National Catholic Register

Inperson

Ground Zero Became His Parish

BY Father Chris Hynes

October 21-27, 2001 Issue | Posted 10/21/01 at 2:00 AM

 

On Sept. 11, he was in New York, on his way to a meeting with the Port Authority police department where he is a chaplain.

Father Hynes is also chaplain to more than 4,000 men and women in the U.S. Secret Service, the New Jersey State Police and the Essex County Sheriff's Department as well as a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake about the day's events and the aftermath.

I understand that you are a former New Jersey police officer. What led you to your vocation?

I graduated from Seton Hall University and attended the seminary for a year. I was 21 years old and thought I was young, so I left to go out and work for a while. I served as a police officer for six years and then returned to the seminary. I was ordained in the Archdiocese of Newark three years later, in 1992.

Where were you when the attacks occurred?

I was actually three blocks away, on Vesey Street in New York City, on the way to a Port Authority meeting. When the first plane hit, I didn't know what had happened. When I got out of my car I could see that about eight to 10 floors were on fire and I just assumed that it was a structural fire.

I ran back to my car to put on my Port Authority jacket and there was an enormous response put out to go to the World Trade Center. When I got there men were getting oxygen equipment and going in. One of the lieutenants asked me to stay there with the cars because they had left many of their doors and hoods open.

When the second plane hit Tower Two, there was an extremely loud explosion. That is a noise I won't forget. There was fire and smoke shooting off the building in an eastern direction and debris was falling everywhere. I knew that something was wrong and ran about three blocks north.

Shortly thereafter, I went back to the building, helped the police and other civilians evacuating the building, and directed dazed and injured people to walk north away from the buildings. I wasn't thinking of myself — only that we need to get these people away from this building right now. In the time before the buildings came down, we had moved about three blocks away, over to West Street. During that time I found myself carrying a lot of stuff — gas masks, oxygen tanks.

It was while we were there that we heard a crack and we knew that the building was coming down. Everyone on West Street ran about eight blocks north.

In what way were you able to help after the attacks?

Many of us headed back toward the building after the dust cloud had passed. I then went to a staging area in a gymnasium where there were about 200 police officers. Many of them had been in the buildings and wanted to go back to get their colleagues, but there was no way we could go back to the building. I worked for a couple of hours trying to calm them.

During that time I was able to get a phone call out to Msgr. Robert Sheeran, president of Seton Hall, to let him know that I was okay. Msgr. Sheeran had cancelled classes. We had discovered that there were a lot of children in local South Orange schools that had parents working in the building, and so the university sent students to the schools to stay with the kids.

At about 10 p.m. that night, I went back to the Jersey City headquarters and worked with one of the captains. We knew the names of all those officers that had not been accounted for, and we realized that we needed to notify the families that their officer was missing. We realized that what we needed were some clergy. So, I called St. Benedict's monastery in Newark and in a matter of about 15 minutes a group of monks were picked up by van. The monks spent the next two-and-a-half hours making the initial notifications.

We then set up a counseling center at the Newark Airport. A group of between 15-18 priests from Seton Hall, including the president, covered the counseling center as the families came down.

Do you have a lasting image from that day?

When we went back on West Street after the buildings came down, I saw an officer running out of the debris cloud covered with dust. I ran into a nearby deli and grabbed 8-9 waters to pour on his head. I saw that officer at a memorial service recently. He told me that his eyes were starting to burn and he thanked me for pouring water over his head. He joked that he thought I was one of the first New York looters.

The New York City Police department lost 23, the Port Authority Police lost 37, and the New York City firefighters lost 343. It seems that a large number of the rescue workers and victims were Catholic. Can you comment on this?

Of the 21 memorial services I have attended or concelebrated, all but one have been Catholic.

I've been attending and concelebrating at one or two memorial Masses per day. I was the main celebrant at one and the homilist at another. I've also been guiding these families along, helping them to choose readings and giving them everything that they want. These Masses are their closure, and yet it's often limited, because in most cases there is no body. We've only had one Mass where the person's remains had been found.

I've visited Ground Zero almost every day from the beginning, and even went down there with our new Archbishop John Myers to pray. Through it all my priority has been the Port Authority police and helping them through this.

This was an evil attack on our nation. It was a violation of our way of life. Yet, in all of that, there is goodness coming out of it that has been remarkable. There were the men and women who ran into those buildings to get others out. People are attending memorial services for people they do not know. There has been an outpouring of support and the country is pulling together.

Yesterday [Oct. 11], as I was on my way to attend Cardinal Egan's one-month memorial service, I saw a blind man in the middle of 23rd Street. At least 10 people ran off of the sidewalk to help him get to the sidewalk. The others in the car with me wondered if that many people would have done that prior to Sept. 11.