INDIANAPOLIS — Sept. 11, 2001, started as an ordinary day for Charles Glesing, a firefighter in Indianapolis.
He was off duty and had dropped off his children at school when he heard news on his car radio about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
Returning home, Glesing watched coverage of the attacks on TV and knew that he might be called into action as a member of Indiana Task Force 1, an elite unit of people from various fields of work specially trained in urban search and rescue.
“Later, the phone rang and I was told that we were activating the task force and we’d be heading to New York. I got my stuff and gear ready to go,” said Glesing, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis.
Traveling on a bus overnight to New York, Glesing and 64 other task force members approached Manhattan at dawn on Sept. 12, a plume of smoke still rising from the site of the World Trade Center.
“It started to hit you more — the realism and severity,” Glesing said. “We knew we were in for a big job here.”
Two other Catholic members of the task force at that time recently spoke with The Criterion, archdiocesan newspaper of Indianapolis, about their experience at ground zero. Of the three, one is still a member of the Indianapolis Fire Department and two have retired.
For each of them, their faith is interwoven with their work as first responders, which they experience as a kind of vocation. Seeing their service as firefighters through the eyes of faith helped them cope with the challenges of working in New York after 9/11 and leads them to find meaning in the tragedies of that day 20 years ago.
Tim Baughman was on duty as a firefighter in Indianapolis on Sept. 11, 2001.
A member of the task force, he learned later that day that he was going to New York and met his wife as she was picking up their children from school. “She just looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got this. Go,'” recalled Baughman, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis.
In recent years, Baughman has learned from his children of their fears for him 20 years ago that they kept to themselves that day.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone if I had known how they felt at the time,” he said. “Sometimes, I reflect back on that and you think it’s kind of selfish. These little kids were afraid and their dad just said, ‘Hey, I’m going.'”
But Baughman’s family is used to this.
His job in the 2001 task force was to oversee efforts to keep his fellow members safe in their work. To aid him in that work, he went up about 100 feet above ground zero on a fire truck ladder to get a perspective on the scene.
“It gave a feeling of how immense it was,” he said.
There were thousands of people from across the country working at the site, hoping to rescue survivors but increasingly resigned to the fact that the mission would be more of recovering the remains of those who had died.
“We didn’t rescue anyone,” said Baughman. “We went to the biggest (search and rescue) incident that has ever happened to date in this country. But we didn’t rescue anyone. That was tough. It was tough.”
When the task force returned to Indiana after about 10 days of work at ground zero, they received a hero’s welcome — something that didn’t sit well with Baughman who was embarrassed by it.
“We didn’t save any lives, but we were being celebrated,” he said.
Saving the lives of people in danger is at the heart of the mission of a firefighter. That mission takes on greater urgency when it’s the lives of other firefighters that are threatened.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 343 members of the Fire Department of the New York died after rushing to the World Trade Center when so many other were fleeing.
When the remains of a firefighter were found at ground zero, Baughman said work would stop.
“They’d call the firefighters to line up and bring the remains out on a stretcher. There was an immediate reverence that would take place. That happened several times while we were there.”
As this kept happening, it led Dave Cook, a member of Indiana Task Force 1, to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice in his life and work.
“You begin to think, ‘What if this was me?'” said Cook, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis now serving as a battalion chief with the Indianapolis Fire Department.
“You think about their families and the children. Their dad went to work and that was the last time they saw him. It begins to affect you that way, because then I thought about my own family.
“To this day, every time that (my family and I) see each other or say goodbye, we’re all hugging each other.”
Many of those who did search and rescue work at ground zero have developed illnesses related to exposure to various toxins in the atmosphere around the site. Some have died including four members of Indiana Task Force 1 who served at ground zero.
Glesing suffers from reactive airway disease which he said is called the “World Trade Center cough.”
He and others with ongoing physical effects from service at ground zero have their related medical care paid for through federal programs.
Despite the ongoing challenges of serving at ground zero, Glesing doesn’t regret working there.
“I’d go again in a heartbeat,” he said. “If the bell goes off, you get on the truck and go. That’s the nature of whatever’s inside of you to be a helpful person to your community. You’re just willing to do something a little more dangerous.”
These men also see their Catholic faith and their work as deeply intermingled.
Before becoming a firefighter, Glesing considered a vocation to the priesthood.
“I always knew, even when I was contemplating a (priestly) vocation, that a career or a vocation of service to others was one of the best and highest ways that you can live your life,” Glesing said. “You’re there to help others, whether it’s as a firefighter, police officer, priest, nun, doctor –whatever. If you’re there because you want to help others, that is the ultimate calling there is.”
For Cook, this calling to service includes caring for the firefighters under his command.
“I have to watch out for their well-being when we’re doing fires or technical rescues, being cautious as their protector, watching their back and making decisions that will allow them to go back to their families,” he said.
When Baughman returned to ground zero in 2018, he said the visit “reinforced what our calling is all about.”
Gallagher is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.