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FIRST-PERSON: Firefighter encounters the cross at Ground Zero

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (BP)–After watching my fire department appear in three episodes of “Rescue 911” several years ago, I felt burdened to write about my own experiences. After 12 years of working in a busy department, I knew I could share similar experiences, but also place a focus on what was happening at those scenes spiritually. I had witnessed God work in mighty ways and wanted to give him the glory he deserved. “Sirens for the Cross,” published and released in 1999, became a result of that burden. I now had a tool to share with fellow rescuers and readers how God’s power and presence could be seen through emergency work.

Then came Sept. 11.

I began sending copies of Sirens for the Cross to New York City and praying for an opportunity to personally go to Ground Zero. But after a day or so I knew they had all the firefighting help they needed and I would probably just stand behind a barricade if I went.

But God changed my heart a few weeks later when I received an e-mail from a woman in Ohio. She had picked up a copy of my book and was encouraging me to go and minister to my fellow firefighters in New York City. This lady did not know me from Adam! I knew God was calling me to take a step of faith through that e-mail, and that was to simply book a flight and go. I got a ticket that very day for the following weekend despite all of the uncertainties. It was then that this little step of faith was rewarded, as several opportunities began to develop in the days before going.

I was asked to be on a N.Y.-N.J. radio program, speak in a special church service and participate as a fire chaplain in a massive urn ceremony that had been hastily planned by officials. God filled my itinerary in an exciting way. We certainly have a God of divine appointments!

At Liberty State Park that Sunday, I was one of 12 fire/police chaplains to distribute urns to 26 busloads of victims’ family members who were escorted from Ground Zero where the first part of the day’s events was held. It was unbelievable the wide array of emotions I witnessed that day as I placed those urns in so many trembling hands. With only a minute or so with each group or person, I would just try to make eye contact with them and pray that they would see the compassion of Christ through my eyes. I would tell them we have a God who could comfort them and see them through this tragic time.

I’ll never forget seeing what so many of the actual victims looked like. You might ask how. It seemed like on just about every shirt or jacket was a photo button or screen-printing of that family’s lost loved one. It brought this whole tragedy to such a personal level and I know it was only by the strength of the Lord that I was able to get through it.

After the urn ceremony, I and several fellow fire chaplains walked the still-smoking debris piles of Ground Zero. Upon entering the site I realized there wasn’t a computer image, magazine picture or even TV footage that could compare to being there in person. The sights, the sounds and even the smells were overwhelming. I immediately sensed the evil behind what I was seeing. But I knew I was down there for a mission, and that Satan was simply trying to discourage me with the damage and destruction.

With armloads of Sirens for the Cross books, God led us across the paths of numerous FDNY firefighters, who were encouraged and oftentimes made their way to us to thank us for being there. We could see in their faces they were undoubtedly hungry for spiritual comfort.

But nonetheless, after walking the pile for two hours, I was continuing to sense the impact of Satan in the destruction and smell of death. But praise God that all changed when I came across the famous steel-beam “Cross” just before leaving the site. Seeing that cross took all that discouragement and wiped it clean away! It was so powerful and illustrative of just who really is in control! My spirit was immediately calmed.

A wonderful blessing would come just a short distance away from the large cross where we came across two tired and weary FDNY firefighters. After a brief time of sharing with them, they stood to their feet and prayed aloud to receive Christ into their hearts.

Heart-stopping is the only way to describe the feeling after seeing those guys pray that prayer. That’s what it’s all about! I tell you, that cross had new meaning for those two New York City firefighters that night! And it was certainly a powerful assurance to me. Yes, I might have gone into Ground Zero seeing the ultimate in destruction and death, but I left seeing the reason why we have the greatest victory over death: the cross!
Neiman is a fulltime firefighter/paramedic with the Saint Lucie County Fire District in Fort Pierce, Fla. Details of his time in New York City can be found in the newly released “Ground Zero Tribute Edition” of Sirens for the Cross. The book is available through LifeWay Christian Stores or Neiman’s ministry website at www.tommyneiman.com.

    About the Author

  • Tommy Neiman