BY TOM GIORDANO
I offered my assistance at the World Trade Center through a representative of the Bergen County (NJ) Medical Examiner’s Office. Along with another funeral home employee, Keith Morgan, I arrived at the site. We put on coveralls and met one of the New York City medical examiners, who told us that we would be retrieving bodies. As we walked through one of the buildings to get to the outside, all we saw was destruction. For a minute, all I did was stand there and stare at the blown-out windows and walls in the mall. Darkness was all around. In a restaurant, the food and coffee that people had ordered were still on the tables, and there was a cold air. Death was all around. As we neared the exit, we saw firefighters walking around in a daze—tired and dirty. Outside, we saw still-burning buildings, fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances—burned up or just crushed.
We were sent to one of the buildings to retrieve two bodies. The firefighters would find the bodies, and we would bag the bodies and carry them to a makeshift morgue. Once there, I helped identify the bodies—opening the pouches, looking for anything to identify them. I worked from 11:30 p.m. until 9:30 a.m.
All night long, we walked through the streets, looking for surface victims or some sign of life. The feeling and smell of death surrounded us. We recovered 15 bodies, but only two of them were recognizable. When we found a body, we silently picked it up and carried it to the makeshift morgue. If a firefighter saw us struggling as we carried a body, he would silently help us.
When a firefighter found a brother firefighter, other firefighters would help carry him. We did not interfere. God only knows what they were feeling.
When we were on a break, a Con Edison worker approached us, and we followed him to the Marriott Hotel. There we saw an arm propped up against the corner of the building and various items apparently from the airplanes. This included a front tire, parts of the plane, luggage, and clothing scattered along the floor.
Another time, we were sent three blocks away to retrieve the body of a woman who had been thrown through the window of the Brooks Brothers clothing store. She was found at 3:00 a.m. The body was very heavy, and we had to use a luggage cart from the Marriott Hotel to transport the body to a temporary morgue in a building on the west side of the WTC site. We used whatever means available to retrieve bodies and move them to the morgue. Bodies and body parts were lying on the ground wherever we looked. These were people who had been outside running away who never made it. Their families at least have some remains of that person to bury.
I will never forget seeing all those bodies, each in worse shape than the other. Everywhere that we looked, there was a fire burning or trucks buried, and there was the ever-present smell of death. Streets were littered with papers, broken glass, and debris. One store had one window still intact with the following message, “Dad, I came to look for you, cannot find you. I love you, Chris.” When we read that, I realized that I was a lucky person. My son was home asleep, not knowing I was here, and I was all right. That was the first time tears came down my cheeks.
In the 10 hours that I was at the site, I can honestly say that everyone who was there—police officers, firefighters, EMTs, medical personnel, and construction workers—demonstrated their reverence in performing their tasks, handling the bodies, and working with each other. All they wanted was to find someone alive, or just find a body. It became their goal. It was a day to worry about your neighbor before yourself.
Photos by John Wheeler.
Rescue 4 firefighter Liam Flaherty was among those working to remove the bodies that night. He remembers there were so many men being found that Rev. Everett Wabst ran out of the holy water that he’d brought. Since Wabst is not a Roman Catholic priest, he cannot bless water himself. But under the circumstances, that convention mattered little. Flaherty said Wabst blessed a couple of bottles of Poland Spring to use instead. Later on, one of the firefighters grabbed a bottle and began drinking. Another one shouted at him. “Stop! That was the holy water!” Flaherty remembers Wabst laughing and just waving it off, saying, “It’s all holy water.”—Adapted from “How Three Clergymen Survived the Ultimate Test of Faith,” © Kerry Sheridan, 2002
The commanding fire officer marked each removal by calling out: “Company! Attention!” In the chill, penetrating drizzle, firefighters stopped their work to salute as each body bag, draped with an American flag, was carried past by other firefighters ….—“Searchers Find Remains of 50 People, Officials Say,” Jim Dwyer, The New York Times, October 2, 2001
TOM GIORDANO is a firefighter with and president of the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department and assistant manager of the Feeney Funeral Home in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“Funerals I Never Expected To Go To”
Before September 11, the Rev. John Delendick had a method of preparing for firefighters’ funerals. He would speak to family members, firefighters, and friends of the deceased, asking for their stories and memories. He would combine those stories with his own memories and forge a theme in his mind for the homily. He never wrote anything down, kept no notes. Instead, he would awake at 4:30 in the morning and pace back and forth, as he went over in his mind the things he would say that day at the service.
Delendick learned on Thursday evening, September 13, that he would speak at Chief of Department Peter Ganci’s funeral on Saturday, September 15. Mychal Judge’s funeral and William Feehan’s funeral would be held the same day. Delendick had little time to approach other firefighters for stories about Ganci, but he and Ganci had been such close friends, there was scarcely any need.
“These were funerals that I never expected to go to,” said Delendick. “Who would have ever thought you’d have line-of-duty deaths of the two top guys in the fire department? It was unbelievable. It doesn’t happen. I knew them both very well. I considered myself friends with both, especially Ganci. One gets very emotional when you have to preach at it. You spend a lot of time doing a lot of reflecting and thinking back on what made him special. That kind of fills you up, you know?”
On the day of Ganci’s funeral mass, Delendick stood not at the pulpit but on the floor level inside the red brick Church of St. Kilian in Farmingdale, Long Island. That way, he could look the family members in the eye. Delendick told the story of a windy Saturday afternoon, when he stood next to then Chief of Operations Dan Nigro outside a five-alarm fire. Usually, Ganci would have been there, too. As chief of the fire department, Ganci reported to the scene of every serious fire, four alarms or higher. But it was Saturday, Ganci’s day off. He was playing 18 holes at the golf course.
Nigro called Ganci on the phone and told him, “Don’t bother, no need to come. The blaze is under control. Everything is fine.”
About a half hour later, Ganci showed up. He wore a cotton shirt and golf pants under his bulky firefighter’s bucket coat. Delendick walked over to him.
“Pete!” he said. “I thought Dan told you not to come.”
Ganci turned to him. ” If Dan says not to come,” he said to the priest, “It means the whole freaking city is burning down.”
“Pete always had certain stances at a fire,” Delendick told the mourners, who overflowed from the church out into the street. “He always had certain looks on his face. You could tell when things were going okay because he would joke around and smile. When it was a serious fire, he had a look of defiance. It almost looked as if he was talking to the fire, saying, ‘I got you. You’re not gonna get me. I’m gonna get you.’ He had that look on September 11. He had a look of defiance, but it was more than that. You could also see there was fear there, too. This was something out of his realm, out of all of our realms.”—Adapted from “How Three Clergymen Survived the Ultimate Test of Faith,” © Kerry Sheridan, 2002
“May Mychal Judge Greet Them at the Gates”
Suddenly, a firefighter grabbed the Rev. Everett Wabst by the arm. He told the minister that they’d found some firefighters’ bodies. Would he be able to come and bless them as they were being carried out? Wabst nodded quickly and followed the firefighter. They climbed the rubble for about a quarter mile and at least 10 stories high until they reached the area, in the ruins of the North Tower. By the time Wabst made it up there, some of the bodies were already being passed out in stokes baskets, covered in American flags. Wabst blessed them as they passed. But there were at least a dozen more bodies in the area, waiting to be recovered. Wabst stayed close to the men as they worked. It took more than three hours of delicate digging to extract each body.
Whenever a body was removed, it was carefully tucked into a stokes basket and draped with the American flag, stars at the head. Wabst would sprinkle holy water over the body and recite a unique prayer.
“Usually it’s a form of last rites,” Wabst explained. “You’re asking that the Lord accept their souls to heaven. I would ask each time that the Lord accept their souls into heaven and then may He have Mychal Judge meet them at the gates to greet them and bring them to their brothers, their fellow firefighters. Then I’d ask that they all be clad in the spiritual armor to do battle with the great evil that befell us.”—Adapted from “How Three Clergymen Survived the Ultimate Test of Faith,” © Kerry Sheridan, 2002.