The smell of burning metal and human flesh surrounded the grief and trauma specialists, yet God answered their prayer for direction and provided hope for those feeling hopeless.
by Paul Dordal

Ground Zero: The Aftermath of Sept. 11

  All Photos Courtesy of Northwest Medical Teams
On Wednesday morning, one week after the brutal attack on the World Trade Center, seven members of Northwest Medical Teams, Christian grief and trauma counseling specialists, and I made our way to "Ground Zero." The area was teeming with emergency workers, agents from the FBI, DEA, FEMA, and construction workers. There were also hundreds, perhaps thousands, of uniformed military personnel populating Lower Manhattan. The smell of burning metal, rubber, and, yes, human flesh mixed in the air. For days this smell would permeate our nostrils, and the palpable sense of death continually surrounded us.

But out of the destruction and carnage came hope. On Friday, September 14, Rev. Phil Skellie, Director of CAMA Services, the relief arm of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, had called me to offer Nyack College help. Nyack is a Christian liberal arts college with an extension campus in lower Manhattan, only nine blocks north of the Trade Center and off limits because of the terrorist attacks. The effort was still underway to account for all of our students, many whose whereabouts were unknown to the college. Because there was no power or access to the computer server at our offices in lower Manhattan, we could not get the registration lists until later that day. We had no way to know if any of our students were lost or missing. A couple dozen worked in the World Trade Center. Miraculously, though, not a single one of our nine hundred students, faculty, and staff were lost.

The college decided that the Northwest Medical Teams, from Portland, Oregon, should come to Manhattan to provide trauma and grief counseling to our students, staff, and faculty who all faced the difficulty of returning to classes on Wednesday, September 19. The counseling specialists from Northwest Medical Teams came in and operated out of the offices of the First Alliance Church and Nyack College/ATS in lower Manhattan. The medical team's trip was funded through a generous grant from World Concern, with operational expenses paid by CAMA Services.

After meeting the trauma team at Grand Central Station, we made our way down to our Manhattan campus. We determined at our morning meeting that for the team to get a better understanding of what our community was going through, the team would have to visit Ground Zero. That's when God began to do a marvelous work through the team and its ministry.

It took us an hour and half to find the right person to authorize our entrance into the area called "The Pile"-a thirty-story heap of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center. After several introductions to people who couldn't help us, I spied Mayor Giuliani's large mobile operation center. On the door to the big blue OEM (Office of Emergency Management) vehicle a sign warned, "Don't even think about knocking on this door." Well, we decided it was important enough to do, so I knocked on the door. When the door opened I immediately introduced myself as Pastor Paul Dordal of First Alliance Church. Though the OEM agent who answered the door was angry with me, he did facilitate our request to get credentials to enter Ground Zero.

The scene was horrific; a picture of absolute destruction, and of course there was the smell. Smoke billowed from the center of the pile. Exhausted firemen slept on the sidewalks; search and rescue workers stared with blank, hollow eyes as they walked from the makeshift morgue back to their area of the search. Several of our own students were down there working as part of the "Bucket Brigade"-volunteers who brought rubble out or supplies into the area. After an hour-long tour we made our way back to the Manhattan campus. We would return later to Ground Zero to minister to the emergency workers, many overwhelmed with grief and anxious to talk and pray with us.

When we arrived at Nyack's New York City campus, the team immediately went into action. I saw one of our administrative assistants crying as I greeted her. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that she had that very morning, before coming to work, witnessed a suicide at her apartment building. While preparing breakfast she saw a body falling outside her kitchen window from the high-rise she lives in, just blocks east of Ground Zero. On top of this, this person watched from her office window as both airplane crashes into the World Trade Center. Todd Pynch, a veteran trauma counselor and pastor, took her aside and spent a significant time with her, helping her to cope and understand that her feelings were normal; the events of that morning and the past week were not.

As the team debriefed later on, we took a look at the "I'm Okay" list the college had established on its website after the attacks to assist in the accounting of our Manhattan campus students. There were great testimonies and stories of God's providential care. The list became the electronic community for Nyack College/ATS in New York City while they were kept from the three downtown buildings they called their campus. The messages posted by some of these students are inspiring, but frightening: "I work[ed] in Tower 2. Couldn't believe what was happening but I made it out of the building all right?my knees are kinda messed up from running and falling. Lost all of my books not including my personal information & job. But God is still good!"; "I am okay. God has spared my life one more time. I was supposed to go to work that day, however, the Lord allowed me to be ill?so that I would call in sick."; "Thank God my family and I are safe. I was supposed to be there that day. I cried the whole day in mourning." Story after story came in from students and faculty alike. The trauma team would minister to over two hundred and fifty hurt and grieving students and staff while serving at the college campuses in Manhattan and Rockland.

For Pastor Dean Harry of Jefferson, Oregon, another seasoned veteran of disaster relief, one of the most significant events for him and the team was training local pastors, giving them tools to help their congregations to cope with the tragedy. The team also prepared the pastors for the many funerals that they would, undoubtedly, have to preside over. Dean, Todd, and I had another memorable outreach opportunity as we ministered to rescue workers at Ground Zero. Mayor Giuliani and Governor George Pataki came over to us to shake our hands, and, recognizing that we were pastors, the mayor asked us to pray for him. This was very significant because the three of us were praying as we walked through the Ground Zero area and asking God what He wanted us to pray for. We made a circle and lifted up the mayor to God and asked Him to bless and empower this man who had so much to care for in the wake of this horrible tragedy.

Having the Northwest Medical Teams trauma and grief counselors in New York City was God's care for us as a community. Many who went to the Critical Incident Stress Debriefings were helped, but were also equipped to help others. One student questioned the purpose of staying in school, of really doing anything at all in light of this world-changing event. He felt like giving up on everything. Dr. Pam Edwards was right there to encourage him that his feelings of grief were normal, but she also gave him the help he needed to keep on going to school and to continue with the purpose that God had given him in his life. And that's what that student is doing now-living a life by the grace of God, for the glory of God.

Paul Dordal, a '98 Nyack graduate, currently serves as Assistant Vice President for External Affairs for Nyack College, and served as a pastor of First Alliance Church in Lower Manhattan.

Nyack College is a Christian liberal arts college with campuses in Rockland County and Manhattan, NY, as well as a new extension campus in the heart of Washington D.C., serving nearly 2,000 students total. It is the college's mission to train students to serve as Christians in the field to which God is calling them-whether business, music, education, pastoral ministry, or any of thirty-five other fields of study. Because of locations in NYC and DC, students have many, many unique opportunities, both in ministry, and in practical career experiences.