Monday, September 5, 2016

Triumph Over Terror: A Chaplain Shares Ground Zero Stories from the Aftermath of 9-11

9-11 is one of those unforgettable days. Every American remembers where they were when they heard the news. An event like this sets in motion a whole series of actions including a call for ordained chaplains to assist with pastoral care for families and friends of victims, search and recovery workers, construction workers, and volunteers. Bob Ossler, firefighter, paramedic, and ordained chaplain responded to the call, giving approximately 45 days of his life onsite at Ground Zero helping, ministering and caring.

Since that time he has served as a chaplain in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (2005) and in the Yarnell, Arizona wildfires (2013) which killed nineteen specially trained firefighters. He is currently a visitation pastor at Cumberland County Community Church in Millville, NJ.

Ossler's experiences at Ground Zero (a.k.a. The Pile) were numerous and profound, and these stories have now been published in a newly released book, Triumph Over Terror. Ossler not only tells stories about events, but also the impact of these experiences on his own being. This coming weekend will be the fifteenth anniversary of that terrible day. On Friday evening Bob Ossler and co-contributor Janice Hall Heck will be hosting a book launch there in Millville to kick off this new release.

EN: How did you come to be a chaplain?
Bob Ossler: In the 1980s and 1990s, I worked as a paramedic in Chicago, then later trained and became a firefighter for the Chicago Fire Department. In both jobs, I responded to many, many difficult calls where fatalities or serious life-threatening injuries occurred and where the emotional impact on families was all consuming.

I had been studying part-time (over seventeen years) to be a pastor during all this time. I had become a Christian believer while in the military and wanted to help people in their difficult times. My work as a paramedic and firefighter reinforced this desire to help people who struggled with physical and/or emotional trauma.

On difficult emergency calls, even as a paramedic or firefighter, I’d pray with victims and families of victims. I’d offer prayers for police or firefighters-who were also emotionally affected by the fires and traumas they witnessed. I tried to be a good listener to help after these tragic calls. People need to express their worries in order to process them. If they bury their experiences and try not to think about them, the experiences haunt them with flashbacks, dreams, and other stress related responses.

I got trained in post-traumatic stress syndrome and critical incidence stress management and took many classes in how to be a chaplain. Eventually, I became an ordained chaplain. At that point, I had worked with the police and fire department for so long that it got to the point where they would call me to go with on the difficult calls.

EN: For the layman, what does a chaplain do?
BO: In laymen terms, a chaplain helps out by offering prayer or comfort in critical accidents or fires where fatalities or extensive injuries occur. Chaplains help by notifying families when a death has occurred. Many times we just sit and listen to the grieving family member or the injured person’s family and friends and offer a comforting presence and listening ear.

As I chaplain, I can conduct funeral services, but on a happier note, I can conduct weddings, speak at community meetings, or even give sermons on Sunday at church.

EN: You did five tours of duty as a chaplain at Ground Zero. How long is a "tour"? Did you volunteer or were you recruited?
BO: I did five tours of duty at Ground Zero. Initially, there was an all-call for chaplains to go to New York for the purpose of counseling families of victims. I volunteered and went. I was never recruited, although once I was asked specifically to come by a church.

A tour of duty was a period of time chaplains went to help and serve at Ground Zero. There was never a specific required length of time, rather we all volunteered time when we could get away from our regular responsibilities. I would go for two weeks, one week, or sometimes just a few days to offer assistance. I did go five different times and helped for approximately 45 days total over a period of four months.

EN: I can imagine that the hardest part for those who were there that day was seeing people jump to their deaths from the upper floors of the towers. What was the hardest part for the chaplains who came afterwards, like yourself?
BO: The hardest part for me being at Ground Zero was hearing the vivid, detailed stories and descriptions that emergency responders, police, and firefighters told me of their experiences on the Pile. Seeing for myself was so much worse: the sixteen square blocks of devastation, the sounds of the heavy machinery in the clean-up effort, the gagging smells of putrefying human remains and burning jet fuel, and even the grit-coated taste of food we ate. Seeing the awful pain and emotional toll it took on fellow human beings was terrible, way beyond anything you can imagine. I tell some of these stories in my book, although not in extensive detail. I want people to get the message of the book without being shocked by the description of suffering people.

EN: Briefly, what is this book about, and why did you write it now?
BO: The book is about my experiences at Ground Zero. I want people to see how, with God and prayer and true love for others, we can get through all of the horrible things that happened there, but also in any traumatic event. I suffered with post-traumatic stress syndrome myself, but in the worst of my times, I turned to singing hymns, praying, reciting familiar promises in Scripture, and reading the stories of those who suffered in the Bible. Verses from the book of Psalms floated through my mind constantly. Chaplains met as a group from time to time to share their struggles in working at Ground Zero, and that helped immensely. The friendships we built there helped us through difficult times.

EN: What are the takeaways you would like readers to remember from your stories?
BO: The book, Triumph Over Terror, is timeless. Its ideas can help others get through even the toughest situations in life where awful things happen. The book shows how anyone can be an excellent listener in any type of trauma or awful experience that can be imagined and offer comfort to a suffering person. Everyone is a counselor in life at one point or another. We all go through crises or see our family, friends, or neighbors go through crises, and we can all help each other to get through the difficult times and suffering.

I tried writing this book at least six times in the last fifteen years. I cried like a baby each time I attempted it. The tears and anxiety of being right back there on the Pile, surrounded by several thousand missing persons buried under the rubble, brought sharp, painful memories back to me. I hated that, and decided I couldn't go there. So the writing project sat there, buried with my emotions and fears.

Last year, in May, I joined a writer's group and told a few of my Ground Zero stories, and the group told me I needed to write the book. They prayed and encouraged me to get with it and get it done. I had the same tears and toughness of getting through it, but I feel better now that it is finished. Their encouragement through the fifteen months of work on the book kept me going. They pulled me through it. My editor, Janice Heck, also a member of the writers group, polished off my writing and made it readable.

I want folks to see that God's love through us can really bring true joy and merciful healing in situations that can seem unsurmountable. There can truly be Triumph over terrifying things. God never leaves us, nor forsakes us. Always pray for others' needs and not just our own.

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Cumberland Community Church is located at 1800 East Broad Street in Millville. The book signing will be from 7-9 p.m.  You can hear more by watching this brief YouTube promo.
Triumph Over Terror is now available here at

Meantime, life goes on all around you. You, too, can make a difference.

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