This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Many of us remember where we were when we heard or saw the terrible news. Michigan District pastor Rev. Carl W. Bassett is no exception. He remembers being in Elk Grove Village, Ill. taking a clinical pastoral education course at Alexian Brothers Hospital when he received a phone call from his daughter, who had been watching things unfold on TV.
Within a few minutes of that phone call, Bassett, who has served as a special agent chaplain to the FBI since 1993, was paged by his boss and put on immediate alert to travel east to attend to the needs of those who were on site. Within a few days, when the planes started flying again, he found himself en route to New York City alongside several other federal agents and military personnel.
Nothing could have prepared him for the first sight of Ground Zero. He says: “I’m a veteran of Vietnam. I had two combat tours there, not as a pastor … And when I walked on that site for the very first time and saw what you all didn’t see on TV, the immensity of what happened and how it affected everything all around me, I stood there and I remember my words, ‘Dear God, I don’t even know what to do.’”
Bassett spent two weeks there helping people however he could. Amid 18-hour days of witnessing indescribable pain and suffering, he also experienced the presence of God in many ways, both ordinary and extraordinary—be it a simple cool breeze in the midst of the haze and heat, or the discovery of the famous cross made up of I-beams. He describes the sight: “In the midst of the terrible debris and twisted remains was a large cross made out of I-beams that, believe it or not, had randomly/not randomly fallen out of that destruction and planted itself in the middle of all of that confusion and chaos. To one side there was another, taller cross, still erected. And there was another one lying on the ground. It made me think about Calvary—you know, the three crosses—but they weren’t put there. They fell there that way. Part of the airplane’s skin was hanging off the one cross, which ultimately became known as the World Trade Center cross.” By making an initial connection with a journalist who later made connections with Mayor Giuliani and others, Bassett was instrumental in getting the cross moved to the center of Ground Zero and later put in the 9/11 Museum.
Bassett met all kinds of people—from sanitation workers to firefighters, to police officers, to families, and says that in every circumstance they were unique, yet everybody shared the commonality of extreme feelings of sadness and anger, all mixed together. “And yet God was there for the stability,” he says. The experience changed his life, “in the sense of really knowing what God’s presence is all about. We can read it and we can study it and we can believe, but when you experience it in that way, it is like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank God you’re here. Cause I don’ know what to do.’”
Be sure to watch the video interview above to hear more amazing details of Rev. Bassett’s experience.
Photos courtesy of Rev. Carl Bassett