*Editor Note: Due to some graphic details this article may not be appropriate for some sensitive people. The account is from a first responder who worked at the scene in New York City.
Over 100 people joined local first responders at the Windham Assembly of God on Sunday night for a memorial service in honor of those who lost their lives 15 years ago on 9/11.
Almost 3,000 innocent victims lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but to this day many who came in after the towers had fallen to clean up the wreckage are still suffering today and looking for answers.
“We wanted to honor first responders in our community and acknowledge them. The occasion was fitting,” said pastor Tony Searles of the Windham Assembly of God. “It’s still very real in people’s hearts and lives.”
Special speaker Raymond Gough, a now retired paramedic for MONOC in New Jersey was a first responder at Ground Zero on that day and he recounted many of the horrifying stories of the workers who toiled over the debris at a place called Fresh Kills landfill. Gough worked for one month at the site and even 15 years later, when he thinks about what he saw, it brings tears to his eyes.
“And we uncovered personal remains, police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, badges, pistols, name plates all in this pile. All sights no one should have to see in their lifetime,” Gough said. He and his coworkers found human remains no bigger than a baseball that were used to identify victims through DNA. His goal was to help bring closure to families by finding the DNA. He worked alongside counselors who could debrief the workers, chaplains who worked side by side praying prayers of encouragement and Red Cross workers who stood by to give hugs as they came off the pile.
Letters arrived from school children. One was from a kindergartener who had painted her hands on a paper and drew a heart around them. Written on the paper was “Let our tiny hands hold up your heavy hearts.”
On his way home each night the road would be lined with people holding signs thanking the volunteers for their service. “You’re heroes,” they said.
“I tell you, I didn’t feel like a hero that day,” Gough said.
At one point they found a complete left arm with a gold wedding band. “My heart sank. This was someone’s husband, son, father. He wasn’t at war with anyone. His choices were jump, burn or be crushed to death – that was his choice.”
By December of 2001, nine victims had been identified by DNA remains that they had found.
9/11 proved to Gough that there was no God. Gough was angry and filled with anguish, he said. After his services were no longer needed at Fresh Kills, things went downhill for Gough and his wife, Dawn. “We went bankrupt. I was a broken man.” He retired after 22 years in Emergency Medical Services. Therapy taught him how to cope. “I never felt the healing. There was always a deep emptiness in me,” he said.
His wife asked him to go to church with her, but he refused. “I wasn’t a believer.” When he did finally agree to go, “it was the first time I was ever able to be around people for any length of time in four years. God always knows who need to hear the message,” he said.
The sermon was about walking in the light. “I was hiding in the dark for comfort. Living in the light of God was the only thing that would help me,” Gough said.
In the case of any first responders, stressful events over a long period of time can add up and at some point the post-traumatic stress will hit them like a rock. Sometimes it only takes one event like 9/11 to cause PTSD. “The first responders see people at their worst. People expect first responders to be miracle workers, but we’re not God,” Gough said.
Gough’s advice to the audience was “drop the pride. If you need help, get it. There’s no shame in asking for help.”
On 9/11 everybody was the same color – gray. “It was humanity, helping humanity. It’s amazing what 15 years has done. Victims helped each other escape and others led others to Jesus,” Gough said. “While they were running out, we were running in. All gave some of their lives, and some gave all of their lives.” Like Jesus, the first responders laid down their lives for the life of the sheep. (John 10:11) he said.
First responders and volunteers from Ground Zero and Fresh Kills landfill are still suffering. As many as 1,600 people have died since 9/11 from respiratory issues, cancer and more all from Ground Zero. Sixty thousand men and women are sick, with 4,000 having cancer related to their work, Gough said.
“Never forget to place our trust in God and our faith in Jesus Christ. With God there is hope for a better tomorrow,” Gough concluded. Gough is now a pastor at New Limerick Baptist Church having fully accepted that God has a purpose for him.
The service concluded with a bag piper playing Amazing Grace.
Boy Scout Troop 51 provided the flag ceremony, Angela Searles was the pianist who leads the audience in patriotic songs and three pastors prayed individual prayers for police officers, firefighters, EMS and the military.
The event was organized by Searles and children’s pastor Jimmy Lewis from Windham Assembly of God, pastor Peter Lagasse from Cornerstone Assembly of God and Anthony McKeown from Hope Fellowship. The three churches created Windham Matters, a program that expresses their appreciation to stakeholders in the community. “Many have jobs that are thankless, teachers, firefighters, police.”
They try to do special things for them at least once a month in hopes of building relationships with the community.
Each first responder who attended was given a book titled, “Hope For My World…the Book of Hope,” which is a paraphrasing of The Bible for them to use in times of strife. Everyone in attendance was encouraged to give the men in uniform hugs on their way out.