As Lt. Cmdr. Jim Jenkins glanced around the nearly-empty United Airlines flight, he had one thought: don’t try to answer questions people may not be ready to ask yet.
Twelve days earlier, terrorists had split American history into a before and after, when they murdered nearly three thousand souls on Sept. 11, 2001. As a Navy chaplain serving with the Coast Guard and as part of the Chaplains’ Emergency Response Team, Jenkins’ people skills were needed at ground zero.
Those skills were put to use as soon as the flight from Oregon to New York City climbed into the sky, however.
“There was a lot of time to talk to the flight attendants, and I told them where I was going and why,” Jenkins, an Ohio native, said. “They really wanted to talk, as many of them knew the crew of the United plane that went down [Flight 93].”
Despite being in the military since 1988, Jenkins had nothing to prepare him for what he saw upon his arrival at ground zero.
“When I first saw the pile, I went weak in my knees; there was destruction as far as the eye could see,” Jenkins said. “There was a spongy feel to the ground. The acrid smell of chemicals — jet fuel and burnt building materials dampened by fire suppression — made for a nauseating cocktail. It was not lost on me that there was some measure of the probability that we were walking on pulverized human remains.”
For two weeks, the chaplain’s days were divided into thirds: ministering first to the rescue and recovery workers at the still-burning ground zero, then at a hastily-constructed morgue and finally at a command post to assist families of the fallen. A giant curtained-off area served as a makeshift nursery and childcare center.
“So many little children whose mommy or daddy was gone,” Jenkins muses quietly.
Other small details imprinted on his brain: the rescue dogs that grew depressed at never finding survivors in the rubble. The bomb threats that stopped him on the Verrazzano Bridge. A tall man named Cleveland who knelt on the Staten Island Ferry and asked Jenkins to pray. The series of blasts that let the chaplain know that either a body had been located or that he needed to run to save his life.
The taste of death on his mustache.
Jenkins personally accompanied more than 250 family members to ground zero, somberly observing the ritual of countless body parts moving from rubble to stretcher. He also attended a memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the lost trade unionists — the wail of bagpipes and drums a soundtrack that still haunts.
When Jenkins returned home, he began avoiding officiating funerals. His sleep patterns tanked and he developed a precancerous condition of his sinuses and esophagus, a result of breathing in toxic chemicals. His voice became raspy and his endurance plummeted. He was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and still struggles with the urge to run from 9/11-related memories and situations.
“Something the director of the Navy Chaplain School told us at graduation has stuck with me,” Jenkins said. “‘You have no idea where this ministry will take you, but there is no place God will send you where He is not.’”
Near the end of his time in NYC, Jenkins accompanied United Airlines crew members to the flaming crater in Manhattan. Backhoes groaned, cranes whirred, beepers chirped.
But then it all grew quiet when the grieving aircrew unfurled a banner thanking the workers for finding their friends. The machines shut off, people removed their hard hats and tears flowed.
“The presence of mind to do something like that in their own grief was amazing,” Jenkins said.
And therein lies the value of the questions Jenkins knew he could never answer back in 2001: not that we know the why or the how of our nation’s deepest tragedies, but in the process of asking, we remember and rise.Read comments