September 3, 2021

Never forget: Remembering 9/11

‘The ultimate calling’: Faith and service bound together for firefighters who served at ground zero

Charles Glesing, left, Tim Baughman and Dave Cook pose on Aug. 25 at the Indiana 9/11 Memorial in Indianapolis. All three were members of Indiana Task Force 1, an elite urban search and rescue team deployed to ground zero in New York City less than a day after terrorist attacks destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They are touching a steel beam taken from the rubble of ground zero. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Charles Glesing, left, Tim Baughman and Dave Cook pose on Aug. 25 at the Indiana 9/11 Memorial in Indianapolis. All three were members of Indiana Task Force 1, an elite urban search and rescue team deployed to ground zero in New York City less than a day after terrorist attacks destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They are touching a steel beam taken from the rubble of ground zero. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Sept. 11, 2001, started as an ordinary day for Charles Glesing, at the time 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. When he saw the first of the twin towers collapse, he knew that he might no longer be a distant spectator of the history-making events of that day.

That was because he was a member of Indiana Task Force 1, an elite unit of people from various fields of work specially trained in urban search and rescue. The task force can be deployed at a moment’s notice across the country by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“A light bulb went off in my head, ‘We might be going,’ ” recalled Glesing, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis. “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.”

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, now commonly known as ground zero.

“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 about their experience of working at ground zero. Of the three, one is still a member of the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD), while two have retired.

For each of them, 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.

An instinctual reaction to serve

Tim Baughman was on duty as a firefighter on the east side of Indianapolis on Sept. 11, 2001.

A member of the task force, he learned later that day that he was going to New York. He 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, who now works as the senior director for track safety and medical services for the NTT IndyCar Series.

In recent years, Baughman has learned from his children, who are now adults, of their fears for their father on Sept. 11, 2001—feelings 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 had gotten used to his instinctual call to serve.

“I don’t see an accident without stopping,” he said. “If my family and I are sitting in a restaurant and I see someone choking or having a problem, I immediately go. My kids say, ‘When are you going to stop being this way?’ I say, ‘I probably won’t ever.’ ”

So, when it became clear quickly that thousands died in the terrorist attacks in New York, Baughman didn’t think twice about going into harm’s way with the task force.

“We literally walked into a cloud of dust,” Baughman said. “It was like walking in and out of a cloud.”

Baughman’s job in the task force in 2001 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. “And that was just the pile [of rubble where the twin towers had stood]. There were buildings all the way around it that were also impacted.”

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.

“I felt embarrassed,” he recalled.

We didn’t save any lives, but we were being celebrated.”

‘An immediate reverence’

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 City of New York (FDNY) died after rushing to the World Trade Center when so many other were fleeing the famed twin towers.

Baughman recalled what happened at ground zero when the remains of a firefighter were found.

“Every time they would find a firefighter, work would stop and they would blow horns,” he said. “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 it happened again and again, 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 an IFD battalion chief. “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.”

The sacrifice of first responders on 9/11 has continued in the 20 years since the day of the attacks.

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.

That includes four members of Indiana Task Force 1 who served at ground zero, according to Thomas Neal, the current coordinator for the task force. Some 40% of the 65 task force members who were deployed to New York have developed various illnesses related to their work there.

Glesing is one of them. He suffers from reactive airway disease.

“They call it the World Trade Center cough,” he said.

He and others with ongoing physical effects from service at ground zero have their related medical care paid for through federal programs. The programs were established by the John Zadroga Act, named in honor of a New York Police Department officer whose death was linked to exposure to toxins at ground zero. The relatives of those who have died have also been compensated for their loss.

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.”

‘The ultimate calling’

Given that these men embraced a profession in which self-sacrifice is a daily possibility, it’s no wonder that their Catholic faith and their work were deeply intermingled.

Growing up as the son of a police officer in Indianapolis, Glesing knew from a young age the meaning and importance of giving of oneself in serving others.

He discerned the possibility that God might be calling him to serve as a priest, graduating in 1974 from the Latin School of Indianapolis, the archdiocese’s former high school seminary, and in 1978 from the former Saint Meinrad College in St. Meinrad.

At that time, Glesing’s discernment led him away from priestly formation to service for four years as a teacher at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. He became a firefighter in 1982.

“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. Seeing such loss among first responders on Sept. 11, 2001, reinforced this duty in him.

“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.

Cook said that he looks to “the model of Christ to give back to other human beings and to help them and feel compassion for them.”

Glesing’s faith led him to see giving comfort to those he served as a part of his mission as a firefighter.

“Because of some of my background from being in seminary, I also saw that I was there to comfort where I could, if the opportunity arose,” Glesing said.

At ground zero, that happened in simple moments such as when firefighters would visit search and rescue dogs that Indiana Task Force 1 brought in its deployment.

“The FDNY guys would see the dogs and come over to pet them,” Glesing recalled. “A couple of them broke down in tears because the dog was something normal. It comforted people.”

When Baughman returned to ground zero in 2018, the visit “reinforced what our calling is all about.”

“We didn’t do anything [to rescue anyone], but people still need to know that there’s good out there and there are people who have faith and understanding of doing the right thing,” Baughman said. “Where would we be if people didn’t have that basic understanding?” †


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