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The mourning after: Pittsburgh responds to the tragedies of September 11

By Beth Bogard Vander Wel
2001-289
10/9/2001
[Episcopal News Service]  It started out as an ordinary Tuesday. Soon the reports of what seemed to be a fluke, an accident-a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers-escalated into a horror of unthinkable proportions.

Parishes around the Diocese of Pittsburgh immediately planned prayer services. The diocesan office began to collect information about families missing loved ones who worked in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. Early reports on the Internet told of a plane crash outside Pittsburgh. The USX building, the tallest in Pittsburgh's skyline, was evacuated and the City of Pittsburgh went on alert. Diocesan staff were allowed to go home, and slowly the whole downtown area emptied out. By 2 p.m., the Golden Triangle was eerily quiet.

Standing room only

On Friday, September 14-the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance-Trinity Cathedral's Noon Eucharist was held in the nave rather than in St. Mary's Chapel, where typically a handful of people gather daily. On this day some 800 people from the downtown business community attended.

'What an extraordinary moment of ministry,' commented the Rev. Canon James Shoucair, canon pastor of Trinity Cathedral. 'It was a privilege to be able to communicate the grace of God to so many people at a time of great emotional upheaval, when they were looking for something solid to hold on to. And people came to hold on to God.'

The cathedral was standing room only, with people spilling out of each entrance and filling every balcony.

'The outpouring took us by surprise,' Shoucair said. 'When I looked out at the congregation at 11:45 and saw that 250 had already gathered, I had only one thing to say to the altar guild: 'Quick, Betty: more bread, more wine!' By the time we processed in, we could hardly make our way down the crowded aisles.' That Sunday, September 16, Trinity Cathedral held a Requiem Eucharist.

Bishop stranded in Europe

Pittsburgh bishop Robert Duncan was on a bus in France when he heard the news of planes crashing into the World Trade Center.

He and his wife, Nara, were part of a pilgrimage visiting European cathedrals. The group, which had originally planned to fly back to Pittsburgh on September 14, was stranded in Europe until the following Tuesday, September 18.

Duncan's presence in Europe allowed him to participate in the Service of Remembrance held at St. Paul's Cathedral in London on September 14; he was the only American bishop in attendance.

At the beginning of the service and at the Queen's request, 'The Star Spangled Banner' was sung.

'Indeed we must thank all the people of Britain for their outpouring of compassion, solidarity and prayer as they joined with us in spirit across the land. We shall all remember this time of special unity in heart and prayer as we recall those so cruelly taken from us,' Duncan said in a statement after the service.

'A little hole was it'

United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania 80 miles away from Pittsburgh in Somerset County, not far from St. Francis-in-the-Fields in Somerset and St. Michael's in Ligonier.

The Rev. Jim Simons, rector of St. Michael's, and retired priest Bill Haslett went to the crash site on the afternoon of September 11 to represent the diocese and provide whatever pastoral care and service they could. Because the FBI had immediately declared the site a crime scene, it had its own mechanisms in place, including chaplains. There were no volunteers at the site and because the flight had originated in Newark and was to land in San Francisco, no immediate family issues.

As he approached the crash site, Simons recalled bracing himself for a potentially gruesome scene. He was surprised at what he found. 'A little hole was it. The crater was incredibly small.' That and a field of debris was all that remained of Flight 93.

The small town of Shanksville is dotted with buildings-schools, houses, businesses. It is miraculous that Flight 93 crashed into an empty field, just a mile and a half away from an elementary school, the Rev. Mark Zimmerman, priest-in-charge of St. Francis, explained. A county-wide memorial service held on September 14 that included family members of passengers drew some 4,000 people, including Governor Tom Ridge and other dignitaries. The St. Francis choir sang. A candle was lit for every passenger on board Flight 93, and 'because Jesus commands us to love our enemies,' Zimmerman led a prayer for the terrorists.

'What's been hardest on people is that the Armory, which is just outside town, has been serving as a morgue. Every time people drive by, it's a visual reminder of what happened,' Zimmerman remarked.

Season of intercession

'What shall we do with our freedom? Shall we love or hate? Shall we devote ourselves to the one true God, or to something less?' asked Duncan in a pastoral letter read in all congregations of the diocese the weekend of September 22.

'I solemnly call this diocese-all its clergy and people-to a season of intercession for all who have died and for all who mourn for them.'

At the October 2 meeting of Diocesan Council, Duncan invited members to reflect on the tragedies of September 11 and the consequences for our life together.

'Everyone is having a hard time with this. My assignment to you is to be steady and to stand together. We're living after a trauma,' he said.

The diocese is in the process of compiling a booklet of sermons and prayers offered in response to the September 11 attacks.