Today I remember the largest, most profound crime scene I have ever experienced. I was called to New York about a month after the horrors that happened on this day. A whole team of us, trained in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, provided support to New York’s Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA).
The POPPA Organization Office was right near the World Trade Center and 9/11 presented it with an overwhelming demand for response and action. POPPA had to deploy volunteer Critical Incident Stress teams as well as mental health professionals, all within a short period of time and under great strain. Teams of volunteers, of which I was a part, were sent to help people cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including officers who had worked at Ground Zero, the World Trade Center morgues, or in the retrieval operation at the Staten Island landfill. It is incredible to recall the professionalism, compassion and fortitude of those working there.
Studies have shown that when one is debriefed or can talk to a peer about their situation, it improves the chances of them being able to handle the aftermath of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were the first line of this process and we also worked the scene both at Ground Zero and at the landfill where there was an endless search for tissue, ID, and other artifacts. It was the largest crime scene in American history and the longest burning structure fire in America. I have seen humans perish in every possible way, but I never saw a death scene like that one. To this day September 11th brings back so much emotion it is hard to describe.
I will never forget walking up to St. Paul’s Chapel on Wall Street, and passing the old church yard cemetery. The tombstones were almost completely covered to their crescent tops with about two feet of grey, heavy, toxic dust. It looked like the cemetery was captured in a black and white photo of a snowstorm. A cosmopolitan power center had been reduced to dust. There was evidence of great melted and curved steel girders, rebar and some chucks of cement...but mostly there was dust; grey horrific dust... and the thought of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The city changed on September 11 and so did America. There was a clear reminder of that which is temporal and that which is immortal. People for a period of a year or so thought about the lasting values of truth and soul. People in movie theaters and meeting places would say, “God bless America.” Life kind of returned to a more basic premise, as communities helped their neighbors bury the dead. Sadly, in our busy world we have short memories from one week to the next and we forget the lessons learned that day. Life once again becomes about “me.” We now fight and fester over our differences rather than our common bond as human, mortal beings--Americans with a common dedication to freedom.
I remember sitting in St. Paul’s sanctuary. It was quiet even though it was full. Some people just stared and pondered their experience and others slept sitting up, exhausted. I thought about April 6th 1789 when George Washington came to this very church and expressed his thought that “Providence” was the reason American succeeded in conquering the British army. He believed, without defining it, that a great power was involved in this human experiment.
It is important that we learn our lessons from “Providence” both in victory and in distress. May we never forget the brave men and women who served our country, and all those who lost their lives, in the largest crime scene in American history.