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September 11, 2001

Fireman Hug


by Justin Kelly

Upon our arrival, many asked, "Who are you? How did you get here? Why do you care?" What could a group of students from Alabama offer that the thousands of other Americans who responded to the tragedy of that Tuesday morning could not? When it happened, we knew, instinctively that we had to do something. If we could respond to international natural disasters and needs, surely we could do something for the citizens of our own country in their time of despair and grief.

It did not take long to organize a response. We would leave as early as possible: Thursday morning. We would take all the resources we had: four vans, two trailers, food, clothing, shovels, hard hats and garbage bags. We even brought our musical instruments. Anyone who was willing and able could come.

After a 20 hour drive and seven hours of rest on a church floor, it was Saturday morning, and we were on the ground in lower Manhattan. where the Twin towers had once stood. Perhaps that was the biggest miracle of all, that we were even allowed into the area when so many people were turned away and sent right back across the Brooklyn Bridge by the patrolling officers.

We crossed that bridge and came face to face with a national tragedy, far bigger in scope than we could possibly have imagined or prepared for. The New York natives among us stared at the empty skyline in awe and discomfort. There was a visible tinge of brown in the air, not withstanding the white billowing smoke which seemed to continually pour from ground zero, the new name for where the World Trade Center had formally stood. (story continued after video)

Responding to the Call (continued)


Overall there was a silence that we had never experienced on our previous trips to New York City. Every available bulletin board, telephone pole and bus stop was plastered with 'missing people' signs, as families held out hope that their loved ones might return to them; they all hoped that their loved ones had been out of the building and were unable to contact them in the subsequent days for some reason. The people were quiet, almost sedated, as they walked to their destinations. In a city known for heinous traffic, there were few cars passing. Finding parking was easy. There on 14th street, we developed a plan. We would use our music to comfort the people, and we would go to Ground Zero to help with the excavation. We would work block by block south until we had reached Ground Zero and then we would work as we had in other relief efforts, clearing debris.

One young man carried the flag before us on our way to Ground Zero, and others picked up musical instruments. It was a small marching band by most standards, perhaps four musicians wide and ten or twelve musicians long, but the narrow canyons of Manhattan echoed with strains of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "America the Beautiful." Others carried banners proclaiming our love and prayers for the people of New York. Still others had perhaps the most important duty, hugging complete strangers and telling them truthfully, that we had come because we loved them.

NAPS hugging firemen

As we marched resolutely south we found warm reception. Police saluted. People stood and applauded. The eyes that were empty filled wit hope, joy, and life. 

They waved their flags in time with music. On our way we passed by a Firehouse on Broome Street. In front of the fireman's station was a memorial to the men who had died on duty just three days earlier. Their pictures in their firemen's uniform were displayed proudly in front of the firehouse, and flowers, letters, and keepsakes. The firemen were robust in their welcome, in their hugs, in their immediate desire to provide us with whatever we needed, which at the time was water. From the generous supplies given to them, they were able and willing to give. Energized, we pressed further southward, towards our goal: Ground Zero.

By the time we reached Canal Street, which had been barricaded at every street to prevent anyone from going further south, we had genuine support, credibility and literal followers. News cameras had come to meet us, to hear our story and our goal. The brownish tinge was thicker here, but we were resolute. This is what he had come here for, to help with the relief effort. As the police opened the barricade for us, we began to march into the thick fog-like smoke that covered downtown Manhattan. Shovels ready, garbage bags in hand.

Psalm 32:8 reads "I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye." Entire books have been written about divine intervention and direction, but one thing became increasingly clear for us with every step. We ere not heading to the relief work that we had been equipped for. Where we were going there would be no one to hug or encourage with our music. It was because of this, the decision was made to turn around, and head back out of the fog, to where the hurting people were. And there were millions of them.

We marched on and eventually came upon Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where many people had gathered in vigils with flowers and signs. There were plenty of people to hug here. In each place that we visited, we would stop and speak about our role as representatives of the love that was being poured out towards the people of New York. We passed yet another fire station and received a similar welcome as we had on Broome Street, and they  provided us with water and food to keep going. By the time we reached Tomkins Square Park, it's statues and walls covered in pictures of missing loved ones and flowers, the day was waning but it became clear our followers had become the leaders. We were no longer the only ones hugging strangers. We weren't even the swiftest ones to do so. Age, nationality, gender and personal space seemed to blur and then fade away as strangers embraced and cried together. As we reached the hospital, the sun was getting low and we had been marching and playing without rest for nearly eight hours. We were sore, sweaty, and emotionally exhausted. But thent he question was asked "Do you want to stop for the day? The unanimous answer was no. There were more parks, more fire stations, and more hospitals. There were more people to hug, more people to love.

There were many things that happened during the 18 hour march that Saturday and Sunday in New York City. Time would fail to tell of every park and fire station, every hug, every piece of food and clothing given and received, every woman dangling her American flag from her balcony, dancing to the music. There were tears of anguish and joy. There was a lot of saluting, and a lot of gentle, courageous firemen. The image that remains in my mind perhaps strongest is that of a young man holding the flag in one hand and embracing a woman in the other; her eyes stained with tears, the crumpled up "missing" poster with her husband's picture on it in hand.

A group of students from a small city in Alabama embraced the people of New York and represented their country in doing so. It's a simple idea, but it changed my life, and positively and dramatically affected the lives of everyone involved.

Jesus said once: "And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward." I received a cup of cold water that day, literally and metaphorically, and I have faith the Lord will reward the people of New York for their kindness to us on our trip. We supposed that we were the givers, having driven for so long and exerted all of our available efforts and resources. But after all our marching, playing and hugging, it was they who gave us food, and hugs and sent us home with smiles and thanks and wonderful stories to share about a formative event in our nation's history. It was a privilege to serve them, and the memory of thousands of men and women in stupors of despair was replaced with a thousand hugs and smiles as we found unity in hope, joy, and life.