FDNY Chaplain Chris Keenan had removed his fireman uniform’s hat. His clerical collar could be seen underneath his jacket and sweat dripped down his forehead. He leaned backward, tottering on his heels and paused before reflecting on his predecessor and friend, Father Mychal Judge, the first victim identified at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001.
“He was one of these people who, when you were in his presence, you were like the only person in the world who existed,” Father Keenan, who at one time shared a residence with Father Judge, said in an interview after a memorial on the 13th anniversary of the tragedy. “He just had a great sense of presence to people and to situations. Some of the most challenging and tragic moments in the city he would respond to.”
A few dozen people, including Father Keenan, gathered on Thursday at the FDNY Fire Museum on the Lower East Side to commemorate Father Judge and the other 342 members of the FDNY who responded and died on Sept. 11, 2001. The ceremony was held in the 9/11 Memorial Room at the museum on Spring Street. While the gathering only lasted a few minutes, the sentiments resonated. A few of the speakers pointed out that sometimes events in life are too big for words.
Those gathered for the ceremony wandered around the Fire Museum before and after, stopping to look at photographs from Ground Zero or things left behind by firefighters on Sept. 11 such as walkie-talkies and fire gear. Some people at the ceremony were dressed in FDNY uniforms, others suits and ties and a few in t-shirts and jeans. Many looked lost and others wiped away tears, while some quietly smiled or laughed.
Photos of the firemen who lost their lives on that tragic day covered the memorial in the center of the room. A few candles and remembrance cards lined the base of it and a firemen’s hat was placed at the top. The memorial included two cutouts of the Twin Towers, which stood out among the firemen’s faces.
“They left a void,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said. “This is the saddest day of the year for the New York City Fire Department.”
The ceremony opened up with the FDNY Color Guard and the national anthem. During the ceremony a wreath filled with red, white and blues flowers was positioned in front of the memorial. Several members of the FDNY community made comments about their fallen brethren.
But perhaps it was Father Keenan’s words, or rather Father Judge’s, that stood out the most. Instead of talking about his fallen friend, Father Keenan decided to read the homily Father Judge gave the day before he died at the World Trade Center. Father Keenan’s voice boomed in the tiny memorial room, leaving a haunting echo.
“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job,” he read. “You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job—which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on the rig.”