On 10-year anniversary of 9/11, a first responder looks back

Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001? It’s a question almost everyone in the United States, if not the world, can answer, because on some level we all knew when we saw the photos and video footage of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks that the world would never be the same. For Father Stephan Petrovich, an archbishop in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 9/11 would turn his entire life upside down, though he didn’t know it when he first saw the images on TV. Father Petrovich was a healthy 48-year-old living in Ohio, and had been elected archbishop the year before. Now, 10 years later, he’s in hospice care and on oxygen 24 hours a day as a direct result of spending 19 days helping out at Ground Zero.

Archbishop Stephan Petrovich of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church spent 19 days at Ground Zero as a 9/11 first responder. Photo courtesy of Stephan Petrovich.

As told to Leila Kalmbach

At 8 a.m. on the morning of 9/11, I received a phone call from the priest in my New York parish, asking if I’d seen the TV news. I hadn’t, so he asked me to turn it on. For 15 minutes while the priest was there on speaker phone, I stared at the TV screen, trying to figure out what was going on. I didn’t know if this was a joke or a movie or if it was real, because this was an event that you never dream of, that caught everyone by surprise.

Then he asked whether I had any clergy who could come to the city. They were going to need a lot of help working with families and first responders, he said, and it was clear from the devastation on TV that this was true. I decided I would go myself, and made a few phone calls and found four other clergy who were available as well.

We gathered up the necessities — changes of clothes, prayer books, and our stole that we use when we pray. I picked up one of the other priests, and we left Ohio at 11 a.m. and drove nonstop to New York City. We arrived early in the evening. All of Manhattan was blocked off, and no cars were allowed in. Father Michael, the priest I took with me, is from New York, so we drove to his father’s house, and the next morning we got on the train and went into the city.

Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of what I saw when we arrived at Ground Zero. My first thought, honestly, was holy shit. I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was nothing like what I’d seen on TV; it was 10 times worse. The devastation was so spread out, not just the towers but the whole area around them was in ruins, nothing but rubble and dust.

We got our credentials and were asked to go to the temporary morgue that had been set up 250 feet away in the American Express building to perform last rites on the bodies. It was kind of a shock to get this assignment, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of going to the morgue to work, but that’s where we went.

During the days I was there, we worked in the morgue performing last rites and searching bodies for ID, and looking through the rubble for bodies. I speak five languages, so the police often called me in to translate for victims’ families; the people in the World Trade Center were from all over. When we found a body, the policemen or firemen would bring it up on a gurney with an American flag, and then we would take the body to the temporary morgue.

We were among the first clergy on the site, and I thought we should organize a group of clergy from every denomination known to us. We didn’t know what religion anyone was when they were brought in, and we decided that this way, when a body was brought in, each one of the clergy could say their own prayer over the body to make sure we covered all the bases. We hoped that the families would learn of this and get some solace from the fact that at least their loved one received last rites in their religion.

The work was very traumatic for me and for all of us. If it didn’t touch you then something was wrong with you mentally, because when you saw that scene, it was impossible not to be affected. I probably found 50 bodies in the time that I was there. Most were dismembered or burned; very few were intact. Some were bodies of people who had jumped from the towers.

At one point, I came across the body of a woman probably 75 years old, who was totally intact, a rarity. She was thin with white hair, wearing shorts, and she was lying on top of the rubble. I threw a sheet over her, then bent down and scooped her up in my arms to take her to the morgue. When I tried to lift her, she fell apart in my arms, half and half. A fireman ran over and grabbed half, and I took the other half, and together we took her to the morgue.

In the morgue, there was one room with four tables, and that’s where we performed last rites and searched the bodies for ID. I never knew that the firemen all had their names in their boots; one port authority man had his initials on his false teeth.

We also worked with the other first responders on the scene. It was very traumatic for them. Many of them broke down and were asking us why this happened. The TV and radio people on the scene were also devastated by what they saw, and many of them came to us for guidance as well.

What do you tell those people? We had never faced anything like this before. We tried our best to help them, and also made sure they saw mental health therapists while they were there. Some had to go home because the devastation was so bad.

After the first day, we went into robot mode. We had to. We just went in and did our job, found as many people who had perished as possible, and tried not to think about it too much. If we thought too much, it would have overwhelmed us and we wouldn’t have been able to go on. It wasn’t until afterward that the PTSD hit, the depression, the anxiety. At the time, we just focused on what we were doing.

We knew that the families wanted their loved ones back, and we needed to help them find out what had happened. We found a lot of body parts, which we would tag and take to the morgue, and they would get DNA tested.

Father Stephan Petrovich during his time volunteering at Ground Zero in September of 2001. This photo originally appeared on NYDailyNews.com. Photo courtesy of Stephan Petrovich.

You probably read about the fires that were burning beneath Ground Zero in the subway area, fires that burned for months. Evidently, the fires started in the rubble and no one could get down deep enough to put them out, and every so often you could feel the heat on your feet. It was melting some people’s shoes, and around the 13th or 14th day, while we were working, the ground started to bubble like a mini volcano. There were probably 60 of us working in the area at the time, what was called Zone 3, where the toxic air was coming up. A big plume of smoke shot up, and all this debris hit us in the face. We were breathing without masks because there were no respirators there, nothing to protect us from the toxic spew.

We couldn’t breathe. It got into our mouths, nasal passages, ears, eyes, everything. That was the day I started to become sick. On the 19th day, it got so bad that I couldn’t stay any longer. I had to leave Ground Zero, and returned to Cleveland.

When I got home, I was still having lung problems. I thought it was bronchitis or a cold, but in February of 2002, it started to get worse, and I finally went to the doctor. I saw four respiratory doctors who did not want to treat me because they had no idea what all chemicals may have been involved. All the doctors who were treating people with 9/11-related illnesses were in New York. I remembered that at Ground Zero, I’d sat and talked to a coroner from Texas who said to me, “Father, do you know what you’re sitting on?” He told me that all the dust was bodies that had just evaporated, computers, chairs, everything that was in those buildings. The temperature was so high in the explosions that it all became dust.

By July of 2002, I wasn’t able to work anymore; my breathing problems had gotten too bad. I didn’t have health insurance, so I couldn’t afford to go to the hospital. For several years, I only had treatment from my own family doctor. I had no money coming in. Because I wasn’t in New York and wasn’t following the news, I had no idea there were services available for 9/11 first responders.

Finally, in 2006, I was connected with a social worker at Mt. Sinai, who helped me get medical insurance, and then I was able to get a CAT scan. I discovered I had pulverized glass, cement, asbestos, and four pieces of metal in my lungs. Good thing they found the metal, because if I’d gone in for an MRI, it would’ve been sucked right out of my chest and killed me.

Now, there’s a World Trade Center first responders’ yearly exam. There are clinics around the country that check our breathing, do a lung scan, whatever else is needed. That’s how I first found out how bad my condition is.

Now, 10 years after 9/11, I have chronic pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sinus problems, acid reflux. I can’t walk. I’m on oxygen 24 hours a day. I have to sleep sitting up. It’s very hard. It’s very scary.

I’ve been in hospice care for the past year. In June, I went in for my annual first responders’ exam. The day I was supposed to go back for my results, I got a phone call saying that the medical director had reviewed my case, and my condition is so bad that it’s no longer necessary to come in for any exams. I probably have less than a year to live.

9/11 changed everything — for me, for the other first responders, for the families of those involved, and for the world. I died too on September 12, 2001, the day I arrived at Ground Zero. My life was never the same again, ever. When I left my house that morning, I never dreamed that my whole life would be changed. 9/11 wrecked my life, destroyed my career, decimated everything I spent so many years working for. Was it worth it? No. Forgive me, but no. If I had known this would happen, that I would have to give up everything, I never would have gone.

I made a lot of friends working side by side with other first responders at Ground Zero, and now most of them are dead. All together, about 1,000 of the first responders have died. Some died on the scene, many have died from cancer. One priest I know had been a chaplain for the fire department. He died when he walked inside one of the towers and a man jumped and landed on top of him.

So many of the first responders in 9/11 have suffered as a result of their service, and the government has not done enough to help. So many of them are now unable to work. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Ten years without money is a long time.

It’s very hard to accept my fate. I just have to sit and wait my life out, and waiting to die is not a pretty thing. After I die, my doctor has been requested to contact the World Trade Center Division in New York. My death will be classified a homicide, another casualty of 9/11. Ten years later, the list of casualties is still growing.

While he was working at Ground Zero, Father Petrovich wrote a prayer for those who lost their lives in 9/11 and those who are suffering from illness as a result of their service. This prayer has since been used in many of the 9/11 memorials around the United States. It is reproduced here with his permission:

“Prayer for September 11, 2001”

In the kingdom remember us O Lord
We answered the Call to anoint those who were taken on that day
Now many of your servants are suffering
And cry out for your mercy
Let us never forget them

For you our Lord told us
Ask and you shall receive
Knock and the door will be opened
As we prayed on that day for all that departed this earth
For your heavenly kingdom: Forget not us who were left behind

Now suffering from heartache, sorrow and illness
Heal all who were stricken that day
Lead all of us to a better understanding of our life here on earth
Bring unity, peace and comfort to all
Let us all unite and support those left behind

Teach us that we are all one
Bless each child who lost a parent
Shelter them from harm, evil and destruction
We thank you for the gift of life
Let us never forget how great this gift is

May we continue to serve you until our last breath
Make us all worthy to be accepted into thy kingdom O master
Let Mary our Mother lead us home
When we are called
Unite us all in your heavenly kingdom

For this we give thee: praise, honor and worship
To the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
Now and forever
Unto ages to ages

10 Responses to “On 10-year anniversary of 9/11, a first responder looks back”
  1. Ronny Risinger says:

    An amazing story. Thanks for preserving this great piece of oral history. While Father Petrovich has suffered greatly from his service at Ground Zero, I pray that his reward in Heaven will be so great that he forgets the pains of this world.

  2. Inspirational, sad and brutally honest. My heart goes out to Father Petrovich. I will pray the prayer for him and others who were and continue to be affected by this unbelievable tragedy.

    • Sr.Mary C.S.A. says:

      Fr Petrovich is well known for his years of service,caring for the sick and dying,he worked with the Dominicain Sisters who care for the cancer patients there is a home in upper N.Y. called Rosary Hill.He has built hospital clinics for children in 3rd world countries we were not surprised to hear of him being at the W.T.C.
      A man who gave to his God never asking anything in return.

      Sr.Mary C.S.A.

  3. Nick Park says:

    Father Petrovich’s story speaks to the suffering so many experienced that day. I hope he finds peace and knows the value of the work he did there. Thanks for sharing this story Leila.

  4. I can’t stop crying.. Dear Jesus please be with him and all the others.

  5. Bonnie Orr says:

    What a powerful story about an amazing person!

  6. John Kilbane IRON WORKER OF AMERRICA says:

    A man who was just one of us,digging and crying with us, you would never have known he was who he is,down to earth and just a real person not like so many other clergy who walk and act like god He,never said he was a priest let alone a Bishop! these are the type of clergy we need,really doing Gods work,would like to talk to him how can we contact him.
    He got so sick at ground O but kept going never complaining.

    God Bless you Bishop.

    • Hi John. Thanks for your comment. Father Petrovich has given me permission to pass on his email address to anyone interested in getting in contact; I’ll send you an email to the address you listed here.

  7. Dave Winter says:

    Wow, Father Petrovich’s tale is an amazing one. Thanks Leila for sharing his tale with the world. This is a story that needs to be heard.

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