Like millions of Americans, Jim Daly watched in horror as the World Trade Center’s iconic twin towers came crashing down on live television Sept. 11, 2001.
A decade later, the parishioner of St. John in Little Canada reflects on the time he spent as a Salvation Army volunteer at Ground Zero in January 2002.
“It was a national disaster, and if I could do something to help people, I wanted to,” Daly said.
After answering the Salvation Army’s call for volunteers, Daly found himself at Ground Zero staring into a gaping pit the size of a football field, where construction workers, police officers and firefighters continued to unearth bodies nearly four months after the attacks that killed thousands.
“I was just kind of overwhelmed the first time down at the pit,” he said. “. . . The first couple of days I was there, I was just thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’”
Daly worked the midnight shift for two weeks at a morgue, where he served food to relief workers and organized other volunteers.
The retired Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant had dealt with dead bodies many times in his line of work. But what he saw at Ground Zero was on a different scale than anything he had witnessed before.
Many of the images during those two weeks remain sharp in Daly’s mind: bodies being unloaded from fire trucks, 18 refrigerated trailers full of body parts, a shrine with flowers and candles in memory of lost loved ones, missing persons posters, a giant canvas tent that workers referred to as the “Taj Mahal,” and a “sea” of officers standing outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a police officer’s funeral.
Then there was the smell. “With decomposing bodies, there’s a certain smell that you never forget,” he said, “and that was continually coming out of the morgue.”
Every night, the workers would bring new bodies, many of them fallen police officers, to the morgue for DNA testing. “We would all line up and stand at attention when we would get a call that there was a body on the way,” Daly said.
Workers who came to the morgue often wanted to talk, so Daly listened. “There was a lot of survivor guilt,” he said. “Everyone knew somebody who was killed.”
“The thing about cops and firefighters . . . is that we all know that it could just as well have been us,” he added. “Every time an officer is killed, that same thought goes through your mind. . . . There’s a comradeship that comes with that. You just kind of understand.”
Daly said he prayed every night during his service. “I prayed, ‘Lord, please make me adequate for this.’”
When asked how the experience affected him, Daly paused for a moment, then said: “I have an appreciation for every day when I watch the sun come up. I think [the experience] probably just strengthened that.”
Category: Remembering 9/11