A Little Girl's Gift to Dad and the Dead

August 4, 2002

In the weeks and months following the trade center attacks, deputy chiefs of the New York City Fire Department did their regular tours of duty at their respective commands and then every few days worked a 12-hour tour at Ground Zero.

Deputy Chief Phil Burns, of Southold, commander of the 11th division in Brooklyn, worked his 12-hour tours at the West Street Command. He presided over anywhere from four to six teams of searchers, each including construction workers, five firefighters and a fire department officer, with a battalion chief in charge of each team. When one of the teams found a victim, Burns would coordinate the identification, if possible, and an appropriately respectful removal. He first called for a chaplain and an emergency services vehicle. Using the satellite Global Positioning System, he or someone under his direction pinpointed exactly where workers had found the remains. Searchers then would examine the victim for any items of personal identification.

"Then," said Burns, soon to retire after 39 years with the department, "we would get a 'Stokes basket,' which is a wire mesh stretcher, and a body bag and an American flag. I made sure the victim was not moved until the chaplain said some words over him. If no chaplain was available, I would say something, whether the victim was a firefighter or not. Then, we put the victim in the body bag, covered him with an American flag and carried him out. If the victim was a firefighter, four firefighters with their helmets on carried him. Workers would line up on either side leading to the EMS we had called, and they would salute as the remains went by.

"Those were the dark days," Burns said. "A couple of times, I would drive home and get as far as Riverhead, and then have to stop and call my wife to come in from Southold and take me home. I was falling asleep at the wheel.

"One day at the site," Burns said, "out of the corner of my eye, I see somebody going across the rubble in front of what used to be Tower Two, the south tower. It's a little girl, 9 or 10, and she's carrying something that looks like a table or a desk. I was about to tell somebody to get her out of there, when I got called away. Somebody had found another victim. The girl went out of my mind for a minute or two, and then I heard myself saying, 'Hey, we've got to get that girl out of here!' By that time, I could see that she was walking out, herself, but she was not carrying whatever she had been carrying."

Hours later, Burns decided to see if he could find whatever the girl had left behind in the rubble. John Misha, of Westwood, N.J., tagged along. He had seen the girl, too. A 1985 retiree from the FDNY who spent the first four of his 20 years of service as a New York City police officer, Misha owns a landscaping business in Westwood. He had vowed to volunteer at the site until the work was over.

In the rubble, already half obscured by discarded soda cans, water bottles and flashlights, Burns and Misha found a crudely assembled structure consisting of a section of board with a smaller piece of wood mounted on top of it, that piece covered by a bouquet of flowers. Next to the bouquet of flowers, Burns found a leaf of paper on which a child evidently had printed in crayon, "Daddy, please come home."

"Oh, my God," Burns said to Misha. "It's an altar."

"He was really upset," Misha recalled recently. He started picking up the bottles and cans and putting all the stuff in a trash barrel. He said, 'This is an altar. That's what it is.' I said, 'Chief, it's kind of hard to distinguish it as an altar. I could bring in a statue. We could put it here, and it'll look more like an altar.' He said, 'Would you?' And that was it. He brought it back to the West Street command. He wrote a note that said what it was, and he put 'Property of Deputy Chief Phil Burns, 11th division,' on it, so nobody would remove it."

"It did what it was supposed to do," Burns said later. "It reminded everybody of why they were there. It touched a lot of people. It touched my heart and my soul."

"I had found a piece of chain," Misha said. "I was digging for bodies and came across this six-foot length of heavy chain. I welded it all together and made a cross out of it. I covered it with a sheet, and I brought it in. Nobody questioned me. I placed it on the altar, and it looked like it belonged there. From that point on, the altar was moved four times: from there to a site along the makeshift road to our fire department tent; then into an enclosed tent; then across the street directly next to the pit, itself. Guys would come in and put flowers by it. I put artificial flowers by it. When it was along the road, fully exposed, different religious people would come by and bless it, or kneel down in front of it.

The public didn't see it for months, because no civilians were allowed in, but people who worked the site left crosses by it, about 12 or 13 crosses, and many sets of rosary beads. I felt bad that there was no Star of David there. I never felt that it was complete. So, after about five months, I went to a temple and I bought a Star of David. I put that down by the cross.

"I was fortunate enough to be able to stay until it was over," Misha said. "And all of a sudden, it was over. A guy says to me, 'John what are your gonna do about the shrine? It's over.' There was a viewing platform in front of St. Paul's, and for a time, I had it there. Then they closed the viewing platform, and I put it in front of the 10-10 firehouse [Ladder 10; Engine 10, at 124 Liberty Street, currently closed]. The cops moved it under a canopy, because it was creating traffic problems. But it's there. It's the only thing left. You can reach out and touch it. It's shiny where people have touched it. That little girl should only know how many lives she touched."

Illustration by Janet Hamlin