The news media and the nation would later call the site of the largest terrorist attacks in United States history by the name “ground zero.” The firefighters and other first responders who rushed to the scene when two 110-floor buildings collapsed into 14.6 acres of mangled steel and concrete would call it “the Pit.”

But when Andrew Columbia, a pastor and retired New York City police officer, arrived that Tuesday morning in September, those names hadn’t yet emerged from the acrid smoke. Twenty years later, Columbia remembers the gray dust and, out of that dust, the faces of the police officers, medics, and firefighters who had seen devastation beyond comprehension.

“They were weeping. No one was really talking. They were in shock. I just walked up and offered prayer. Didn’t even ask,” Columbia said. “No one refused it.”

In the years since then, as anniversaries have come and gone and the wreckage has been transformed into a memorial, Columbia has heard the periodic reminders to “Never Forget.” But the first-responder community and the New York City pastors who minister to them have never needed that slogan. Forgetting has proved impossible.

The trauma of 9/11 has been a daily reality and a spiritual need for many in the past two decades.

This doesn’t mean they always talked about their experience in terms of post-trauma. “Up until that time, post-traumatic stress just wasn’t language that we had,” said John Picarello, pastor of House on the Rock Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational church on Staten Island.

Like many pastors of small congregations in the outer boroughs, Picarello was bivocational in 2001. Or really, trivocational. He pastored the church, served as an active-duty member of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), and baked bagels to pay the bills. He was working in Brooklyn as a fire chief’s aide on the night of September 10 and was still on duty when the planes hit the twin towers.

In the initial months after 9/11, Picarello’s small church saw attendance at Sunday services and midweek prayer meetings swell. Everyone seemed to be turning to God and the church to make sense of the earth-shattering tragedy. He heard this was happening at the rest of the churches in Staten Island too, and in the other boroughs, and across the country.

But then there was a cooling off. Attendance deflated. A year passed and time moved on, but the memory of the event didn’t disappear, and the stress, anxiety, mental health concerns, and ongoing effects of trauma actually began to be more apparent to local pastors.

Article continues below

“A lot of us feel like we did not capitalize correctly … and take that opportunity to really reach out to families in a way to bring them into the church. And a lot of them came in initially and then left,” said Columbia, who was then an associate pastor at International Christian Center on Staten Island. “And, you know … I don’t think, in the long term, things turned out much different.”

Over the next 14 years, more than 3,700 firefighters would be diagnosed with stress-related mental health conditions that began after the attacks. Columbia and Picarello say they had to learn what that meant. They really weren’t prepared, and there was no church infrastructure in place at that time to address the immediate needs of firefighters, police officers, emergency medical services workers, and their families, so a lot of the first-responder communities turned inward as they grappled with the challenges of day-to-day life after a tragedy.

Even without the looming specter of a massive tragedy, it’s difficult to overstate how isolated many people are in these insular communities. Predominately men, they tend to want to carry the weight of “the job” in solitude. When they do reach out, it’s typically to one of their own: another cop, firefighter, or EMS worker.

Picarello recalls an influx of late-night theological conversations post-9/11, many of them in the quiet of the firehouse kitchen. Fellow firefighters would seek out his spiritual counsel—but away from others’ prying ears, lest spiritual needs threaten their sense of self-sufficiency, strength, and emotional endurance. Picarello says he once smuggled a Bible to a sheepish coworker in a covert operation to get it into someone’s locker.

But it was clear, even at the time, that kitchen conversations weren’t going to be enough. The FDNY’s own Counseling Services Unit—then a small outfit with 11 employees in a single office—responded to the burgeoning mental health crisis by overhauling its entire approach. The unit began to deploy peer counselors directly to emergency service workers experiencing mental health difficulties.

“Without people knocking on the door, letting our members know what’s available, they wouldn’t come in for help,” said Frank Leto, a FDNY veteran and deputy director of the counseling unit. “We can go to firehouses, sit down at kitchen tables, and talk with our members. Our peer program allows us to have eyes and ears in the field, to be a bridge to the clinical services.”

Article continues below

Even as the number of people receiving counseling increased, there were still unmet spiritual needs. Firefighters for Christ, an international organization based out of California, had only established its New York City chapter in 1997. For the past several years, the organization has met monthly in a Queens diner. About 60 active and retired firefighters gather to talk about the challenges of merging Christian faith with the job.

The churches have developed new spaces too. Columbia hosts a first-responder support group at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Carmel, New York, an outpost for cops and firefighters who live beyond the city limits.

“They need a refuge. They need a place to decompress,” Columbia said. “Personally, I know that, because part of my testimony is exactly that. I didn’t know how to decompress before I found Christ, which led me to have a lot of problems dealing with a lot of anger.”

Recently, first responders seeking support have talked less about PTSD and more about the long-term physical health impacts of 9/11. Not long ago the fire department had to relocate a wall dedicated to the memory of those who had died, because of the additional names of those who succumbed to illnesses related to the inhalation of toxic dust. COVID-19 also disproportionately harmed 9/11 first responders.

Fewer people come to the 9/11 first responders’ funerals now, but Picarello, Columbia and others still minister to those who never had to be reminded to never forget.

“Our little motto is this: We understand the job, and we care. So, you know, we know what you’re going through,” Columbia said.

After 20 years, that basic spiritual need hasn’t changed. As Billy Graham said in an address to the nation on September 14, 2001, “The lesson of this event is not only about the mystery of iniquity and evil, but, second, it’s a lesson about our need for each other.”

Kathryn Watson is a reporter from New York City.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.