Looking into The Pit - finding no greater love

By Michael Daly

One cross able to stir those of all faiths this Easter weekend is the one of rusted steel that stands at the edge of the vast emptiness that was once the World Trade Center.

The sight of any cross serves to remind Christians of words Jesus is supposed to have spoken in the hours before his arrest:

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

The particular cross at Ground Zero is the joining of a column and crossbeams pulled from the wreckage. It stands just beyond a sign affixed to the steel fence that now rings the 16-acre Pit.

"The people killed here were not soldiers at war," the sign reads. "They were innocent civilians who went to work and never returned. They were hundreds of rescuers who died so thousands might live."

Many of those rescuers were Christians, but some were as Jewish as Jesus, others were agnostics, a few were avowed atheists and at least one was a Buddhist. Their common faith was in that greater love, in their willingness to lay down their lives for others.

So if the rusted steel cross standing over the Pit did not fill an Eastertime visitor's heart with Jesus, there was also Moira and Kathy and Orio and John.

This was not the John whose biblical book reported in 15:13 Jesus' words of greater love. This was Firefighter John Tipping, whose remains were difficult to identify because his turnout coat also held the remains of a civilian he had covered with his own body as the south tower came down.

Moira was was Police Officer Moira Smith, who had been photographed leading an executive from danger. She then returned to the south tower to help others.

Ultimate sacrifice

Kathy was Port Authority Police Capt. Kathy Mazza. Her body was found along with those of five fellow Port Authority cops clustered around the remains of a woman they had been trying to rescue.

Orio was Chief Orio Palmer, who reached the 78th floor of the south tower along with Fire Marshal Ronnie Bucca and Lt. Joseph Leavey and members of Ladder 15. Palmer's voice on the radio had been as calm as if he were fighting a kitchen fire.

Yesterday morning, there was only empty blue sky where Palmer and his comrades had climbed. Your gaze went back to the cross, and what caught your attention was the flange of steel at the top twisted by the force of the collapse that had come despite all the prayers for those still inside. You then looked to the right along the fence, to six adjoining panels.

"The Heroes of September 11, 2001," read the words across the top.

You looked for Moira Smith and saw she was one of 13 Smiths listed. You saw that two, Kevin Smith and Leon Smith, were firefighters. The 10 others were apparently civilians and you realized that the Port Authority had decided to list alphabetically as heroes everyone who died that day.

You remembered that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. had voted by unanimous "ayes" on April 9 that the permanent memorial would also accord no special recognition to rescue workers. The corporation's stated intent was to "honor loss of life equally without establishing any hierarchy."

Heroic works

"Hearing none opposed, the resolution is passed," Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Chairman John Whitehead said.

Those whose passionate opposition was not heard included the families of numerous rescue workers. These families do not suggest that their loved ones were more precious or that the families of the civilian victims feel the loss any less keenly.

And nobody doubts that many civilians were uncommonly brave that day in ways that will never be known. These courageous souls would rightly be honored in a memorial to the unknown heroes.

But no civilian victim rushed from perfect safety into the most mortal danger as hundreds of rescue workers did. No civilian raced on foot through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel or dashed from the Medical Division already injured from an earlier blaze, or hopped a fire rig when he was due to go off duty and meet his wife four blocks away for their anniversary.

To list all the names together as they are on the six panels now affixed to the fence is to overwhelm the beholder with the sheer number of lives lost that September morning. The Pit becomes a huge crime scene and the rusted steel cross just evidence from a mass murder.

Only if you already know the names to look for do you begin to appreciate just how many rescuers did indeed die "so thousands might live." Name by name, the Pit becomes a place of what those of all faiths know to be the greater love. The cross there becomes something to stir everyone, if for no other reason than it is comprised of steel made sacred by sacrifice.

You see the name Michael F. Lynch and you are reminded that he perished in the south tower carrying Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of success in his wallet. This is Scripture even for atheists, just the words to go on a memorial for the rescuers that would teach everyone those names.

"To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. ..."

Originally published on April 20, 2003