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Churches respond to tragedy, terror in lower Manhattan

By Nan Cobbey
[Episcopal News Service]  Episcopal Church people shook off their shock and started throwing open doors the morning of the disaster as refugees from the financial district streamed north out of the smoke and fire.

Churches along the main avenues up the west side of Manhattan responded immediately to the thousands of people, dust covered, some still in shock, who passed their doors. Tables went up on the sidewalks as clergy, vestry members and volunteers offered water and bathrooms, phones and quiet places of peace.

'We've given out 1,000 cups of water and juice,' said the Rev. David Ryder, priest-in-charge at Grace Church on Broadway at 10th Street. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and the steady flow of people with streaked faces and dangling paper breathing masks had not let up. The view down the wide boulevard showed a clear blue sky above and an ominous billowing of thick white smoke obscuring the southern end of the avenue.

Ryder had started offering rooms in the rectory for displaced parishioners.

Martha Martini, a vestrywoman who worked in the financial district and lived on Rector Street across from the World Trade Center, had raced to Grace's elementary school after she was evacuated.

'My first phone call was to the school, to say 'Please get to [my daughter Katherine] ... She won't be able to get home.' '

Neither could get home. At that moment, Martini had no idea if her building was, or would remain, standing. She and Katherine spent the night in the rectory.

A place for the night

At the Church of the Transfiguration off Fifth Avenue at 29th Street, vestrywoman Claudia Dumschat was on her way to give blood after spending the morning at the church. 'We've had lots of people come in. One woman who was in the World Trade Center when it exploded ... especially needed to stop. She was very upset, had seen people dying.'

Clergy at Transfiguration conducted a mass for peace at noon, then kept the church and its gardens open for prayer. The rector, the Rev. Charles Miller, opened his rectory, too. 'We have a family with us now who are trapped on the island. We want to provide them a place for the night,' he said the afternoon of the tragedy. The Rev. Christopher Heying housed in his apartment a family from Austria.

At Calvary Episcopal Church on Park Avenue at 21st Street, church volunteers sat all day on the front steps with bottled water and plastic cups. 'Do you need a bathroom?' they asked openly as passersby reached out for the filled cups.

'A lot of people have come to pray,' said Ann Richards, the Sunday School superintendent, as she poured water. 'There were some people with ... needs that we are seeing to.'

Counsel and comfort

On the west side of Manhattan, Suffragan Bishop for Health Care George Packard and half a dozen clergy from the Episcopal Church Center counseled grieving families and exhausted rescue workers.

'The demographics are grim,' wrote Packard's director for Healthcare Ministries, the Rev. David Henritzy, on the first afternoon. 'Almost all hospital admissions at St. Vincent's, Bellevue and NYU [hospitals] have been dead on arrival. So the obvious need will be for people who are able to help those who are in grief.'

Pier 61 in Chelsea along the Hudson River had been made into a temporary morgue and quickly became the spot people came to scrutinize ambulances and post messages seeking missing family members.

The Rev. Bud Holland of Professional Ministry Development and the Rev. Brian Grieves of Peace and Justice Ministries joined other clergy in speaking to volunteers and families looking for loved ones. Holland said that the sports arenas at the pier had been reshaped into a 'very compassionate environment,' marked by deep appreciation for the volunteers and sensitivity to family members. 'There were counselors all over the place,' he said, as well as abundant offerings of food, clothing and temporary housing. He was moved and encouraged by such signs of life in the midst of death and the 'wonderful expressions of caring.' Grieves expressed deep admiration for the dedication of volunteers, rescue workers and the medical staff, 'especially in such a very difficult situation.'

24-hour shifts for a month

Downtown, sisters of the Society of St. Margaret, who live on Fulton Street just a few blocks east of the World Trade Center, remained where they were as other buildings were evacuated. They helped tend the elderly residents of St. Margaret's House across the street. The 20-story complex had no power and thus no operating elevators. The sisters, none of them under the age of 65, delivered meals to residents who couldn't get down the stairs. 'You start at the top,' said Sister Emily Louise, matter-of-factly.

Not far away, directly across the narrow part of lower Manhattan from the World Trade Center towers, the Seaman's Church Institute (SCI) on Water Street turned itself into a canteen and place of respite, receiving rescue workers all through the night and for meals during the day.

'They are telling the emergency personnel it will be 24-hour shifts for the next month,' said Debra Wagner, communications director at SCI. She is coordinating meals on an hour-by-hour basis. With no electricity in the lower part of Manhattan and thus no refrigeration at the institute, she must find food fresh for each meal.

The dean's office at General Theological Seminary has started coordinating volunteers and transporting the food. Restaurants are donating much of it. The Union Square Café offered both volunteers and food. 'They sent down four-star meals. We had roast potatoes and asparagus with vinaigrette, oo-la-la stuff,' said Wagner. 'Daniel Boulud of Restaurant Daniel called me on my cell phone and he sent down a vanload of food.'

Taking it day by day

The second night of the crisis, between 250 and 350 rescue workers and police came for food, according seminarian volunteer Jennifer Reddall from the Diocese of Los Angeles. 'It felt good to be doing something. Everyone was very thankful. It was good to talk to them. They described that it is 100 times worse than what you see on TV,' said Reddall.

Wagner and her volunteers deliver hot meals to each of the command centers, too--the staging areas for sanitation workers, Con Edison, firefighters, police, National Guard.

'We are totally devoting every one of our resources to this,' says Wagner, who plans to keep the operation going 24 hours a day for the next month at least. She's currently seeking 20 cots for tired workers.

'We have to figure out how to do this. We don't have a lot of staff,' she says. 'We are taking it day by day and, God willing, people will help.'