Story of the cross at Ground Zero

9/11 memorials: By Sally Jenkins, Published: September 8
NewYork — The shape was oddly identifiable in the blasted wreckage of the World Trade Center, standing upright amid beams bent like fork tines and jagged, pagan-seeming tridents. A grief-exhausted excavator named Frank Silecchia found it on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the terrorist attacks. A few days later, he spoke to a Franciscan priest named Father Brian Jordan, who was blessing remains at Ground Zero.

“Father, you want to see God’s House?” he asked. “Look over there.”

Father Brian peered through the fields of shredded metal. “What am I looking for?” he asked. Silecchia replied, “Just keep looking, Father, and see what you see.”

“Oh my God,” Father Brian said. “I see it.”

As Father Brian stared, other rescue workers gathered around him. There was a long moment of silence as he beheld what he considered to be a sign. Against seeming insuperable odds, a 17-foot-long crossbeam, weighing at least two tons, was thrust at a vertical angle in the hellish wasteland. Like a cross.

Ever since the two jets had slammed into the twin towers on Sept. 11, leaving 2,753 dead, Father Brian had been asked by countless New Yorkers, “Why did God do this?” He would reply tartly, in his Brooklyn-born accent: “It had nuttin’ to do with God. This was the actions of men who abused their free will.” Now here was God explaining Himself. It was a revelation, proof that “God had not abandoned Ground Zero,” even as the awful excavations continued.

Silecchia said worriedly, “Father, they might put this in some dump heap.”

“Frankie, no,” Father Brian said. “No, they will not.”

Instead, as the 10th anniversary of the attacks nears, the “World Trade Cross” continues to occupy a central if controversial place at Ground Zero. Shortly after its discovery, Father Brian persuaded city officials to allow a crew of volunteer union laborers to lift it out of the wreckage by crane and mount it on a concrete pedestal. They placed it in a quiet part of the site, on Church Street, where on Oct. 3, 2001, Father Brian blessed it with the prayer of St. Bonaventure. “May it ever compass Thee, seek Thee, find Thee, run to Thee . . . ” When he finished, the crane operators sounded their horns, a choral blast.

Each week, Father Brian held services there. He became the chaplain of the hard hats. Whenever crews working to find the dead needed a blessing or a prayer or absolution, Father Brian would offer it. Sometimes victims’ families came to pray. The congregations grew from 25 or 35 to 200 and 300.

Men cut replicas of the cross out of ruined steel and carried them in their pockets. Even Rich Sheirer, then New York’s director of the Office of Emergency Management and a self-described “short, round Jewish guy,” appreciated the cross. “Intellectually, you knew it’s just two pieces of steel, but you saw the impact it had on so many people, and you also knew it was more than steel,” he says. Sheirer has a picture of it standing in the wreckage, as well as a small steel cutout given to him for a keepsake by the September 11th Families’ Association.

Father Brian says: “We had Jews, Muslims, Buddhists. People who believed or didn’t believe. It was a matter of human solidarity. Whether you believed was irrelevant. We needed some type of fellowship down there, other than working.”

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