This is a printer-friendly version of an article from

09/08/2021 07:00 AM

What it Takes to Get Through the Darkest of Dark Times

Firefighters at Ground Zero Photo by Bill Keane

The Rev. Bill Keane, a Baptist minister who serves as the chaplain for the Branford Police Department, has worked to battle underage drinking and opiate addictions along the shoreline. As a chaplain for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, he stood beside and prayed with first responders as they recovered bodies of people who had been dead for several weeks following Hurricane Katrina. And for nine months he worked as an on-site minister at Ground Zero following 9/11.

The essay he wrote following his experience at Ground Zero references the gaping cavity in the ground, the “men and women [who] venture deep into the netherworld of incendiary debris, perchance to recover what remains of their fallen kin,” and “so many souls turned into the incense and mist of our mournful distress.”

And yet, the image left by the essay is that of a cross discovered at the site, steel beams recovered as iron workers and first responders worked to remove the 1.8 million tons of rubble and wreckage at The Pile. The cross, originally a t-beam or cross beam, ultimately became, for many who worked long hours at the dangerous job, a sign of hope, faith, and healing.

And if you ask Keane what he would like people to remember about 9/11 on the 20th anniversary, he talks about resilience.

“Well, I think we need to realize we can be resilient if we all pull together,” he says.

He worries that adversity these days is too quickly turned into animosity. He’s concerned about the vitriol in public discourse. He thinks many have lost the ability to agree to disagree. He’s appalled by conspiracy theories.

Still, through his work and because of his faith, he knows what it takes to get through the darkest of dark times.

“We get through these things by pulling together, by not always thinking the worst of people,” he says. “We have to be careful of our choices. Cynicism is a cancer of the soul. It’s OK to be skeptical. But cynicism leads to nothing good. As a nation we have to grow up a little, and instead of blaming all the time, take some responsibility and get involved. Get some training and volunteer.”

‘Can I Get You A Cup Of Coffee?’

Keane worked Ground Zero as a volunteer with the Salvation Army.

He knew the area well, since he went to high school in New York City on 16th Street and he used to see the World Trade Center towers just about every day.

“I had an affinity for [the towers]. I watched them go up and watched as they were completed. My dad at one point had an office there,” he says. “And when we lived in New Jersey, we could see them outside the window at night. It really was quite a sight.”

One of his first jobs as a volunteer following 9/11 was to help administer financial aid to those who needed it.

“People were bringing in bills they could not pay,” he says. “So many people lost work. Many of those who were affected were not high-powered executives, but people working for the airlines that shut down, people who were hairdressers, people who worked for limousine services. All of those folks were left high and dry.”

Several days later he was asked to go directly to Ground Zero and, since he was an ordained minister, work as a chaplain. Working out of a tent held together by duct tape, with plywood flooring, he poured cups of coffee for the men and women working around the clock, gently offering whatever counsel and aid they might need from him.

“One of the things I knew is that I didn’t want to screw up,” he says. “I didn’t want to make any situation worse.”

Although he doesn’t always wear a clerical collar, he did so in this case, along with his jean jacket.

“I might see someone sitting alone, and I’d just say, ‘How are you doing? Can I get you a cup of coffee?’”

He says it felt a little bit like musical improv, informed by training and guided by instinct.

“Some folks just needed to be left alone,” he says.

Other times, people wanted to talk, but not about 9/11 and not about the stresses of picking up incomprehensibly heavy beams and moving them like pick-up sticks, as other people, all of them exhausted and worn by grief, worked nearby.

“One of my encounters was this guy with mirrored sunglasses,” he recalls. “He was running the largest crane in the world. It was enormously stressful work.”

Keane started talking with him.

“I said, ‘What do you do to take a break?’ He said, ‘I race funny cars.’ He would go to Raceway Park in New Jersey and race cars,” Keane says. “At 130 miles per hour.”

Keane met many people, including one man that he remains good friends with 20 years later.

“So you know, it’s funny. It’s rewarding because the people you meet bring as much to you as you bring to them.”

The Mood Shifts

He says the mood shifted over the course of many months.

“Initially it was quiet and deliberate. And then around Christmas time, you started hearing some banter. People would be kidding around with one another,” he recalls. “One guy says, ‘Every time we have a crisis, I put on 20 pounds!’ And the food was tremendous. And so, naturally, folks were eating.”

The most difficult time for Keane, ironically, came as his work there was finishing up.

“It was the last day and the clean-up was officially done. They pulled up the last beam. It was like being part of something and then not being a part of it anymore.”

And the best part of it was meeting people from all over the country who, like Keane, just came to help out in any way they could.

No Way to Prepare

When asked what he did to prepare for his work at Ground Zero, he says there was no way to prepare.

“Well, I actually tried not to anticipate. I just wanted to, basically, keep entirely open to what was, as opposed to what I thought it would be. So really I went with an open mind,” he says. “If that meant serving baked chicken at 8 in the morning, that is what it was. If it meant bringing someone another cup of coffee, that is what it was.”

That, for him, is part of getting through a crisis.

“Don’t go in with an agenda,” he says. “The way most people do things, a lot of times the anticipation has nothing to do with the reality.”

He says every day he took the train into New York, he would strive to keep an open mind. He usually went in to volunteer once a week, often on Thursdays, and often took the early morning train from New Haven to get to Grand Central on time.

“And almost every time I went, for the first couple of months, there was always a bomb threat. So they would have to reroute the service. They were getting crank calls every day and the police had to take them seriously. And I just had to figure it out,” he says. “Sometimes I would just have to get in a cab and leave the subway behind. So I really had to be spontaneous and open to whatever was.”

‘Panic Is Not Preparation’

He learned this from his work following Katrina, that dire predictions might feel like preparation, but they are generally not useful.

“Predictions of disaster often don’t help and they are often wrong,” he says. “Panic is not preparation. We’ve become a very panic-driven society and it’s not healthy and it’s not necessary. It doesn’t help.”

It might have been understandable to get worked up about the prospect of working with teams that were recovering dead bodies that had been exposed to the elements for two weeks, in the 95-degree sun. But he realized that being anxious and worked up ran counter to the job that had to be done.

What he remembers from his work after Katrina is his admiration for the people he worked with, “who do this kind of thing all the time.” He met a young woman, maybe 22 or 23 years old, blond hair, pigtails, with a masters in forensic anthropology.

“She had just come back from Iraq, exhuming mass graves,” he says. “She was maybe 130 pounds, if that, and as tough as nails. She was used to seeing things and dealing with things that would terrify other people. But you also see the good things, people capable of amazing strength and resilience.”

But the work can take a toll, and reminders of that can be unexpected.

He remembers, after coming back to Branford, that his church made decorations for a Halloween celebration. He walked into a room that had a display with a fake dead body.

“I had a flashback and almost passed out,” Keane says. “I didn’t anticipate that.”

Whether it’s working on a large scale catastrophe like 9/11 or Katrina, or talking with a police officer dealing with an untimely death, or responding to someone who’s experienced an overdose, his goal is to be “a non-anxious person and give people a sense that they will get through this, like, ‘You can do this, one day at a time, or one minute at a time.’ We can overcome these things. We don’t have to just wring our hands.”

When it comes to being resilient, he says it helps to plan ahead. One way to do that is to get training to help others, whether it is with the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army, or some other volunteer group.

“Often people don’t think about helping until catastrophe hits,” he says. “But if you get the training beforehand, you are ready to help.”

Another way to prepare is to practice having a hopeful spirit, and establishing a practice of faith.

“OK, I’m the type of person who probably doesn’t worry about what they eat until right before I get a physical, so I get it,” he says. “But when it comes to religion, if something bad happens, and something bad always does happen, if you have a faith practice, you know that God is always there for us. It can sometimes be hard to hear in the midst of chaos. But if you’ve been walking with the Lord all along, it can have a huge impact when you are walking through chaos and uncertainty. That’s what faith is, knowing God is with us. Where God is, we can be. And where we are, God is, too.”

Two Firefighters at Ground Photo by Bill Keane
Ground Zero Photo by Bill Keane
Ground Zero Ironworkers Photo by Bill Keane
Ground Zero Photo by Bill Keane