Hero brings love to victims, families at ground zero

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was a normal one for John and his wife, Sharon.

Sharon was getting ready for a work seminar she had to attend. Though she usually listens to the news while getting ready, she didn’t this particular Tuesday.

8:46 a.m. — The first hijacked plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

8:47 a.m. — John’s pager went off.

As a disaster police chaplain, John knew he had to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

While driving to the seminar, Sharon turned on the radio and heard the devastating news.

Immediately, she felt a deep sickness in her stomach and reached for her cell phone. She had to call John. Realizing her phone was dead, she continued to the seminar and called him as soon as she arrived.

At the same time, John was driving home. He was called upon. He had to get ready to leave.

Sharon finally got a hold of her husband and learned he was to head to New York. Since they were still waiting on specifics, Sharon went back to her seminar.

A while later, Sharon saw John walking into the room and felt that sick feeling again. It was time to go.

By the time the couple reached their house, they learned that all airports were closed. Still, they packed John’s bags and waited to hear how he would get to New York.

“It was very stressful,” Sharon said. “The suitcase was packed and sitting by the door waiting for the call.”

A week later it came, and John headed to Liberty State Park.

“My job was to assist the victims’ families as they took the ferry to ground zero,” he said.

The entire 16-block radius of ground zero was completely gray and gave off the feeling of devastation, John explained. At the edge of ground zero was a dumpster filled with teddy bears.

“After the first day, I walked to the dumpster and took a bear; I just needed something to hold on to,” he said.

That same bear still sits on his desk at the First United Methodist Church of Urbana.

After the families were finished walking through ground zero, John would escort them back to Liberty State Park where food and comfort dogs were waiting for them. John remembers a particular chocolate lab the best.

“That dog, he would just look at you, and you could see he understood everything you were saying,” he said.

Some people ate a lot of food. Others just pushed the food around on their plate, and others just stared at it. John walked around chatting with the other families. The most common question he heard was, ‘Why did this happen?’.

“You can’t make sense of it,” John said. “But my job at ground zero wasn’t to give answers; it was to be there. Eighty percent of what I do is listen.”

One of the most memorable moments for John came from an encounter with a Jewish family from Long Island. They had lost a couple of family members, including the father who was a firefighter and first responder. His 14-year-old daughter, Becky, saw John in his clergy attire of all black with a white collar and came up to him. She sobbed and asked why God took her father like this. Choking up, John explained all he could do was hug her and tell her how brave her father was.

“I always sensed God was with me,” he said. “And I always sensed my job wasn’t to justify him but to show his love.”

Back at home, Sharon tried to provide comfort for the people she came in contact with, all the while thinking of her husband.

“I didn’t sleep well while he was gone,” she said.

After two long and draining weeks, John returned home and dealt with bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He can’t talk about it to this day without getting choked up,” Sharon said.

“You never forget,” John said. “You’ll never get over it. You just try to get on.”

Now, John has been getting a lot of attention for the brave things he did 10 years ago. Although many would consider his actions heroic, Sharon said her husband just considers himself a servant of God.

“I am very proud of him and what he’s done, but I know he’s very uncomfortable talking about it,” she said. “He doesn’t like getting praise for something he thinks anyone with his training would have done.”

It was a hard thing to go through, but John said the experience taught him a lot.

“It’s made me a better pastor, because there’s some mysteries in life I don’t understand and as a person of faith, I have to practice patience,” he said.