The Cross at Ground Zero
by Frank Silecchia Little Ferry, New Jersey
I’m an excavation laborer, and a member of union local 731. Pick-and-shovel work is my trade. I live in New Jersey, but I’m a New York City native, Brooklyn born and bred. After the Towers collapsed, my city was hurting. When I heard they needed guys like me for search-and-rescue work at Ground Zero, I couldn’t get there fast enough.
I’d seen the news coverage, but that didn’t prepare me for the reality. Down there it was like hell on earth. Fires burned out of control. Destroyed vehicles littered the streets. Everything was blanketed with dust; the air was filled with a choking stench. I soaked a bandanna with water before wrapping it around my head to cover my nose and mouth. I went to work wondering if I’d be able to get through this.
Six firefighters and I entered World Trade Center building six, which had been flattened by Tower One. We took a smoke-filled stairway down into the garage levels, searching for survivors. There were no cries for help, no signs of life. We spray-painted orange Xs to indicate where we’d searched and to help us find our way back.
After 12 hours of searching, we’d recovered three bodies. By then I was exhausted, but I couldn’t quit. “Think I’ll take a look over there,” I told the firemen, motioning toward the remains of the lobby atrium.
Picking my way through the massive piles of debris, I peered into what had become a sort of grotto. Illuminated by the pale light of dawn were shapes . . . crosses. What? How did these get here? The largest was about 20 feet high. It must have weighed a couple of tons.
In that little grotto I felt a strange sense of peace and stillness. I could almost hear God saying, "The terrible thing done at this site was meant for evil. But I will turn it to good. Have faith. I am here." I fell to my knees in front of the largest cross. Tears came, and I couldn’t stop them. I cried like a baby.
Finally I was able to pull myself together. I grabbed my gear and left the strange grotto to go back to search-and-rescue work. But first I spray-painted “God’s House” on the atrium ruins.
Digging day after day at Ground Zero was the hardest work I’d ever done. Often I was so drained I felt I couldn’t go on. That’s when I’d go to God’s House. Standing there in front of that 20-foot-high steel-beam cross, I always felt my strength and spirit renewed.
Word spread. The cross had the same healing effect on others too. Firemen, police, volunteers, grieving survivors, visiting dignitaries and clergy. They would walk into God’s House, see the cross and fall to their knees crying, like I had. Some people sang, some prayed. Everyone left changed.
There are some who say that the cross I found is nothing more than steel. That it was just plain physics that broke the steel beam into the shape of a cross when it plunged through the roof of building six. But I believe differently.
So does my friend Father Brian Jordan. He was a chaplain at Ground Zero, and is a priest at St. Francis of Assisi in midtown. When the time came for what was left of building six to be removed, God’s House faced demolition. Father Jordan talked to officials and persuaded them to save the cross. After it was removed from the site, iron workers fixed the cross to a concrete base, then hoisted it up and mounted it atop a 40-foot foundation that had been a pedestrian walkway outside the World Trade Center. It stood high enough that the rescue workers who were down in the pit could see it whenever they lifted their heads.
Ground Zero was not obviously a place of hope. But it was there that I learned we can always have faith. In fact, we must have faith if we are to go on. New life will rise from the ashes. I know that because the cross was a sign, a promise from God that he is with us even in the face of terrible evil and untold suffering. Especially then.
The above article originally appeared in Guideposts magazine. Visit the recently updated guideposts.com today.