Located directly across from the World Trade Center site – Ground Zero – St Paul’s Chapel , part of the Parish of Trinity Church, was home to an extraordinary eight-month relief effort after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. From September 2001 to May 2002, St. Paul’s, “the little chapel that stood” after September 11th” became home for firefighters, construction workers, police officers and others, including me and Nikie. They provided meals, beds, counseling, and prayer. Pews were a welcome spot to rest. In the Chapel there were medical personnel, disaster mental health, therapists, chiropractors, and even music . . . it transformed the chapel into a place of peace, rest and reconciliation.
I know that for me and Nikie, we could not have endured those eight months without this special place. Today, St. Paul’s plays a vital role in telling the 9/11 story. For me, and in memory of Nikie, this is a healing time and a time to look forward. It is also a time to say “thank you.”
There is no way to express in words my appreciation to everyone at St. Paul’s who opened their hearts and Chapel doors to provide an oasis and safe haven for the First Responders, Search and Recovery Teams, Handlers, Workers, Military, Police, Firefighters, Disaster Mental Health, and Volunteers. All of you gave so generously from September to the closing on May 30, 2002. Over those eight months, Nikie, my canine partner, became a kindred spirit to so many who worked and volunteered on Ground Zero. He even helped the clergy in the morgue after during recovery services. Nikie also helped victim families and the 9/11 children.
A young teacher from Brooklyn saw Nikie on Broadway in front of St. Paul’s. She thought he was hurt and rushed over. He was lying on his side getting his boots put on each paw. It was a daily ritual which started in September. Everyone joined in to help . . . even one time when new boots didn’t fit his large paws. Police Officers came over and took off their leather gloves. They adapted them to become boots so Nikie could traverse over the glass on Fulton Street and then walk by the cemetery to Ground Zero. Lisa was relieved that he was okay, and stroked his fur. She clutched a photo of her brother, Cono. I remember that victim families would place pictures and mementos on the fence that surrounded the church. Cono worked in the South Tower. Lisa spent tender moments with Nikie. There was an unspoken bond between them that lasted for years. Nikie was always very intuitive. From the time he met Lisa in front of St. Paul’s, there was a spiritual quality that grew deeper as he worked day-after-day. He enabled me to provided canine disaster relief on Ground Zero for eight months. We called it “stealth mental health.”
Nikie was an accepted as an equal worker with a job. He had his own security photo I.D and could go anywhere on the 16 acres. Several weeks later, Lisa wrote a letter and simply addressed it to “Nikie Ground Zero.” She asked if Nikie would come visit her school in Brooklyn – – he was thrilled and loved children. The last time he went back to P.S. 132 before he passed away, the children drew pictures of him and wrote stories. They bound it in a book with colored string. There was a spontaneous gathering in the gym – – it was a celebration – for many, and for the first time, the children became children again, even the teachers and principal smiled and laughed. Nikie always seemed to make things better. It was the beginning of a very important healing process. The word spread about this special golden Retriever who wore a red working vest, a K-9 patch, and boots to protect his paws. Soon he visited schools in all five Boroughs of New York City. A teacher estimated that he visited over 4,000 children.
And it all started in front of St. Paul’s Chapel. Through Nikie I was empowered to help others deal with the grief of September 11th . . . and the gruesome work ahead. That was my job, and I didn’t want to intrude on others in the Chapel – – “they needed it more than me,” I told myself. Then there was a Friday night that would change my view of religion and the relationship with a higher power to this day. A priest named “Tom” came to T-Mort – the temporary morgue on Liberty Street. A gentile and frail man, he seemed out-of-place at the morgue. I had been going to the morgue with Nikie for months to help the clergy and Medical Examiners cope with unimaginable stress. I never once saw Tom there before – – he seemed uncomfortable and out-of-place.
It was a very busy night with recoveries and remains. Every fragment and part examined and blessed. Prayers would be recited and we all knew the ritual and words. If identification was possible, families notified. Stephen welcomed the assistance of another clergy. I sensed that something wasn’t right. Overcome with emotion, Tom asked if he could go outside with Nikie. I gave him his lead and we all walked to a spot that would be safe. He silently watched firefighters sifting for remains under the South Tower. He tried to talk, but started to weep. Tom told me the reason why he came unannounced to the morgue. He had to see Ground Zero for himself. While holding Nikie’s lead, he told me that he couldn’t continue to do memorial services at his church. He thought that perhaps if he could see and understand the places where they perished it would give him a renewed purpose. Here I was with my dog listening to a priest in need of spiritual guidance. He felt that he let his parish down. With Nikie now at his feet, he said, “Sometimes people think that God takes care of priests and we don’t need help, but we’re human to.” As we walked down Church Street, Tom gave Nikie a blessing and a soft pat on the head.
It was now 5 AM and very cold. Nikie lost a boot. Salt got into his front paw. It was too far to walk back to the respite tent on West Street. We were both tired. I remembered what Tom said about God and being human, so headed to the Chapel. I woke about 7AM. It took me a few minutes to realize that I had been sleeping on a pew. Nikie was snoring away. A police officer volunteered to look after him while I got coffee and something to eat. So thanks to Father Tom, we were in St. Paul’s . . . a place of peace and tranquility. Ironically, other than the morgue, it was the only quiet place we could rest by ourselves. No one asked what we did; they only asked, “what do you need.”
As we left the chapel, Nikie’s lost red boot had been recovered and placed on a table by an EMT from T-Mort. He would often take Nikie for rides in the FDNY red “gator” while lying in an orange stokes basket. It looked like fun, but it was really an emergency exercise in case there was ever a medical emergency. He found the boot on Liberty Street by Ladder 10-10.
Once in a while, I think of Father Tom when walking my dog on bitter cold nights in the Adirondack’s. This past July I visited the chapel for the first time in ten years. I was with my new canine partner “Chance.” I was overjoyed to see a beautiful picture of Nikie prominently displayed. It was taken at the last memorial ceremony on Ground Zero. Nikie was wearing his special memorial black working vest with the K-9 Disaster Relief patch and his signature American Flag neckerchief. (The black vest was worn for solemn occasions.) A military officer was bending over stroking his fur – reminiscent of Lisa Gallo. It affirmed to me that Nikie had special attributes. His spirit touched so many lives, including those at St. Paul’s. Thank you for your help during those dark days and cold nights.
And now, on this 10th anniversary of September 11th, thank you again for bringing so many people who worked on Ground Zero together again – – we’re a family bound together by unspoken words and a love and affection for each other. We move on, but never forget.
Lisa still teaches in Brooklyn and is now married. She has two boys. One she named “Cono” in memory of her brother. The Police Officer in the chapel that night was Pat. We stay in touch and he has a son, Patrick, who will graduate from the NYPD Training Academy. The EMT who gave Nikie rides in his recovery “gator” still brags to this day about finding his boot in front of Ladder 10-10. He now lives upstate and has a Retriever. I see Father Tom on occasion. He blessed Nikie’s ashes in 2004. “Chance” just turned one year old and is trained and ready to become a working canine like Nikie. This Saturday, September 10th, Chance will meet many of Nikie’s friends at a wonderful gathering hosted by St. Paul’s. On Sunday, September 11th he will follow in the paw prints of Nikie as we walk on Fulton Street to help victim families. And so we move on, not alone, but together as a family.
Article by: Frank T. Shane, CEO ~ K-9 Disaster Relief Foundation