CANARSIE — Msgr. John Delendick, a longtime FDNY chaplain who’s now pastor of St. Jude Church, Canarsie, remembers Sept. 11, 2001 vividly.
At the time of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Msgr. Delendick had just finished celebrating Mass at St. Michael’s Church in Sunset Park, where he was pastor. He jumped in his car and drove as close to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel as possible before he walked to the scene on West Street in Manhattan.
He remembers running into FDNY colleagues, including first deputy commissioner William Feehan, who was later killed in the collapse. He remembers giving absolution to a cop who ran to him amid a dark cloud of debris and smoke, asking for the sacrament of confession.
Msgr. Delendick also recalls learning that his colleague and fellow fire chaplain, Brooklyn-born Franciscan friar Father Mychal Judge, was among the first known victims of the South Tower’s collapse.
“That day, I don’t even know the order of what all happened … Someone just handed me [Father Judge’s] helmet and told me he was killed, and they had him laid out in a wake at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street,” Msgr. Delendick said.
The hardest thing, Msgr. Delendick said, was people asking him if he had seen their friends, fathers, brothers and sons — firefighters and first-responders to the attacks — and not knowing how to respond. It wasn’t until after returning from Ground Zero that Father Delendik and many families would realize that their friends and loved ones had died.
Meanwhile, Msgr. Delendick didn’t get back to St. Michael’s until 2 in the morning on Sept. 12.
As an FDNY chaplain, in between celebrating memorial Masses for the fallen, Msgr. Delendick would visit “the pile” at Ground Zero in the months that followed, accompanying families in their search for loved ones.
That first year after 9/11, he doesn’t remember how many funerals and memorial Masses he said.
“It’s just, you get so many of these funerals, and it just gets to you after a while … I love the job, but I also hate it,” Msgr. Delendick said.
Every year since the attacks, the FDNY remembers and honors the heroes, especially those who have died years later from 9/11 illnesses.
On Sept. 6, the department added the names of 22 firefighters and recovery workers to the FDNY World Trade Center Memorial Wall inside its Downtown Brooklyn headquarters during a solemn ceremony.
One such victim of 9/11 illness honored on the memorial wall was Brooklyn-local Lt. Timothy P. O’Neill, who died in April after nearly two years with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. O’Neill, a Catholic from Sheepshead Bay, has worked for several months at Ground Zero during the cleanup efforts.
“My husband risked his life, and he paid the ultimate sacrifice 18 years later,” said his widow, Paula O’Neill. “It was a complete shock because he never had any symptoms, but then one day he went for a CT scan … He always thought he would get sick after breathing in everything, sometimes without a mask. He just didn’t really talk about it, and we never expected the severity of the cancer.”
With the help of the federally funded September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, O’Neill was able to be treated for the cancer from his Florida home years after his service with the FDNY.
“I still have firemen to this day calling, crying to me,” Paula said.
At the ceremony in Downtown Brooklyn, Father Joseph Hoffman, the pastor of St. Barbara in Bushwick who’s also a FDNY chaplain, read from Isaiah 25, reminding 9/11 families in mourning that “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.”
Father Hoffman also said that working with the FDNY is “like serving another parish,” and is honored to work with the men and women who serve.
“I ask families to remember that death is never the end — that it is easier in the hands of God, who transforms death into life,” Father Hoffman said.