Long after midnight, as I trudged off the Pile at Ground Zero in 2001 and headed to St. Paul’s Chapel for some much needed food and rest, I heard a voice call out of the darkened, ash-filled air.
I turned, and photographer Mary Gepana Eble took the picture in this photo below.
I didn’t know her at the time, but she tracked me down a few months later and sent me an album of her photos from Ground Zero. I treasured those photos and showed them to many people over the years.
This year, as I worked on the manuscript of Triumph Over Terror, I showed this picture to my writing partner, Janice Hall Heck.
“We have to find Mary and get permission to use the picture in our book!” she said.
But I only remembered that Mary was from California.
We Tweeted. We put messages on Facebook. We searched the Internet. We called old New York friends and friends of friends. No luck. No Mary.
Then I took one picture out of the album and turned it over. And there it was. Mary’s address.
One telephone call later, Bob told Mary about our writing project, and she agreed to let us use the picture. This photo was part of a traveling exhibit of the September 11 Photo Project. The photos now rest in the archives of the New York City Library.
On Friday night of last week, September 9, 2016, we held a Book Launch for Triumph Over Terror at the Cumberland County Community Church in Millville, NJ, where I am Pastor of Visitation. Fifteen minutes before the program start time, in walks Mary Gepana Eble. She flew from California to be at this special event. What a great surprise. (Jan was in on the secret but kept her silence).
Now this week, Mary is in New York visiting family members, and she tracked down the original photo at the New York City Library and took a picture of the photo, retrieved from the archives by a helpful librarian.
Thank you, Mary. You touched my heart with your surprise visit and now this photo of the original photo you took fifteen years ago.
Tonight, September 13, 2016, Mary posted this photo on Facebook.
“I wrote this note on the back of my firefighter image of Bob Ossler Chaplain that is now part of the Sept 11 Photo Project.”
After September 11th, the common denominator of human suffering bonded everyone together in New York City. We all struggled with our emotions, from street sweeper to firefighter, from volunteer to high-ranking official, from office worker to family member, from church secretary to chaplains.
No one escaped the emotional agony accompanying this terrorist attack on this major city and our country. Everyone had a story: where he or she was when the terrorist attack occurred, which family member or friend was killed, who’d miraculously survived. Despite emotional pain almost beyond comfort, we witnessed each other’s inner strength.
In the early days after the attack, we couldn’t say, “Time will heal this sorrow.” The shock and devastation froze all comprehension of how one could ever possibly recover from such a life-shattering event. Even now, years later, we cry at annual memorial ceremonies when speakers stir our memories, reawakening long buried feelings and anxieties about the terror attacks. Each new attack anywhere in the world triggers anxiety. But the comfort we found in each other and in God helped us take each difficult, tiny step to move through the long journey of mourning.
At Ground Zero, people needed to talk about their experiences. Putting their stories into words was the first step to process their grief, even when the storytellers were unaware of this. Those who vented their sorrow experienced a measure of relief, but only for a time.
Haunting memories refused to leave. Flashbacks and nightmares revived fears. Telling and retelling these stories became a necessity. Non-talkers harbored their hurt and suffered silently, often alone, and probably for longer periods of time.
One day on the perimeter of Ground Zero, while talking with another volunteer, a young NYPD officer tugged on my sleeve and interrupted our conversation.
“Fadda, Fadda,” he said in a strong New York accent. “Can we talk, Fadda?”
Clergy denominations like “Father” or “Reverend” or “Rabbi” didn’t matter at Ground Zero. People saw our white clergy collars or CHAPLAIN written on our turnout gear and hard hats, and we became their spiritual fathers.
“Of course we can talk.”
The NYPD officer’s eyes flooded with tears. Trying to maintain his composure, his voice trembled as he spoke. “I’m supposed to be brave, but I’m scared. I saw that second airplane hit Tower 2, and I kept looking and looking. I couldn’t turn away from that sight. I saw people in those windows with no hope . . . with smoke pouring out around them. No one could possibly reach them. And those jumpers . . . took my breath away. I saw ash-covered office workers and executives carrying brief cases running from that boiling, massive smoke-and-ash cloud charging after them down the street. So many people needed help, but I couldn’t help anyone. I needed to run myself, but I froze on the spot.”
He started to cry. “I thought, maybe this was it. Maybe my time had come. What could I do? Maybe there’d be another attack. Maybe I’d die.”
I listened to this police officer ramble on until he talked through his emotional panic and calmed down a bit. I had no direct answers for him; he entertained the same questions we all asked. But one thing calmed my nerves—my faith in God and my hope in eternity.
After we talked for a while, the officer asked, “Can you pray for me?”
Like others and myself during times of deep fear and trembling, he appeared headed for a nervous breakdown. I shared Scripture offering these words of comfort for that dangerous emotional zone: “[God]Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’ so that weconfidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do tome?’” (Hebrews 13:5b-6)
As a man of faith himself, these particular verses comforted him.
The pain, suffering, and tears I saw in this officer and many others brought me to my knees every day. As I talked with each person in distress, I waited through their panic attacks and listened through the rash of jumbled words until they calmed down. In this state of emotion, people just needed to talk. At this stage of the crisis, I was present, offered comfort, and shared a brief prayer, if wanted. I did not offer advice. I was just there to listen.
The physical and emotional obstacles these folks faced while working on the Pile evoked intense frustration and sorrow. God, prayer, and our friendship with each other helped us through. We could not have done it alone. We leaned upon the strength of our faith and verses like Psalm 34:17: “The righteouscry, and the LORD hears anddelivers them out of all theirtroubles.”
Emotional turmoil at Ground Zero was inescapable. We all suffered from anxiety and depression from time to time. When physical and emotional exhaustion controlled my own body and brain, I escaped my darkest moments by picking up my Bible and reading about David’s suffering in the Psalms. His words resonated with my deflated feelings. Psalm after psalm, story after story, verse after verse portrayed David’s agony and sorrowful pleadings to God, giving voice to my misery. I prayed David’s words: “Give ear tomy words, O LORD, Consider my groaning. Heed the sound of my cry for help.” (Psalm 5:1-2)
Throughout the 150 chapters of Psalms, David and other psalmists poured out their hearts to the Lord. Yet their pleadings always began or ended with praise for our all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God, reminding me to praise God regardless of the circumstances. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
“Fadda, Fadda, Can We Talk?” Triumph Over Terror By Chaplain Bob Ossler with Janice Hall Heck
Chaplain Bob Ossler, now Pastor of Visitation at Cumberland County Community Church in Millville, NJ, continues to volunteer as Police Chaplain with the Millville, NJ Police Department.