Recollections of a Ground Zero Chaplain—Part 1

Recollections of a Ground Zero Chaplain: Mike MacIntosh
Recollections of a Ground Zero Chaplain: Mike MacIntosh

Share This

The View from Ground Zero: Mike MacIntosh Remembers

Story by Carmel Flippen

This story is part of a series in Calvary Chapel Magazine reflecting back on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Today, we feature Pastor Mike MacIntosh, who was the founding pastor of Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego, CA, a Calvary Chapel affiliate. Mike was a member of the National Disaster Response Team in 2001, and he is still working with New York Police Department personnel 20 years later. Follow Mike’s story about his time as a Ground Zero chaplain: Rescuing the Rescuers (Part 2) and Road to Recovery (Part 3)

“I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of Ground Zero,” stated Pastor Mike MacIntosh, “pictures of the tortured girders, the mounds of pulverized debris. And you’ve heard others tell you those pictures conveyed only a glimpse of what it was really like. Those people were very right.”

When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me. Psalm 73:16

At this point in history, many Americans have seen Ground Zero firsthand. They have stood at the viewing platform, toured the museum, and traced loved ones’ names inscribed on the bronze parapets surrounding the reflecting pools. While these memorials are incredibly important, both in honoring our fallen countrymen and searing the reality of 9/11 into our national consciousness, they bear little resemblance to the horrifying sights Mike viewed, after arriving at Ground Zero three days after the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Rescue workers ground zero

Rescue workers search through the maze of debris for survivors. Photo by Skip Heitzig

“While I was there, I thought many times how important it is for America to see what I saw,” Mike declared, “how good it would be for the nation to grasp the gravity of the 9/11 moment and to understand the serious nature of the message it is still pounding out.

“Let my eyes be your eyes for just a moment.

“It seems like miles of twisted, anguished rubble in all directions. Gray and grayer, everywhere are deep caverns with steel-layered canopies. Here and here, steam and smoke drift up in white columns, at times bent and knotted by wind. Forests of huge steel beams, twisted like paper, melted like wax, are stacked like kindling.” The wreckage towered more than five stories high and spanned several acres.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling. Psalm 46:1-3

“But rubble is just rubble,” said Mike. “What gave it emotion were the men and women who worked through it in a desperate hunt for survivors. Everywhere I looked they were digging and searching, climbing over this mound and lowering themselves into that pit. Always keen-eyed, always searching for whatever remained of their fallen countrymen. As they searched, an obvious foul odor radiated up and followed the direction of the wind. At times they looked like ants on a very large, very tortured hill, insignificant when seen against such a massive backdrop.” Most of them felt that way, too, as Mike would discover when he began hearing their stories. They worked 24-hour days and pushed their bodies past the point of exhaustion, but what they had to give was never enough in the face of such unthinkable disaster.

These were the heroes Mike was here to serve: all the first responders, from firefighters to morgue workers to counselors who needed counseling themselves.

"Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends." John 15:13

Mike McIntosh in Times Square

Pastor Mike MacIntosh shares the Gospel at Times Square in 2002. Photo by Dave Fugate

“When the four of us chaplains arrived,” Mike continued, “we introduced ourselves to the chief of FDNY [Fire Department of New York] and made ourselves available. [We stood] with him [surrounded by] the smell of burning flesh, the sadness, and the news that two more firefighters’ bodies had just been found.”

War-weary from the task at hand and broken by the loss of more than 300 of his friends and co-workers, the chief looked up gratefully at these incoming reinforcements. However, he had no time to waste—his surviving firefighters were in dire need of spiritual support. “Good,” he said. “You’re just in time. Put on hard hats, write Chaplain on them in big letters, and get to work. Everyone needs to know that help is here. My men are exhausted. We all may not believe in God or the same God, but we all need His help.”

Mike added, "The Chief was right—we all need God and His help in situations that bring devastation, and I set about bringing God’s love to whomever I met."

My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26


This article was drawn from Mike’s book When Your World Falls Apart: Life Lessons From a Ground Zero Chaplain. Quotations have been edited & condensed to fit this format.

Check back soon to learn how Mike brought God’s comfort to frontline workers in the worst of circumstances.


All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine (CCM). All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.