On September 11, as the first of the World Trade Center’s towers fell, Father Milton Williams crawled underneath a car on Fulton Street opposite the center and breathed, for some shocking seconds, black air that entered his lungs feeling like fiberglass.
One month later, he has made a habit of standing near his church and waiting. He has fashioned for himself a new kind of street-corner preaching, one in which he provides what he calls “the ministry of presence” to emergency workers who come and talk to him spontaneously.
He’s there because his church, at Wall Street and Broadway, is closed. To the frustration of clergy and parishioners alike, the building remains sealed off, tucked into the south-eastern corner of the city’s restricted zone. To them, the church - behind “Crime Scene” notices and warnings that videotaping and photography is strictly prohibited - is a holy grape just beyond reach.
But Fr. Williams, Trinity’s Associate for Witness and Outreach, makes sure he’s available. Talking to a priest can help a person, he believes. So he stands and waits for someone to approach, and usually it doesn’t take very long.
The trauma he experienced has been patched over, but occasionally “things well up,” he says. One day, “I literally just wanted to lie in the middle of the street and scream.”
Father Williams has been at Trinity for nearly three years. He became an Anglican priest by way of a Southern Baptist ministry, and mission work in China. He’s about six feet tall, and usually wears a black stetson hat to work. Most of his family lives in Virginia. He lives in Battery Park City, close to Trinity and the WTC.
He has known since he was six years old that “God was calling me to ministry.” He has a strong sense of the Catholic faith, which he attributes to his experiential nature of learning. Standing, kneeling, sitting, lighting candles -- he likes all that.
“I’ve never married, I have no children. I live alone,” he says. “There’s nobody there to speak to me. But I pray. And I just talk to God. There was a faith I’ve had, but I’ve never had to use it like I’m using it now.”
On September 11, as he stood with his neighbors looking up at the first of the twin towers burning, he thought: “You do not want a picture of this, because it is evil.”
At the dry cleaners he was about to pray with the owner when there was a second explosion. He was laying his black suit on the counter when it happened. He left his suit, grabbed his briefcase, and made for the church.
Inside, Father Stuart Hoke, Executive Assistant to the Rector, was leading a service that would continue until just after the south tower’s collapse. Owen Burdick, choirmaster, was at the organ console playing “Rock of Ages.”
Fr. Williams went out the doors to Broadway and Wall. It looked like a tickertape parade, “except all of the paper had burnt edges. So I stood there just looking at it. There wasn’t a lot of pandemonium.”
“Where am I most needed?” he asked a police officer near St. Paul’s Chapel. The question would guide his actions for the day.
“He said, ‘Father, they’re doing triage in front of the Millennium Hotel.’ So that’s where I went.”
Three ambulance squads had set up in front of the hotel, which alongside the St. Paul’s churchyard. The injured were coming out of the World Trade Center directly in front, walking or being carried across Church Street.
“There was a man beside me on a stretcher. You could see the bone in his shoulder. I don’t think he knew how badly he was injured. I distracted him, by talking to him, while the paramedics were putting a tourniquet on his shoulder.
“There was a woman sitting on the curb, whom I’ve since seen in publications. She had third-degree burns. She was a very thin woman with reddish hair, and they were pouring peroxide on her. I was with her for awhile.”
Some of the victims did not know what had happened. Most were concerned not with the fire or the buildings, but rather with overwhelming thoughts of getting home. White hotel towels were used for wrapping around victims who were getting cold, even on this warm day.
“They’ll get this under control,” thought Fr. Williams. He stayed there for 20 minutes and then decided that with his experience as a hospital chaplain, he would be most needed at the hospital.
He turned the corner into Fulton and got halfway up the block that leads to Broadway when he heard a tremendous explosion. “You hear this boom, boom, boom. We all thought they were bombs. The dust is beginning to hit, and it’s turning black, and you’re thinking, oh my God, where are the bombs coming from?”
At the northwest corner of Broadway and Fulton, he put himself under two cars that were parked bumper to bumper. “I tried to breathe while spitting out the dust. I thought: this is not going to work.”
After thirty seconds, there was light to see by.
“We looked like someone had taken a twenty pound sack of flower and dumped it over our heads,” he says.
The dust had not cleared enough to see exactly what had happened to the tower. Fr. Williams at this point, as he helped people into city shuttle buses, was still under the impression that the area had been bombed.
Again, he thought, “This is under control now.”
He helped a handicapped woman, who had difficulty walking, onto a bus, and then he headed again to the hospital.
“I took three steps and then boom,” and the North Tower began to fall. “You were thinking, more bombs.”
He ran up Fulton and looked backward to see a black cloud behind him. He continued, desperately running east.
(Soon afterwards, his cousin, Dexter Allgood and members of Trinity’s staff would see him on television, pictured running at top speed ahead of the black cloud. They worried over his fate for hours afterwards, and in the case of some of his friends for two days.)
He had been scheduled to say Mass at 10:30 that morning at St. Margaret’s House, Trinity’s housing facility for the elderly and disabled. When he arrived, he put his head under the faucet in the bathroom. “Let’s just have a prayer service,” suggested Joe Breed, Executive Director of St. Margaret’s.
“I started Morning Prayer. I read all the prayers, all the collects: A Prayer for Time of Peril; Collect for Guidance. You name it, I prayed it; page after page after page. I read the Magnificat. I read the whole nine yards.”
That took thirty minutes. He made his way to Beekman Hospital, where ashes were being washed off from people by portable showers. There he helped connect two firefighters from Ladderhouse 10, each of whom did not know the other was there. They said their firehouse, at the corner of Liberty and Greenwich Streets and 60 feet from the south tower, was collapsing.
“I stayed at the hospital for a while; prayed with people, just kind of sat, in what we call the ministry of presence.”
When he left hospital, he saw the steeple still standing on St. Paul’s Church. He walked around the perimeter and saw all the glass was intact. “It looked like hell had just opened up and been unleashed right there. The debris (at the WTC) was storeys high. There was gray over everything. You could barely walk.”
He found the fire chief and gave him permission to use St. Paul’s as a morgue.
Looking for People
He set about what he expected to be a particularly grim task: with police, he went from car to car, looking in and under for dead people. There were none. They looked for injured, too, and there were none. It was then that Fr. Williams was struck by the desolation: “You expected to find some injured people. There was nothing. Dead silence. It was like you were on the moon.”
At Liberty and Church, someone had taken a trashcan and tried to scoop away debris in preparation for a triage unit. “Two or three stretchers had come in. A doctor had come in with saline, gauze, bandages, but there was nobody to treat.”
Someone suggested that triage be moved to a more sanitary location: the firehouse for Ladder 10. “I said, ‘We can’t go in there, because I just spoke with the firemen and they said it was collapsing.’ They didn’t listen.”
The impromptu team moved bases, but as soon as they set the stretchers down in the firehouse, the building began to collapse. No one was hurt - they left more quickly than they had come.
At the N and R subway tunnel that exits onto Church Street there was an enormous explosion. “A fireball just came up out of it,” says Fr. Williams.
“At that point, the vast majority of the relief people were just standing there in total shock and disbelief. And the police and the firemen were saying, ‘Father what are we going to do?’" They couldn’t even find fire hydrants under the debris.
As Fr. Williams was evacuated on a tugboat to New Jersey, he saw lines of ambulances standing by. “You can all go home,” he thought. “There’s no one to help.”
On the day Fr. Williams felt like lying in the street and screaming, he fought the impulse by saying to himself: “I can’t do that. God will get me through this.”
He has other conflicting feelings: “I don’t want to go back, to write it down,” he says. He can’t yet look at photographs of September 11th victims.
However, he also says of the scene of the tragedy: “That’s my parish, that’s my home.”