Recollections of a Ground Zero Chaplain—Part 2

Recollections of a Ground Zero Chaplain Part 2
Recollections of a Ground Zero Chaplain Part 2

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Rescuing the Rescuers: Mike MacIntosh Remembers

Story by Carmel Flippen

This is Part 2 of a series on Calvary Chapel Pastor Mike MacIntosh’s ministry after 9/11. Follow Mike’s story about his time as a Ground Zero chaplain: The View from Ground Zero (Part 1) and Road to Recovery (Part 3).

*Name changed to protect privacy

As a member of the National Disaster Response Team, Pastor Mike MacIntosh received a call from Washington, D.C., minutes after the first tower fell. Mike’s team of chaplains was desperately needed in New York City. He flipped on the television, glued to the screen like millions across America as the footage unfolded. Already, the death toll was estimated in the thousands. Through his disaster training, he knew to estimate that for every life lost, “ten other people—family and friends whose lives will never be the same—come to the scene,” he explained, “all distraught, all seeking answers, all needing spiritual and mental health professionals to comfort and counsel them. I knew I was about to enter a zone of misery and mourning greater than I could have even contemplated.

“‘God,’ I whispered, flipping the television off, “be there with me. And help all of the suffering families and friends.’” Minutes later, another call came in from D.C.—the second tower had fallen. His heart sank. “In my mind, the number of souls that had suddenly been thrust into torment doubled,” he grieved.

"Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." John 14:2

Pastor Mike McIntosh ministering in Spanish Harlem

Pastor Mike MacIntosh ministers in Spanish Harlem in New York City in 2002. Photo by Dave Fugate

Within the Triangle of Tragedy

A few days later, Mike walked the midnight streets of Manhattan with a New York Police Department (NYPD) detective. The once-familiar city had been transformed into a nightmare hellscape. “The air was filled with the noxious smell of death,” he remembered. “Streets that once glowed with streetlights were canyons of darkness, their office buildings’ windows black and vacant.”

At that point, Mike had pastored Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego for 28 years, from its 10-member infancy to its current thousands. He had a master’s degree in chaplaincy, and 19 years of crisis training and experience as a police chaplain. He was on-site after 1995’s Oklahoma City bombing and various airplane crashes. “But for all that experience and training,” he admitted, “all those years in the classroom and the field, as I stepped into that triangle of tragedy, I couldn’t see how any of it prepared me for what I was about to encounter.

“But that wasn’t entirely true. As I look back on it, I can see that the Lord had prepared me—at least to the point where, with His help, I could make a difference in the lives I encountered.”

And they shall rebuild the old ruins, … they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations. Isaiah 61:4

Ground Zero was the top corner of what Mike would come to call the “triangle of tragedy”—the area in which the majority of his ministry and their efforts took place.

Emergency lighting took over as they neared the acres of burning rubble. Hundreds of firefighters scrambled over the giant mounds, searching for survivors and battering flaming debris with fire hoses. “The fire and water produced a mix of steam and smoke clouding the air for miles around,” said Mike. “With those brilliant lights shining through it, it brought to those canyons of darkness a sense of eeriness, a haunting surrealism.”

They noticed two firemen headed their way. “With that ghostly light behind them, they were only dark silhouettes, but even so, we could see that they walked with deliberate, plodding steps—as if in shock, as if they were soldiers emerging from a war zone. As we drew closer, we saw that their stern, stoic faces were streaked gray with dirt and sweat. We heard their deep coughs as they hacked and spit the hours of dust and death from their lungs.”

Mike approached the men to express his deep appreciation. To his surprise, after 10 minutes of small talk, one firefighter’s tough exterior crumbled, and he began pouring his heart out—not just about the current tragedy, but all he had faced since childhood. Mike knew from his extensive experience that it typically took much longer for people to trust a counselor with such deep wounds. Clearly this man’s very foundations had been shaken by the tragedy he witnessed. Mike took the time to listen and point the man toward Christ. “God was at work within that dear man,” he declared. “How He worked remains between the two of them, but that He worked affirmed a great hope within me.”

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

While the crumbling buildings and lost lives of 9/11 were horrific enough, its impact did not stop there, Mike testified: “It had a profound effect on the lives of all the emergency personnel, rescue workers, construction workers, and the myriad of other agencies involved in the investigation, rescue and recovery efforts.”


Ministry in the Morgue

The left corner of the Triangle of Tragedy was the morgue. Beyond the medical examiner’s building were numerous medical tents for processing remains, and beyond those were refrigerated trailers overflowing with bodies pulled from the rubble. “On my first day there were two; three days later, there were dozens more,” he noted grimly. Mike made it most of the way through his orientation tour, but a glimpse of an empty gurney in one of the medical tents suddenly caused his stomach to clench and threaten to empty. “I learned this had hit everyone involved there at least once,” he said. “Curiously enough, it wasn’t the morgue or all the death that did that to me, it was the sudden awareness of why those gurneys were there—to carry the horrific results of a human tragedy committed by inhuman people.”

Mike was touched by the dignity shown to the often unrecognizable remains, but the long hours and endless influx of death took a toll on the morgue workers. One of them was Maria*, a forensic specialist with the NYPD, whom Mike sat down with on a bench across from the examination tables. “As with the firefighter,” he narrated, “the Ground Zero effect had done its work in Maria’s heart. I was a perfect stranger, but that didn’t matter. I was willing to listen. As we sat there, elbows on our knees, her emotional wounds—some long buried but still festering—began to release their toxic poisons.

“After a few minutes I gently interrupted. I told her God wanted to help her, and He alone could make things work in her life. He would provide for her and give her the strength she needed.

But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. 1 Peter 5:10

“She looked at me with soft, moist eyes. ‘Do you really think God would help someone like me?’

“Time after time I’ve found that the Ground Zeros of life either make you a bitter person or a better person. The first step to becoming ‘better’ is to ask the question Maria asked. Then, believe the answer: ‘Yes, He will. All you have to do is call on Him.’”

Pastor Mike McIntosh chaplaincy orientation

Pastor Mike MacIntosh gives a quick chaplaincy orientation to other pastors at Ground Zero. Pastor Mike was placed in charge of pastoral care for the Red Cross in the wake of 9/11. Photo by Tom Price

Two Sides of the Table

The triangle’s final corner, and Mike’s Spiritual Care Unit’s headquarters, was the Family Assistance Center. Mike remembers entering into “the surging sound of voices, a sound like the boiling rapids of a fast-moving river. If the walls enclosing the great hall in that armory could express the emotion, grief, and agony they witnessed, I suppose mankind would reconsider the atrocities it has committed upon itself—and any future destructive acts.”

Cheap folding chairs and tables lined the auditorium from end to end. Sitting at the tables were citizens seeking information on missing loved ones, which almost invariably was bad—survivors’ families were usually quickly alerted by the hospitals. “My heart broke over and over as I saw families discover they would never see [their loved one] again. Upon hearing their news, some people wept and trembled alone, while others clung to someone nearby for comfort. Some were angry, others depressed. Every emotion you could imagine was represented somewhere—every emotion but joy.

“Behind those tables were hundreds of public servants, each skating on the knife-edge of emotional breakdown, all but overwhelmed by what they were being asked to do: to carry the news of life or death to the thousands of anguished, frightened people who lined up day and night waiting for news about those they loved.

And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Galatians 6:9

“It’s right that our sympathies are with those family and friends of the victims; often their loss is incalculable. But the wear on these interviewing officers was tremendous as well. It’s for this reason that I’ve devoted so much of my free time to serving law enforcement. They wear a uniform and carry a badge, but they are real people with real lives and real families; and they are generally misunderstood. After speaking with several NYPD officers working in the great hall, I saw the impact this process had on them. Obedience, patience, and compassion kept them at their posts.

“Being both pastor and chaplain, I focused on both sides of those tables. Although I comforted people when I could, I quickly found there was little to do but pray. This was a tragedy literally of biblical proportions, and it needed the God of the Bible to bring His healing and peace to this place.”


A God of Rescue

And He did. While Mike can never forget the devastation and grief he witnessed, what he remembers more is how God continually showed up, both supernaturally and through the love His servants showed. “Jesus consistently reminded those listening how much God loved them,” Mike preached. “Perhaps you think God is so far away He’s out of touch with you. Not so. Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." Matthew 10:29-31

“When people left home September 11th for work, God knew the exact number of hairs that remained on their heads. He was intimately involved with each of these victims from the moment they woke up. He knew their families would need comfort in the hours to come, so He prepared thousands of people, such as myself, to bring sympathy, comfort, and love to the tens of thousands suddenly plunged into those dark valleys of grief.

“How many loving, compassionate friends has God brought to those affected by Ground Zero?” Mike asked. “A lot. If you just look at my experience alone, I spoke with chaplains from the FBI, ATF, DMORT, NYPD, Coast Guard, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and numerous other agencies and organizations. In addition, we trained 500 local clergy in a 10-day period. God brought a large army to help those touched by this horrific event.”

Mike’s two weeks at Ground Zero laid the groundwork for his church to send weekly trained, 11-person teams from December 2001-March 2002. By 2002, their church’s crisis team had multiplied into nearly 100 affiliate ministries throughout the U.S. and even around the globe.

While America hopefully will never face another tragedy like 9/11, many people today are facing tragedies that have shaken their world to its foundation. “If your identity is found in God, then you will make it through whatever your Ground Zero is,” Mike proclaimed. “Why? Because the God of the universe, the reservoir of all knowledge and wisdom, is walking right there with you, helping you. Just as firefighters and police officers run into buildings as others run from them, God runs into our burning building, wraps us in His fireproof arms, and carries us to safety.”

"Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand." Isaiah 41:10


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.


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.