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18 Years Later, Friar-FDNY Chaplain Shares 9/11 Reflections

Although 18 years have passed, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center awakens the painful memories of one of the worst days in American history.

John O’Connor, former Provincial Minister, and Chris Keenan with Mychal Judge’s fire gear. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

For Christopher Keenan, OFM, chaplain to the New York City Fire Department, 9/11 is as much a part of his daily life as is being a Franciscan friar. Long after the last candle is extinguished and the final name is memorialized at anniversary ceremonies and tributes, his work continues, as it has for the past 18 years. It includes spiritual counseling and visits with surviving family members of the 343 firefighters who perished on Sept. 11, 2001. There are what he calls “wellness-check” phone conversations that sometimes extend deep into the night and, of course, the procession of funerals – at a disturbing rate of two per week, says Chris – of first responders who are dying years later from 9/11-linked cancers as a result of exposure to asbestos, jet fuel, mercury and other carcinogenic toxins from their time at Ground Zero.

In many ways, Chris is more than their chaplain. He is one of them. Chris, who lives at the College of Mt. Saint Vincent in the Bronx, has undergone multiple surgeries and treatments for cancer, which he developed while volunteering in the recovery effort. Diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), he also lost a loved one – his close friend and FDNY chaplain predecessor Mychal Judge, OFM, the first certified 9/11 fatality whose body was the first carried from the scene after he was fatally struck by debris from the collapsing south tower while tending to the injured and praying over the dead in the lobby of the north tower.

On this 18th anniversary of 9/11, Chris, in a recent phone conversation, participated in a Q&A with HNP Today, sharing his thoughts, reflections and sentiments on an array of topics including the FDNY, the Sept. 11 anniversary, his connection to Mychal, the families that live daily with the memories of this unspeakable tragedy, and his role as FDNY chaplain during one of the darkest times in history and the 18 years that have followed.

HNP TODAY: What’s the first thing that comes to mind with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center?

CHRIS: For firefighters and those who experienced 9/11, we are quietly re-traumatized and very pensive – and to the newer firefighters, it is an opportunity to never forget those who came before them and who made the supreme sacrifice. But what immediately comes to mind is the recovery process, when I spent seven of the nine months after the attack in the pit, trying to make sense of this senseless tragedy. One night, as I was walking down the makeshift bridge into the pit, I remember thinking – I am descending into hell and, at the same time, seeing the face of God in the hundreds of people around me that were volunteering in the recovery process. In the darkness, there was light at the end of the tunnel – or in this case, at the end of the bridge. While nearly 3,000 perished that day in New York City, we must never forget, too, that more than 25,000 people were brought to safety in that short few hours – which was the single-largest rescue operation in history.

Chris Keenan’s predecessor as fire chaplain, Mychal Judge. (Photo courtesy of Michael Goldman)

HNP TODAY: The nation pays tribute to our fallen heroes once a year on the anniversary of 9/11. What is 9/11 like at the FDNY 18 years later?

CHRIS: There’s no easy way of saying this. The FDNY is in a state of PTSD – period. Not only are we still dealing with the implications of the 343 families – spouses and partners and more than 700 children – but now we have more than 200 families whose loved ones have died of multiple cancers linked to the carcinogens they were exposed to during months of working the recovery effort at Ground Zero. We’re averaging two funerals a week – that’s an incredible number – two individuals who die every week because of 9/11-related illness. Last week, I attended and/or presided at four funerals.

HNP TODAY: That has to be difficult – even for a chaplain and friar. How do you deal with this seemingly perpetual sorrow and grief?

CHRIS: I will admit it’s not easy. I journey with firefighters and EMS personnel from diagnosis to death – and this journey continues with their families. Sometimes it’s quite overwhelming – and it just keeps increasing because there are now well over 2,000 men and women with 9/11-related cancers – myself included. The rate of some cancers is 30 percent higher among 9/11 first responders. Many have 10 or 11 forms of cancer. We buried a fire lieutenant who had eight types of cancer, and nine months later we buried his firefighter son who died of brain cancer. In a way, we are seeing a tsunami of 9/11 in slow motion. We saw 343 firefighters die in one day, but now we see men and women dying every week, one-by-one, piece-by-piece.

HNP TODAY: You mentioned that you are among those with 9/11-linked cancer. How did your condition develop? How serious is it, and do you think it affects how you counsel and minister to first responders and their families?

CHRIS: First, let me say that my cancer is under control – as is my PTSD. I have undergone several surgeries. I am blessed to be a person of faith, and as a friar, I am blessed to have the support of my brothers and our Franciscan fraternity. After we lost Mychal Judge, it was sort of a battlefield appointment for me as chaplain. The night of Sept. 11, I was notifying families that their loved ones had been killed in the attack. As I said, in seven of the nine months that followed, I went to the pit a couple of nights a week, working on the pile alongside firefighters, police officers and other emergency responders, digging and raking through the rubble to recover the pulverized, cremated remains of those who perished. I also celebrated Mass on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. in the pit – sometimes with Brian Jordan, OFM, who was an associate chaplain with the NYPD. Having developed cancer from working at Ground Zero certainly allows me to speak from experience when I am giving the homily at a funeral Mass, and it definitely helps me connect with families.

HNP TODAY: How do you help families reconcile the loss of their spouse, father or son? What do you say to them – and does it get any easier with the passage of time?

CHRIS: It really doesn’t get any easier, even 18 years later. It’s not so much what I say, but rather simply being present to them wherever they are in their journey – being a supportive, loving and caring presence. And it’s a gift to be received into their families and into the FDNY family. Their spouses, fathers and sons took the oath to protect life and property, making the supreme sacrifice carrying out this oath. I tell the families that they are now making the supreme sacrifice every day for the rest of their lives. The assurance we give them is always remembering and never forgetting their loved ones, but also remembering them because they will always be part of our Fire Department family.

HNP TODAY: If you had to point to the greatest challenge of being FDNY chaplain in the context of 9/11, what would that be?

Chris consults with a young fan. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

CHRIS: To me, the greatest challenge with 9/11 families is how we help them celebrate life amidst a culture of death. We have to live this question into an answer as a family, and as individuals who believe in a living God. Despite the darkness, we have to live the lives we’ve been blessed with.

HNP TODAY: Mychal Judge was a larger than life figure in the FDNY – some pretty big boots to fill. Did you ever see yourself becoming FDNY chaplain, let alone succeeding Mychal?

CHRIS: I met Mychal when I was 20 years old and he was assigned to his first ministry as a friar, at St. Joseph Parish in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It was a mentoring moment that we should all have in our lives – and 10 years later I was ordained. We later found out that our fathers knew each other when they lived and worked in Brooklyn. Small world for sure. More irony – I was assigned to that same parish to start one of the first teen ministry programs in Jersey. I never imagined landing at the Fire Department. I didn’t know the difference between an engine and a ladder truck. I was formally commissioned in mid-November, two months after 9/11. Technically, I’m supposed to serve 20 hours a week, but I can’t remember the last time I had a less than 40-hour week. Many times, it exceeds 40 hours. A friend told me he once asked Mychal who he would want to take his place if the Order transferred him out of New York City. I was humbled to learn that Mychal said he would choose me.

HNP TODAY: What would you say you’ve learned about the FDNY – and how has it helped you in your role as a chaplain?

CHRIS: It’s a fraternity, and once you’re in it, you’re part of the family – which is not that different from being a Franciscan in terms of fraternal life. The families and children of firefighters who were killed in the 9/11 attacks are struggling and suffering. But the FDNY is blessed to have a strong support network and is very committed to offering that support to these families.

HNP TODAY: Although you have no baseline – particularly since you became FDNY chaplain after Sept. 11 – do you think there have been any significant changes to the chaplain position after the terrorist attacks?

CHRIS: Overall, the mission of the FDNY is no longer just the suppression of fire and responding to major events and catastrophes. The reality of counter-terrorism has created the need for new training and response tactics to threats that are now biological, chemical, incendiary, dirty bomb and suicide bomb-related. This is the training now of all first responders since 9/11. I am blessed to be the first FDNY chaplain to go through the counter-terrorism training program at the West Point Military Academy – where 35 FDNY officers a year undergo this specialized training. That is one very significant way that the role of FDNY chaplain has changed since 9/11.

HNP TODAY: When asked about the effects of 9/11, most people say that life has never been the same in our country. Of course, people go about their business, but most say they’ll never feel 100 percent safe. Do you agree?

CHRIS: I can’t help but recall some of the insights of Fr. J. Bryan Hehir (a renowned Harvard and Georgetown University professor and the secretary for social services of the Archdiocese of Boston). His comments after 9/11 will always be emblazoned in my consciousness because they hit the mark on explaining life for us in New York City – and really, the U.S. – since the terrorist attacks. He said that during the Cold War era, we were preparing for missiles targeting Washington, D.C., New York and Boston – but that we never could have imagined those missiles, years later, would become our own airlines with suicide pilots targeting places where we live and work. Rev. Hehir also said that since 9/11, wars are no longer waged with generals and admirals leading armies and navies on land and sea on another country’s soil. His reflections perfectly explain present-day. War is now waged here at home in the places we always thought were safe.

HNP TODAY: Any final thoughts on what the FDNY and these 18 years of service as chaplain have meant to you?

Chris Keenan and the firefighters of Ladder 24 on West 31st Street in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

CHRIS: After I was commissioned, the firefighters in the house across from St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street – where I had lived at the friary for several years – asked me to join them around their kitchen table. The kitchen table at a firehouse is where everything happens, so I knew it was important. They told me they knew that I was giving my life to them and the FDNY as their chaplain, and in return, they said that all 11,000 members of the FDNY were there for me. I am very much a part of their lives and families. Over the past 18 years, we have journeyed together from life through death to new life. We try to transform the breakdowns into breakthroughs so that we can be the fullness of who we have been called to be. It’s a very deep spirituality. I always tell firefighters they are New York City’s loving, caring and saving presence to those in desperation. When people cry out to God for help, firefighters are the answer to their prayers. That’s what they mean to the city and to me.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

Editor’s note: Through the years, several people have written reflections for HNP Today about the impact of Mychal Judge, OFM, on their lives. They include John Bates, Salvatore Cassano and Michael Daly, Robert Hickey, and Kelly Ann Lynch.

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