Love Was Lifting Up the Rubble

The day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Father Gino Sylva was invited to counsel rescue workers at the World Trade Center site in New York.

The parish priest and high school chaplain in Paterson, N.J., eight miles from Manhattan, spoke about his experience with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.

How was it that you were invited to serve at the site?

As chaplain of the high school, I had taken the children outside on Tuesday and spoke about the conversion of Paul. I encouraged the children to vent what they were feeling following the attacks, and we prayed for those whose hearts needed to be changed. After sending the children home for the day, I received a call from Father Mark Giordani, chaplain to the Port Authority, which runs the World Trade Center, and he asked me if I would be willing to come into the city on Wednesday. I was happy to have been asked.

What was the scene like when you arrived there?

The Port Authority police drove us in. We arrived at about 9 a.m. Words cannot describe the sights, the smells, or the tastes in your mouth. I cannot describe the scene as a nightmare. It was beyond a nightmare to look at the rubble and to see the many faces of the men that had lost everyone.

In what ways were you able to be of service?

Once we arrived at the site, we just fanned out and dived into the work. Initially, we were going to be used to counsel family members that had found out that their loved ones had been killed. When we got there, however, the rescue workers weren't finding many whole bodies.

Not long after I arrived, I found myself being drawn to the first body bag that I saw. As the body bag was opened and the remains were placed into a plastic bag, I realized that this piece of a person needed to be blessed — there was no one else doing this.

I ended up standing there with a wonderful Jewish rabbi, and as each bag was opened, we would pray over the parts. I wanted people to know that we loved them, and that they would be blessed in the end. We would bless the parts as they were being gathered for the triage morgue and then being prepared to be taken to the full morgue. We often wondered what part of a person it was.

Were you able to help the rescue workers?

When we got on site, we realized that there were several things that we needed to do: We hugged the firemen and police, we heard their confessions, we stood by them and tried to offer them some hope, and we blessed their helmets. I don't think I've ever blessed so many helmets.

We were able to talk to the rescue workers when they needed it, and stay out of their way when they needed that. We just tried to keep things peaceful.

At one point, we were handing big pieces of metal down the line and we couldn't work fast enough. No one there seemed to care about himself or herself. I also don't think that I've ever experienced the miracle that I saw there as well — the faith, hope and love of these people was unbelievable. I could see that out of the rubble of terrorism, love will lift it up and overwhelm it and win.

You could put your arm around anyone there, and they would put their arm back around you. We stayed down there until about 7:30 p.m.

Do you have any memorable images that you carry with you?

Yes. I remember one fireman saying, “I'm not going to leave until I find my brother Timmy.” Then there was another fireman, all covered with dirt, sitting on top of a pile of rubble. I went over to him and asked him if I could walk him back to the resting spot. He said, “I have none of my friends to go back with. I haven't been without my friends my whole life.” So, he didn't want to move.

The most memorable image, though, didn't happen at the site.

That night, when I returned to the church, I had a ton of messages from a family at my old parish whose father and husband was missing. When I arrived at their home, all covered in dirt, their 7-year-old daughter, Taylor, whom I had given first Communion, asked, “Father Gino, did you dig out my daddy?”

It was something to see that little girl's hope that I had brought her daddy home. All I could do was just keep hugging her.

I understand that you also had the opportunity to meet Mayor Giuliani at the site?

While we were at the site, someone pointed me and another priest out to Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He ran over to us and hugged us. He said, “Please keep praying. All we can do is keep praying,” and his eyes looked so red. All I could say was, “I love you, mayor. You're the best.” He's a true hero.

How are you dealing with your experience?

I've just been trying to take care of the kids in school and the emotions of other people. If I sit too long, I get overwhelmed by it. I get upset just thinking about it. I cannot believe that people would do this to other people. One kid said to me, “Father, nothing is different from the time before Jesus. Why do we even bother?” It's so sad to hear kids say that.

You've been busy taking care of so many others. Do you have anyone that's taking care of you?

As the police were taking us out on Wednesday night, I called my brother who lives about half an hour away. I told him, “I haven't eaten all day, can you make me a sandwich?”

He left his wife and family to bring me some food. He gave me a hug, and I felt some strength from that.

When things settle down I'll be in touch with some good friends that are priests.

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