WHEATLAND - They called him the overbearing Samaritan. It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since I did his eulogy in New York City. As I look back and remember the things I had experienced at that time, I realize just how much I miss my friend.
There are some people who can alter YOUR course with THEIR experiences. They can renew your hope with their words. And they can break your heart with their passing.
All good things, they say, must come to an end. A very good thing came to an end last year when we said goodbye to a man who never thought of himself too highly. A man who knew the difference between confidence and arrogance.
Confidence can save a life. Jimmy Lanza saved mine although I was not one of the survivors that he rescued on 9/11 in the ruble of the Twin Towers. Instead, I was battling to find my way out of the rubble of my own life. And he showed up.
A big deal came to a little town just off the prairie in Minnesota when the 9/11 exhibit came rolling in. The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers exhibit was a hot item at the county fair and the lines were always longer than the shadows of sunset. Something told me I had to go. Perhaps it was the thought of my publisher who would be questioning why I didn’t have a submission on the biggest story of the summer, or perhaps it was an inner voice that was directing my path.
Jimmy Lanza did an interview with me that I captured on DVD and little did I know that it would be among one of the most poignant recollections of that dark September day that anyone had heard. What he shared with me off camera is what changed my life. What he gave me on camera gave me information that I would share for a newspaper story. What he gave me off camera would give me the words I needed for his funeral.
He spoke about purpose at a time when I had just left the ministry and was struggling with my own.
He was shocked when he got to ground zero and found the annihilation that awaited him. His initial shift lasted over 16 hours and after their stints, firefighters would head to St. Paul’s Chapel to rest and recover. It was built in 1766 and remains the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan. After that day it has been called, “The Little Chapel That Stood.”
The church was in the destruction zone and intact after the attacks, which was a miracle as it was still standing among the bruised and broken skyscrapers, withstanding the blasts and becoming a fortress for those who were tired and weary from fighting on the very precipice of hell.
It is Ironic that the holy war that had come to America could not destroy our place of worship that was in the middle of the chaos. After a few hours of exhausted sleep, the first responders would return to scavenging for body parts and for the dead.
Lanza collapsed against a back wall of the chapel in an exhausted heap, tears welling up in his eyes which were sore and swollen from the blizzarding ash and debris. Outside it was still snowing burnt metal and electrical ash. Those smells mixed with burning jet fuel, and the unmistakable smell of human remains were in the lungs of everyone in the containment zone.
All of a sudden, the magnitude of the disaster hit him. “I felt numb,” he said. “My city was in shambles, I realized that there were more people dead than alive and most didn’t get out. And I could do little to help. I knew we weren’t going to find anyone else alive.”
That, perhaps was the worst hit of all since the overbearing Samaritan felt helpless. NYFD Captain Kirk Lester of Ladder Company 43 and a fellow firefighter with Lanza spoke at one of the four wakes needed to accommodate all the people. He said, “Jimmy wouldn’t just help people when they fell down, he would run up to them and help them if they ‘looked’ like they were going to fall down.”
“I was exhausted,” Lanza said. “I didn’t know how I was going to get up and start again – or how this city was going to get up and start again. I felt like every time we’d take one step forward, there was another explosion and we’d take 10 steps back. Something happened to me in that little church and I thought I was going crazy,” he continued.
His ears were still ringing from the underground gas explosions, sirens and the groaning of the metal as it would bend, waiting to take its turn to fall into the massive piles of rubble that were sinking into the massive underground caverns.
The entire city lay stunned and the world watched to see if it would be able to take one more breath.
The firefighters, Port Authority Police and volunteers continued hour after hour, going down and coming up out of the holes with body parts on stretchers, draped in American flags, amid a thousand people holding pictures of missing loved ones.
Drawn, weary faces covered with ashen remains of carnage and the dead who were now just wandering in the wind. Under their eyes, it looked like mud where the tears, the ash and the soot of a war-torn city had pooled.
And in the silence inside that mighty church, he heard a still small voice. He looked around to see if it was someone who needed help or one of his friends, but he was all alone.
Something deep inside was beckoning him to go on. Then, clear as a bell, the words came, “All your life you’ve always been about purpose. You’ve often asked what your purpose was, and now, here you are, standing right in front of it. For such a time as this and standing face to face with your purpose, go and finish strong.”
He did go back and he did step into his destiny. Lanza helped rescue 16 survivors out of the famous Miracle Stairwell B of the North Tower. He shared with me how restless his life had been up until the terror attack, but after 9/11 – there was a calm that came to his life. When a man finds his purpose in a crisis, he can find his true north.
Through his experience and his wisdom, Lanza taught me something about life in the crunch. When you find your purpose in crisis and step into it, something turns inside the heart and changes your perspective. And that can change your destiny.
Never have I seen the William Shakespeare quote ring truer than in the case of Jimmy Lanza. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
As I stood before his casket in 2017 in the midst of New York’s finest who came to say “goodbye” to one of their own, I realized that I was simply viewing the cape and fleshly garment of a bona fide crusader who had been recently reassigned to a higher ladder company well beyond my sightline or thought process.
I would challenge you to find your purpose in your crisis and make a difference in this world before your final tone.
The world seems a little emptier this year, but I’m sure heaven is a little more crowded.
For a full tribute to Jimmy Lanza and sights and sounds from his funeral from my time in New York, please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9ZETSuDEps.