News & Politics

“We Handled Them With Respect and Honor”

An Army Chaplain Stood in a Pentagon Corridor, Checking His Schedule. Then He Left. Half an Hour Later, Flight 77 Exploded Into That Spot. He Calls It His "30-Minute Miracle." His Work Was Just Beginning.

It was dawn when Alvin Sykes kissed his wife, Jessie, goodbye. His son, Alvin Jr., 14, and daughter, Tiffany, 10, were still asleep. "I'll be at the Pentagon in the morning, back in the office after," he whispered to Jessie.

After a 35-minute drive from his Dale City home, Sykes pulled into the Pentagon at 7:10 and began to work through his checklist. As a chaplain for the US Army, it's his job to make sure Army chaplains around the globe have the resources they need to preach.

Sykes went to his first meeting, then his second, scratching off two entries on his "to do" list. That is when he found himself in the Pentagon's middle C ring, checking his watch. It was 9:05 AM on Tuesday, September 11.

His second meeting had gone on longer than expected, and he was running late. He had one more thing to do at the Pentagon. But he also had to get back to his post at the Office of the Chief of Chaplains for a meeting. He stood in the hall, weighing the pros and cons of what to do.

After a minute, Sykes chose to put off the third Pentagon meeting and head back to his Crystal City office.

"I call it my 30-minute miracle," says the Protestant chaplain. A half hour after Sykes walked out of that corridor, American Airlines Flight 77 exploded through at 350 miles an hour.

When he got back to his Crystal City office, Sykes heard that two planes had hit the World Trade Center towers in New York. He joined colleagues in a conference room where everyone had gathered to watch the TV. The chaplains had just finished saying a prayer when a news flash came on the screen.

"It said there was an explosion at the Pentagon. We didn't believe it," says Sykes. Many who were gathered went to the north windows of their 12th-floor offices. Black smoke was billowing from across Route 1. Everyone fell silent.

"Then all of the chaplains started heading to the door," says Terry Bradfield, a Protestant chaplain. "We knew we had to get down there to help."

Every branch of the US armed forces has chap-lains. They are men and women of the cloth available for support and comfort during times of anguish or trouble. They come from many faiths–Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Methodist, Baptist.

Most chaplains are assigned to units, where they'll spend most of their time with the same soldiers. They'll get to know the men and women in their units, providing guidance and becoming a confidant.

"Wherever the unit goes, you go. Whatever the unit does, you do," says Bradfield, who served as a chaplain for troops stationed at Fort Steward, Georgia, as well as for others throughout Europe. "You walk away with many lasting friendships."

Chaplains are trained to assist medical personnel in medical triage during any emergency situation that might arise. They might pray over the dead or console the injured. Sometimes they help physicians care for the wounded.

Once the Army chaplains confirmed that the Pentagon was hit, they knew that soldiers and civilians were injured. And in their hearts, they knew that some were probably dead.

"I was scared," says Bradfield. "We all were. We didn't know what was going to happen next."

But the chaplains knew they should go to the Pentagon: "Care for the living, minister to the wounded, and honor the dead," Bradfield says.

Sykes was already out the office door when Bradfield realized someone needed to stay behind and man the phones. He decided to stay. Sykes started walking to the Pentagon. Traffic was backed up. People had evacuated their offices and were standing silently on the streets and sidewalks.

He crossed over Old Jefferson Davis Highway and saw hundreds more people hurrying out of the Pentagon's north parking lot. "I was the only one going the opposite way," says Sykes. One man stopped him and said: "Chaplain, they need you up there."

Then he ran into a shaken coworker. "She's a grandmother. She had so many questions all over her face," he says.

As Sykes got closer to the triage site, he couldn't believe his eyes. People were covered in soot and dirt, others in blood. Some had shredded their once-pressed shirts to cover their faces. One man was ripping the back seats out of his minivan so stretchers could fit inside.

Those who were okay wanted to help. Sykes heard that emergency extraction teams were being formed. A torn eight-by-five sheet of composition paper was being passed around for a sign-up list. Sykes signed his name, propping the paper on the back of the man in front of him. At the moment, prayer didn't seem like enough.

"I wanted to be inside," he says. "In my 22 years in the Army, I had never been in harm's way."

The emergency medical workers gave volunteers towels to wrap around their faces and necks. They told them to stay low and be prepared for anything. Then Sykes, his team, and nine other teams of five were led through the Pentagon, entering from the opposite side of where the building was burning and then out into the center courtyard.

"The closer we got, the more intense it became," he says. "There was this piercing evacuation alarm. It was a man's voice saying, 'There has been an emergency at the Pentagon. All personnel evacuate immediately.' It kept playing over and over with a siren in the background."

From the center courtyard, Sykes and an Air Force chaplain followed the team members into an underground passageway while carrying a stretcher. They were told they would walk as a group under the burning second corridor to the stairwell and then move up to the second floor to find survivors.

"That's where I began to wrestle with fear," says Sykes. "Firemen were coming out completely black. They were wearing oxygen masks, thick canvas overalls, and helmets. I was wearing a dress shirt and dress shoes with a paper mask."

Then the fire chief emerged from the smoke.

"No one is going back in there," he said.

Many of those on the emergency extraction teams formed that morning were military chaplains. The US Central Command chaplains, a senior group that provides ministry to troops worldwide, were here for a conference. Their kickoff had been at 8:30 that morning. Now many were gathered in the Pentagon's central courtyard, where they were told to wait until the fires died down. Many were consoling soot-covered firefighters who wanted to pray before heading back into the building.

"It was then that people started realizing that they should be calling loved ones to tell them we're okay," says Sykes. It was 11:35 before he tried calling his wife on his cell phone. He couldn't get through.

Back in the Army's Office of the Chief of Chaplains in Crystal City, Terry Bradfield called his wife, Maile, and kids Jim, 16, and Annie, 14, in Leesburg to tell them he was safe. He didn't stay on for long. The phones were ringing nonstop. Mostly they were calls from officials trying to account for staff. Other calls were from chaplains at the site.

"It was like trying to create a little bit of order in all of the chaos," says Bradfield.

Every so often he would have a second to think about his own connection to the section of the Pentagon that was on fire. The Offices of the Chief of Chaplains had been directly across from the heliport–the heliport that Flight 77 cracked its wing on when it was coming in. The department moved to offices in Crystal City in 1998 while a renovation was taking place.

"I have a very strong connection emotionally to that building," says Bradfield. "When you spend eight to ten hours a day in a building, you know the halls. The building has moods, and it has a spirit. Soon, it becomes a symbol of the people inside it, and the work those people do. For us, this was a time of immense grief."

That night, Bradfield slept on a couch in the office. By 7 the next morning, Wednesday, he was showered and out the door.

"I wanted to get down to the site. It seemed like the right place for me to be," he says. "When I got there, I must have stared into the wreckage for an hour before I could do anything. I was angry for so many reasons."

When Brafeild arrived at the Pentagon, people were talking about removing the remains. Chaplains were discussing how best to honor the dead.

"Wherever the remains were located and whatever the condition, we wanted them to be treated with comfort. These were our fallen comrades," says Bradfield. "We wanted family members to know that even in the worst of circumstances we handled them with respect and honor."

They decided to create what they called "a chain of dignity." Teams would enter the building, search for remains, and place them on a litter. Holding the litter steady, the searchers would make their way out of the building. Two chaplains at the exit point–this was Alvin Sykes's post–would say a blessing for the dead and also for the searchers. Over and over, Sykes read scripture and prayers, many based on the first 12 verses of Psalm 90, while standing over bags of charred remains.

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.

Thou has set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

For all our days are passed away in thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Then the remains would travel to the recovery vehicle–Bradfield's post–where the doors were closed and the bags opened. Bradfield, and other chaplains, would say a second prayer. The remains were then transferred to the morgue, where they'd receive another blessing before being prepared for the transfer to Dover Air Force Base.

"It was very solemn, almost sacred," says Bradfield. "When someone picked up remains, everyone would remain silent."

Federal authorities had told rescue workers to expedite the transfer. But they always stopped for the blessings. One team was passing a litter piled with remains through a broken window. "Hey chaplain, we need ya down here," one rescue worker yelled to Sykes.

To work through what they were seeing and feeling, rescue workers began going to the chaplains for "exorcisms." At the end of a shift, a group would gather in a circle and talk about things they saw. It was their way of removing what they saw as evil spirits–and finding a way to sleep at night.

"To be able to talk about some of the things we had seen that day helped to put it in order and context," says Bradfield.

Bradfield and his religious colleagues also looked to the Bible. When the plane went in, it hit a tree that caught fire. "To us, it evoked images of the broken tree of the cross, or the Psalms of David," he says.

One of his friends who had been up in Manhattan at ground zero said that in the wreckage workers found large posts that had fallen into three crosses. "It brought to mind the three crosses of Good Friday. We tend to be an image-oriented kind of people. It helps us deal with sorrow and grief," he says. After two days of blessing the dead–and seeing things that will stay with him forever–Bradfield was told to go home. When his wife picked him up and he got in the car, he didn't talk. After a few seconds, he burst into tears.

That same Wednesday, Sykes arrived home around 10 PM. He talked to his wife and then went to bed. But it was the same as the night before: He couldn't sleep.

"I kept reliving what I experienced that day," he says. "I went through a dozen scenarios. I could see the plane, the explosion, all of the faces in 3-D color. By 4 AM, I couldn't take it anymore. I got up and started getting ready to head back."

Thursday morning, Sykes was assigned to be a "roving chaplain." He was assigned to the Joint Family Assistance Center, a site at the Sheraton in Crystal City where families of victims went for information and support. The chaplains there were asked to provide comfort and give context to the events. Around 10:30 the families were briefed. It was then they were told there would be no more survivors.

"There was screaming, crying. Some people were falling down and couldn't stand back up," he says. A few moments later, Sykes heard a call for a chaplain. He walked over to a middle-aged woman who couldn't contain her grief. The mental-health worker who had been attending to her explained that chaplain Sykes was here to take care of her.

"The words riveted through me," he says. "How was I going to help her?"

She looked up at him through her tears and explained that her husband had died four months ago. Two days ago, she'd lost her son. She wanted to know: Why had God done this? "We are such good people. We are Christian people. I don't know why or how," she said. She repeated it over and over.

Chaplains often have to look for meaning in the unexplainable. But Sykes says he found himself at a loss for words: "In my 20 years as a minister, I've learned you don't try to answer the questions. There are no answers, and they really don't expect you to answer. No explanation you can give will justify why–and their psyches aren't capable of hearing a logical explanation–even if there was one." Sykes tried to console her and give her reason to believe that God would be there for her in the coming months.

Bradfield experienced the same situation when the Pentagon was evacuated on Wednesday because a suspicious aircraft was seen coming toward it. One woman grew frantic.

"It elicited a flashback," says Bradfield.

That day he sat and talked with her for an hour. He made her relive every moment from the day before to help her work through her anguish.

"We want people to tell their stories," Bradfield says. "By the time she was finished, she felt better. But it took a while to get there."

Prayer played a role at the Pentagon site throughout the rescue and recovery. At times, it was faith in something larger that kept people going, says Bradfield. And for many chaplains, leading those in prayer was a way for them to begin their own healing.

When the first search-and-rescue team was sent home–after being on site for five days–members asked Bradfield if he would lead them in a prayer. Bradfield and about 70 men walked up to the crash site. The chaplain stood on a pile of rubble while the rescue workers formed two lines. Many were still wearing their yellow helmets. Those manning the cranes turned the machines off. Dozens of other rescue workers, FBI agents, and chaplains followed behind the team.

Words that had been held inside Bradfield began pouring out. He told them how the building had its own life and that the rescue workers were now a part of that life. He said they gave themselves in a tireless way and their names would go down in history. He told them their spirits had been added to the sacredness of this spot.

"By the time I was done, I was crying. Many others were too," he says.

They pulled together to say another prayer for the firefighters and rescue workers who were lost in New York. Then they turned to the flag that had been draped down from the top of the scarred building. Bradfield brought them to attention, then asked them to do an about-face.

"They started spinning nearly every way but the right way," he says.

The rescue workers began moving away from the rubble. Teams of workers and others on the site formed a corridor for them to walk through. People began saluting.

"Emotionally, it was a turning point for all of us," says Bradfield. "It seem-ed to put a period on the end of a very long paragraph."

Sykes had a similar moment while on roving duty. He was assigned inside the Pentagon to provide support to personnel. He said the phones would not stop ringing in the small office staffed with another chaplain and a chaplain's assistant.

"I'd be on the phone with one person and have two calls on hold waiting," says Sykes. Many wanted to have a memorial service, but at the time no one had been confirmed dead. In a sense, a memorial service wasn't yet appropriate.

Then he received a call from a member of a Pentagon soccer team. It had lost one of its teammates in the explosion. The players felt they couldn't hold practice or play until they paid respects to their teammate.

Sykes headed down to the east side of the Pentagon. The players stood in a circle holding hands, their eyes closed. He said a prayer while turning inside of the circle. "Before they turned loose their hands, they thanked me and said, 'Let's play ball,' " says Sykes. "Prayer was a way we could all connect."

For both chaplains, getting back to typical duties within the Office of the Chief of Chaplains was hard. They say their minds remained at the Pentagon site. They'd be picturing who was there, what they could be doing if they were there.

Bradfield says when people see the chaplain marker on his collar, they often stop him to talk. Sometimes about nothing. Sometimes about their memories of that day.

"They see you as someone of support. Chaplains are symbols of the eternal, of peace and comfort," says Bradfield.

The chaplains have been on a 12-hours-on/12-hours-off work schedule since September 11. They are keeping their offices open around the clock.

In the months to come, the images of those days will haunt and inspire Bradfield and Sykes. "I have a videotape in my head of soldiers carrying litters. It just keeps replaying over and over," Bradfield says. "But I'll also never forget the strength of the human spirit. I saw people not thinking about themselves but one another. It was an amazing display of the good in humans. You forget what people are capable of." *