(NEW YORK CITY) — Ten years ago, St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan was transformed into an aid station.
In the months following Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds of firefighters, police officers and rescue workers used the chapel across the street from Ground Zero to get a meal, a nap, medical attention or a change of boots before heading back to “The Pit.”
Bearing silent testament to their efforts is a pew near the door of the chapel. The wood is scarred and scuffed by workers who slept in their boots and equipment belts, always ready to be called back to work. When the chapel was cleaned and refurbished in 2002, it was decided to leave one pew unrepaired.
Omayra Rivera, program administrator at nearby Trinity Church, which operates St. Paul’s Chapel, can attest to the stories the pew could tell.
Rivera, then an assistant manager at one of the church’s bookstores, saw the second plane hit the South Tower and watched both towers fall. Later, she volunteered for a month at the chapel turned aid station.
Working the night shift, part of her job was to wake up the firefighters who slept on the pews.
“I remember a lot of them basically just walking in and collapsing,” Rivera told Toledo Free Press. “A lot of them didn’t want to stay and sleep for that long just because they felt the need to be there and see if they could find someone. So they would sleep for maybe 25 minutes and then go right back out again.”
Hot spots at the site would melt the soles of their boots and they would come to the chapel for a change of shoes from a donated pile.
“It was very difficult for them. You could see it in their faces,” Rivera said. “I mean, it was hard for everyone, but they were so eager to find somebody at least – and so very few bodies were found that it was just unmanageable for them.”
Few talked about what they’d seen, but many talked about their families and children, Rivera said.
“I think that was probably something for them to realize they were lucky, because they were still here. So at least they could go home and hug their children,” Rivera said. “They had a lot of buddies that didn’t make it out of there.”
They never left without saying thank you, Rivera said.
“That was something that was very common during 9/11 here,” Rivera said. “They would leave to go home or go back to their station and they would say, ‘Thank you so much for being here.’ Even if you didn’t do anything, they would still thank you.”
Rivera volunteered for a month before she had to stop.
“After about a month, things get to you, so I stopped doing it for a while,” Rivera said. “I would come occasionally, but we were so close. We could smell the fire burning for days. It really took a toll on a lot of us.”
9/11 definitely changed New York City, Rivera said.
“You saw the city really came together after 9/11. You saw that for a long, long time,” Rivera said. “I think there’s still that togetherness in a way from New Yorkers , especially the young ones that are growing up now. Especially teenagers because they were small when it happened so now it’s like they need to have an understanding. It’s a very difficult thing, but it’s now a part of our history.”
It’s part of Rivera’s personal history as well.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she was arriving to work at Trinity Church, about two and a half blocks down the street from St. Paul’s Chapel, when she heard a loud bang.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Rivera said. “I walked outside and people were saying a plane just hit the towers. We knew it was a very tragic thing, but we didn’t know it was a terrorist attack at that time.”
She went to her office, but all the phones were dead.
“The phones were ringing and ringing and ringing, but you would pick it up and there was nothing there,” Rivera said.
Heading back outside, she saw the second plane coming out of the corner of her eye.
“That’s when we knew something major was happening,” Rivera said. “The police were telling us to evacuate, to get out, get out, but we didn’t know where to go. You didn’t know what to do. I honestly can tell you I didn’t panic, but I think it was just the shock that left me standing there. I was basically glued to the ground because I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. When the first tower collapsed, that’s when everybody started just running for cover.”
Rivera ran into the basement of a nearby building. After a while, she decided to leave, but getting anywhere proved difficult.
“You couldn’t see anything in front of you. There was so much ash in the air. It was just really horrendous. It was horrifying,” Rivera said. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to die here,’ because you just kept hearing all these noises coming and going, so you didn’t know quite what was going on.”
Rivera was standing at the front of St. Paul’s Chapel when the second tower collapsed.
Traumatized and covered in dust and ash, Rivera now just wanted to get home. With no transportation running and most bridges closed, she started on foot to Brooklyn. It took her nearly six hours. Later, she was relieved to discover all her friends who worked in the towers had gotten out safely.
The chapel is quieter these days — not as congested with visitors year-round as it was years ago, Rivera said. Many of the visitors to Ground Zero are now from foreign countries.
“I look at them and there is that sense of curiosity, that sense of understanding of what took place here,” Rivera said. “Many of them say to us, ‘I’m not from New York, I’m not even a religious person, but when I come here and I look at the site and I come to the church’ — they feel like there’s a presence, they feel like there’s a peace here. And they feel also the pain and see the grief here. You can see it when people stand in front of the pictures. They don’t know anyone there, but they still feel it.”
Each year toward the end of August, the chapel starts getting busier. Visitors and first responders alike come to pay respects. Family members of victims who find it too difficult to come on the anniversary come early to leave flowers in memory of their loved one, Rivera said.
“When you’re here on September 11, you see a lot of people in here and it’s loud, but somehow it’s also very quiet,” Rivera said. “You can hear the reading of the names. They start at 8 o’clock in the morning and they’re not done until 12, 12:30, so it’s very overwhelming.”
She can’t believe it’s been 10 years.
“It feels like it was yesterday, especially because we’re here every day. We can see from our church area all the construction, see it evolving, so it’s hard at times,” Rivera said. “I don’t usually talk about it anymore. It’s OK to talk about it, but there are times I just don’t want to because it’s still difficult. People say, ‘It’s been 10 years.’ Yeah, but the wounds are still there, so it feel s like it was yesterday.
“It sounds funny, but there are days we see the tulips growing and we’re like, ‘Oh that’s exactly how it was on that morning.’ The sun may shine a certain way and you say, ‘I remember the sun being exactly like that on that morning.’ I can remember everything so clearly. It’s 10 years ago, but you remember it detail by detail of what it was like that day so it feel s like it happened yesterday.”