of Manhattan picking up people to bring them to safety—a sealift of people unprecedented in the history of New York City—a people moving to safety but not a people surrendering their City."

McMahon helped move police, firefighters, and other emergency aid workers and later went on to move supplies and equipment into the city from New Jersey. And though activity along the waterfront has calmed somewhat, McMahon has a new, vital assignment: on September 24 he was summoned to Washington, D.C., where he is serving as a Special Assistant to the Secretary's of Transportation's Office during this crisis. "I certainly hope I can help in some small way," he says, as he continues to try and use his skill in the maritime trades and his calling as a minister to provide aid for those most affected by our country's tragedy.

"I feel like my heart is full of a million people...all their stories...It is a wonderfully horrible feeling."
—Rev. Susan Suchoki Brown

On Sunday, September 16, six days after the terrorist attack that changed the world, Rev. Susan Suchoki Brown, a parish minister in Leominster, MA , who is also Chaplain of the Leominster Fire Department, boarded a van bound for New York City from the Massachusetts State Police barracks in Sturbridge, MA. She was traveling at the invitation of the International Association of Firefighters, who sought assistance from neighboring states' spiritual care and counseling professionals. She was to be housed in this, her first visit to New York, at the Hilton Hotel on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street; her place of work was the rubble pile now known as Ground Zero.

Rev. Brown reported, "it was grueling work…we did a 12-hour schedule, and assisted in three major areas: morgue duty, counseling those working at the disaster site, and those who were traveling the New York streets, shell-shocked or depressed or confused by what happened." Directly after her arrival in New York, Brown assisted the city at a meeting held for the families of midtown firefighters—2000 people gathered in a room with Mayor Rudoph Guiliani, Governor George Pataki, the New York Fire Department's Commissioner and Chief. A Roman Catholic priest offered prayers for the missing and dead at that meeting; other chaplains circulated through the crowd and talked with people.

That night, the most difficult work of all began, at the remains of the bombed trade towers. Brown worked a shift walking the perimeter of the rubble, talking with iron workers, firemen, police offers, emergency personnel. And talking, too, with those who came to the site to bear witness to the tragedy and watch the emergency workers. "If you are a New Yorker, there is a magnet about it," Brown said. "You can't believe that the Towers are gone, and that there are 6,000 people [buried] in this rubble. There is a compelling need to see at least part of it."

"We keep praying that we're going to find somebody," Brown reported them as saying. "Do you have hope that we'll find somebody? Do you have answers as to why God would let this happen?" "My standard response," she said, "was that there is evil in the world, and that this evil was visited upon us, and the only thing we can do is not let our relationships [to one another] be broken asunder. God is weeping with us, within us, and we have to tap into that by being in relationship with one another."

At ground zero, Brown was easily identified in her chaplain's firefighter coat and helmet. Later, she and other chaplains walked the streets in midtown, talking with people about their feelings. Wearing a navy blue dress uniform, she would stop and talk with people who caught her eye and not ask, ''how are you doing,' but rather, 'are you doing OK?'. "They would nod, or say yes or no...and I would stop," said Brown. "I would hear about someone who they're waiting for at home." It was, she said, "like running into the walking wounded... being told, 'My cousin Anthony went in there [to the Trade Center towers]' or 'We don't talk about Anthony when we visit because his mother is waiting for him,' or seeing a woman in the hotel where we stayed who stopped me and said, 'My cousin was there. What do I tell my children?' "

And then, there was another challenge—working at the temporary morgue set up outside the American Express building at Ground Zero, in a makeshift tent. There, as remains were found and brought in, a search would go on to find identification. Brown related that it was "always good if they found some identification—a VISA or Amex card; a driver's license—because then you knew who it was, and you could tell the family." There is, she said, "this intense anxiety of a family waiting for something. The God-awful truth is that the person isn't coming home," but at least if identification is found on a body "we can assure them [that this is so]." Working with a Baptist minister on the same shift, the two chaplains took turns escorting the remains brought in to the tent, where the remains would be recorded, and then, prayed over.

Susan Suchoki Brown's prayer was this:

"We pray for the repose for the soul of this person.
May they be at peace.
May they have died a quick and painless death
And may their family be at rest.
Let us never forget that they gave their life
For something bigger than all of us.
Blessed be."

To say the experience has changed Brown's life is gross understatement. "I feel like my heart is full of a million people, all their stories," she said. "It is a wonderfully horrible feeling." And did she know what she was getting into when she agreed to go to New York? "I had no clue," she said.

"Each person's life deserved to be treated with respect. It never even occurred to me that we might have been saying a blessing over the body of a hijacker [but] each person's life had dignity; [all those deceased had] a mother and a father, and I refuse to lose my humanity" in callousness over this tragedy.

For another account of the work of the Rev. Susan Suchoki Brown, read the Worcester Telegram and Gazette story.

For more information contact pw_specialist @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.

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