The Rev. Stephen Harding, the priest of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven and chaplain for the Tisbury Fire Department and Ambulance Service, served as a chaplain at Ground Zero in 2001 and 2002. Harding, who later became a New York City Fire Department chaplain, one of only six, was a chaplain on call at Beth Israel Medical Center on September 11, 2001. He was walking down a hallway to his office when an office mate told him news had just come over the radio that a plane hit the World Trade Center.
“So he and I went in and listened, and we heard the announcer describe the second plane deliberately flying into the Trade Center,” Harding said. Harding went outside and saw the towers ablaze. Then he went to the emergency room. Like many New York hospitals, Beth Israel halted all nonessential surgeries. The emergency room was cleared out “to receive what we thought were going to be large numbers of survivors who might require urgent medical care,” he said. Those who arrived, “mostly under their own power,” he said, were “people covered in ash and dust.” They suffered from particulate inhalation and from lacerations, he said. Harding went from bed to bed introducing himself, and asking patients if there was anyone he could call and let them know they were safe.
“So I made those phone calls, and at about 12:19, the people stopped coming into the emergency room,” he said. “And it took a while to realize nobody else was coming because they were all dead.”
“I stayed with someone who was really affected,” he said. “She kept saying the lights went out, and then our lights went temporarily out, and she started screaming, and I said, Tell me why you’re screaming, tell me what’s wrong — talk to me … And she said, The lights went out right before the tower collapsed …”
Because he was a board-certified hospital chaplain and hospice chaplain, Harding was later tapped to provide pastoral care at family respite centers run by the American Red Cross.
“For three days after September 11th, everyone was looking out for everybody else,” he said. “It was amazing. The underlying goodness and generosity of New Yorkers — front and center.”
After the services he provided at the respite centers, Harding went on to serve at the temporary morgue at Ground Zero.
“All the news reports at the time talked about debris,” Harding said. “Well, debris is something I think I could pick up and move with my hands. This was wreckage.” Photos shot at the time that captured the workers gave an idea of the “huge” scale of the “beams and walls and blocks,” he said.
Harding described Ground Zero as possessing a hallowedness. “To go from the sidewalk onto the site,” he said, “it felt different as soon as you took that step — it was profoundly sacred.”
The labor at Ground Zero was recovery-focused when Harding began his work there. “When the firefighters, police, ironworkers — whoever were out there on the site looking for remains [and] found someone, they put a GPS marker next to the spot where they found the remains, transported it very respectfully to the temporary morgue, and then the medical examiner, NYPD, sometimes the Port Authority Police Department, EMS, and the chaplain would all gather around,” Harding said. “The medical examiner would open the bag, identify it as human, police would take photos of it because it was a crime scene, and then I would say a prayer, and then the [medical examiner] would zip the bag up.”
Harding described the work as solemn and quiet, “except for the sounds of the grapplers and machinery. You could feel the prayers of the world focused there.”
Any discovery, he said, helped begin the healing process. “If you found anything — that was the whole goal of this — to find something that a family could have and know that their loved one was found and was no longer lost,” he said. “That was the motivating force for the people who were searching, the medical examiners, the chaplains, the ironworkers. It’s like if we can find one piece of somebody, then that family would be able to begin to have closure … The completeness of the body became secondary. You were just so glad to find something and know somewhere, somebody was going to have a little sense of peace. Because for the families, not knowing and not having a body, that’s phenomenally hard, especially over time.”
The September 11 attacks caused the greatest single loss of first responder life in U.S. history. When one of those responders was found, the procedure became more involved. “There would be an honor guard in a procession to the ambulance, and then back at the temporary morgue as well,” he said. “So the way that worked, if they found a fireman or a police officer or an EMT, the chaplain from that department would be notified. If they could not come, then the chaplain from the morgue would fill in. So I was brought from the morgue to the place where the body had been found. The remains would be in a body bag on a Stokes litter underneath an American flag. The chaplain would say a prayer in a circle of first responders right there.”
The procession out to an ambulance would be led by the ranking officer from the deceased responder branch. The procession would move out on a construction ramp, he said, “with whoever was there saluting as the remains were borne past them.”
The chaplain would say another prayer at the ambulance, he said.
“If it was a firefighter,” he said, “and they could identify the company, representatives from that company would be Stokes litter bearers.”
Harding remained at Ground Zero until the site closed in the spring of 2002.
He described his service there as “a profound experience” and also one that was somewhat haunting. “I never stopped thinking about the people who had not yet been found,” he said.
Harding traveled to New York for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and attended a ceremony held by the NYFD 18th Battalion.
“The weekend was really emotional, which wasn’t a surprise,” he said. “What was a surprise was the level of emotional openness.”
Harding recalled a moving story from a retired Orange County, California, fire chief who had come to New York as part of an urban search and rescue team two decades earlier. That chief, Harding said, recalled “finding a body, then he and his firefighters being asked by FDNY if they would please, please go to the funerals because they couldn’t because they were still on the pile trying to find other people. So his first funeral was for the man he recovered. And it turned out they were both in the same fraternity. So he was weeping as he told me this.”
Harding said at the end of the ceremony, which he participated in, he asked God to bless the 343 members of the New York City Fire Department lost on 9/11, along with their families, “and the ones we’ve lost since.” Harding said he told everyone at the ceremony “they were God’s blessing on Earth, and that they are the answer to people’s prayers when they show up.”
While he gave blessings, Harding said the Quantico Marine Corps Band played the hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” He added, “It was just really moving” to be there with them all.