Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Part of Something Special

Frank Silecchia wasn’t about to go back to New Jersey. Not this time.

The day before, stuck in traffic on the Passaic River Bridge, he had watched the towers fall. He had begged the toll booth operator to let him over the Bayonne Bridge. He had fought his way into the city, down to the smoldering rubble - only to be told there was nothing he could do to help. Deferring to the confusion dominating the day, the union worker from Brooklyn, now living across the Hudson River, slowly turned around and began to make his way home.

The next morning Frank heard the television newscaster call for volunteers – union members with construction experience were being given priority. Thirty minutes later Frank was at the Lincoln Tunnel, his helmet and vest by his side.

All day he waited among the dust and destruction, aching to do something, anything that might matter. He offered his truck to go pick up food, clothes and supplies. He watched firemen and rescue workers crawl all over the rubble like ants on an anthill. He called his boss to tell him he might not be back in Jersey for a few days.

Night had fallen when he grabbed a pair of gloves and a bottle of water and jumped in line with a sort of bucket brigade. The air was thick with smoke and dust; Frank had only a wet bandana for a respirator. He had no idea how long he’d be. He didn’t really care.

Late that night Frank joined a crew of fire fighters on a search for survivors among the wreckage of Building Six. Seven floors plus two sub-levels had been flattened by falling debris; only portions of the exterior walls remained standing. All night they searched, yelling out in hope, banging on girders and punching holes in the darkness with their searchlights. Frank stumbled through the rubble, not even a flashlight to aid him. He kept at it, right through until dawn, no idea what was standing up above, looking down on all of them.

Frank Silecchia was the first to see the I-beam cross standing in the rubble. Exhausted from an all-night search that gave them nothing but three dead bodies, he fell to his knees and cried up at the first light of dawn.

That I-beam cross served as a symbol of hope for thousands in the weeks and months to come. Firemen and rescuers scratched names of their fallen brothers in the metal. People came to pray. Mass was offered on the spot. With the tireless efforts of Father Brian Jordan of St. Francis of Assisi Church and the assistance of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the cross was salvaged and placed on one corner of ground zero, to stand over the ongoing recovery operations.

In October 2006 the cross was moved to St. Peter’s, New York’s oldest Catholic Church, just a block from ground zero. There it has stood, as a symbol of hope and an icon of a nation of people willing to stand up to the face of evil – until this past Saturday.
By 5am a crew of ironworkers had already assembled, preparing for the honor and task of moving the cross first down Church Street to Zucatti Park, then to the former World Trade Center site where it would be lowered in the September 11th Memorial & Museum, scheduled to open on the tenth anniversary of the worst single violent act ever committed on American soil.

We met with Frank Silecchia, who now lives in South Carolina but wasn’t going to miss this day for anything. We listened to the words of Father Jordan and Mr. Giuliani as they praised and honored the men and women who gave everything they had that day. We watched the ironworkers, pride in their faces and respect in their efforts as they moved this bittersweet piece of history into its final resting place.

And then we went home, proud to be a part of the country we had just witnessed.