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Never Forget: Ground Zero Clergy Responder Rick Del Rio Reflects on 9/11 Anniversary

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Photo: Rev. Rick Del Rio at Ground Zero

Tom Campisi, publisher of TriStateVoice.com, recently interviewed Rev. Rick Del Rio in observance of the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 in New York City. Rev. Del Rio, founding pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries and Abounding Grace Church in Lower Manhattan, is recognized as one of the first clergy responders to Ground Zero. On September 11, 2001, he was preparing for a meeting in Midtown Manhattan when he saw the terrorist attack on television. He immediately sensed God calling him to go to the Twin Towers.

Pastor Rick, what happened when you arrived at Ground Zero?

The city was totally dead. There were no cars, no sounds, nothing, no movement.

The Lord had dropped it on my heart, “Go home and get your collar.” And that was the beginning of my 9/11 experience. I went to my house (on Sixth Street). I got the collar and got on FDR Drive. There’s a policeman there. He sees my collar. He lets me go on the FDR.

I saw all these people walking north on FDR Drive and they’re covered in white soot. I didn’t realize that the second tower had just fallen, maybe 10 minutes before I got there. When I arrived, a police officer said to me, “Father, maybe you’d like to pray for these body parts.” Those parts were covered. I knelt. I prayed. I looked north and saw a fire truck with the cherry top still going. The sidewalk bridge—the bridge that crosses the West Side Highway—was on top of the fire truck.

There were no people. Everybody that was there was killed, all the firemen and police that were there when that tower came down. Those towers came down, and it just obliterated everybody. So now I’m walking in this ash, and it was surreal.

I look up and I see the hole where the towers were, and see the light coming through. And it’s now starting to compute (what has happened). Then I heard an elderly lady calling from Washington Street. And she said, “Somebody help me! My husband’s in a wheelchair.” So I followed her. Took him out to where they were evacuating people…Then I got in a car with the police, and they dropped me off at One Liberty Plaza (which became Zuccotti Park)…I was there until about 2 a.m.  

How did you minister to the first responders at Ground Zero?

When I got there, I saw the despair on the faces of the first responders and the laborers. We were setting up a triage on Liberty with the expectation of saving lives. When they saw me, they said, “Father, we need more like you. We need others like you here. Thank you for being here.”

I was the closest link to God for these guys. It was that day that I understood “the ministry of presence.” It wasn’t that I had to be go through a whole theological thing. It was just being there. It was like they felt, “Yeah, God is still here.” They would ask me for prayer and I was able to pray with different ones. They even asked me for absolution. There was such a despair and fear of what would happen next that had gripped their hearts.

In spite of that, the police and firemen were determined to save lives at the expense of their life. It was such a dramatic paradox where you have people fleeing for their lives, and you have those that are running in to save lives.

I was there until 2 o’clock in the morning. I jumped on the pile to help clean. They were trying to find someone. And then they said to me, “Father, you don’t have to do that. Just you being here (is enough).” When they said to me, “We need more like you,” it sparked something.

And that was the beginning of the Ground Zero Clergy Task Force. I called Pastor Marc Rivera (Primitive Church in Lower Manhattan), and I told him what was happening. He came to Ground Zero. Jeremy Del Rio, my son—he walked away from the law firm where he was working (to do relief work). We formed the Ground Zero Clergy Task Force on September 12 to be able to work on the recovery and do whatever we could to help…God used us to be able to help bring the clergy together in the city and to address this situation.

What were some of the things you did as the Ground Zero Clergy Task Force?

I felt convicted that my new mission was to get people to come to see what happened in our city. That it was not just something that people saw on TV. As churches and pastors and leaders were coming in from around the country to help, I was able to escort them so that they could see for themselves.

Jeremy Del Rio, Rick Del Rio, and Marc Rivera of the Ground Zero Clergy Task Force

My thing was not to just give tours, but to bring attention to what had happened in our city and the fact that we were going to need help…The churches in our city, it was their people that died in the Towers. We had churches in Staten Island that lost so many firemen, police, and the folks that were working there.

There was thousands of people that lost their lives that day, and we were all affected as a city. We were affected as churches and leaders. I felt that since I had the access, I could help And that was the position that God opened for me and for the Ground Zero Clergy Task Force—to advocate with the mayor’s office, with FEMA, with the governor’s office, to get access, as well as to bring in resources.

On 9/11/01, there was a strong Christian presence in the city following the terrorist attacks. What do you think of the Christian presence in NYC in 2023?

Well, I think part of the progress that happened during that season, especially in the beginning, was the unifying of the churches, where they all came together…A lot of the things that had separated us fell to the side. Everybody became one. There was an opportunity to unite and to pray together and to serve together. So we became that team. The Ground Zero Clergy Task Force eventually became the Northeast Clergy Group. There was a unified mission. That was wonderful. And there were a lot of relationships that were built from that season.

Even when we came to the point of leading, it was so strategic. We all had different relationships already in place. Even in the government. God brought us all together for such a time as this. We were grateful that we were able to serve.

What we have also seen is that there are people who want to serve and help, and there is no agenda other than to see the kingdom of God built and see the lost saved. That’s my life. That’s how I’m still living… I live life right now with urgency. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, but I want to make the most of that time.

Monday is the 22nd anniversary of 9/11. What does it mean to you?

It is time to slow down and stop. I have gone down to Ground Zero for the different memorial services over the years. But I’ve had my own issues that have come from 9/11. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer back in 2018. They took out the thyroid, they did surgery. And then you keep battling. But in the midst of all of that, we know that God has been faithful….I may or may not go downtown on 9/11. There is a television interview I will be doing. But, for the most part, I usually try to be there. I go with my collar and just represent.

It’s a time that I give God thanks that, in the midst of all of that rubble, in the midst of that terrorist attack, that Jesus was still lifted up. And we were able to go and raise up that standard and declare that Jesus is faithful, even in the midst of all of that. I mean, how resilient our city is?

And you can see that the enemy does not like it because he’s just doing everything he can to destroy the city. But I think that the church has still come together, still praying, still believing God for revival in our city. And I’m just grateful to be able to do that. Sometimes (on 9/11) I’ve watched TV from early in the morning, and I remember. And I pray for these folks. And I just thank God that in the midst of all of that, we’re still here.

TriStateVoice.com’s complete interview with Rev. Rick Del Rio: