Journey to ground zero
A local man who traveled to New York on a quest to help terror victims fulfilled a pledge to his faithNews Editor
Feb. 6, 2002 -- Paul Hathaway is a man of faith.
He is also a man lauded for his devotion to serving others. Yet until recently the Jefferson County attorney, who works regularly as a local Salvation Army extension agent, had never had the opportunity to fulfill a duty spelled out in one of his favorite verses in the Bible -- James 1:27.
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
"I've always read that scripture and I never felt in my life that I had had the opportunity to do that," says Hathaway, who two months ago today was fulfilling that mission at New York's ground zero, site of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.
On Nov. 28, Hathaway embarked on a 12-day trip to New York with an Oregon team of Salvation Army volunteers. He knew his selection for the trip was a blessing. But he never expected what he would encounter. "It was life-fulfilling," Hathaway says.
Hathaway and his fellow volunteers thought they'd be serving meals to ground zero recovery workers. Instead, Hathaway was selected to spend a majority of his time counseling family members of victims and issuing them grants.
"The last thing I ever thought I'd get to do was have direct contact with the families of the victims," says Hathaway. "It felt good to be able to hug somebody and let them know you cared -- to grieve with someone and try to carry their burden and assume some of their pain."
Hathaway worked 14-hour days for an entire week at a convention center called Pier 94. There, several agencies had stations where they issued death certificates and doled out thousands of dollars to victims from the countless number of Americans who pulled money out of their wallets and purses to help.
"It was a hard day when these people came down there," says Hathaway. "Family members had put everything on hold for over a month hanging out down near ground zero listening for some kind of word." Some, Hathaway says, even clung to the hope of a miracle almost two months after hijacked planes brought down the towers.
"But the creditors were now at their doorstep and everybody needed to be paid," Hathaway notes dryly.
The Salvation Army booths were the last stop on the line. Each day, Hathaway would meet with several families and individuals for an hour to an hour and a half asking them "very, very personal questions" to determine if they were eligible for aid.
He'd look at their death certificates and help them get their bills in order, paying off creditors and putting up to $2,000 down toward their mortgages. He was also there to share tears.
Although millions of dollars have been donated to Sept. 11-related charities, displaced workers and victims' families have extraordinary bills to pay due to the high cost of living in The Big Apple.
One man, Hathaway recalls, had been drawing a combined income of $390,000 with his deceased wife, who was a CEO of a corporation in the towers. The man was now barely getting by on his $90,000 salary.
"He was trying to rearrange his life," Hathaway says. "He said, `How can I continue to pay for my daughters' educations?'
"We saw mortgage and rent payments that ran $12,000 a month. These people were humble and their pride was on the line. You had people who never had to ask for a thing who had no alternative short of moving to another location and giving up their house."
Beyond bills, Hathaway says the personal moments with the family members were the most fulfilling.
He met the wife of a municipal bond trader with Canter Fitzgerald. Her husband had retired then gone back to work for one more year to save for their dream house.
Then there was the Japanese woman whose husband was going to be a music teacher.
And there was Mary Dunne, the Irish-Catholic mother of 27-year-old Christopher J. Dunne who passed away. She gave Hathaway a bookmark with a picture and eulogy of her son that he now keeps in his Bible.
"As a part of sharing her grief she wanted me to know who he was," Hathaway says. "Every time I look at it I think of her and all the time we spent praying and talking.
"People wanted to give you things so you knew who their loved ones were and at first you were sometimes like, `Why?'"
But there were other victims Hathaway couldn't reach. Tears well in his eyes when he describes the one man who walked up to his booth and said, "I lost a 24-year-old son. How can I replace him?" The man wept on Hathaway's table for a moment then walked away without a receiving a grant or giving an introduction.
"There were two groups of people -- a distinction," he says. "There was a group that was upset and angry. And there was the group that had faith and a relationship with God that had a hope. They had an unconditional hope and a strength that I believe was from God.
"And those that didn't would be spinning out of control. They would be angry, they would be frustrated, they were almost inconsolable. You just did everything you could to love them but it was difficult at times."
On Sundays, the Salvation Army volunteers were told they had the choice to take the day off or work at ground zero.
It was not a difficult decision to make.
Hathaway spent his first Sunday serving food to firefighters, police offers and recovery workers. Hathaway's job was to stock vending machines and serve on a food line.
But during breaks, he'd sit down with workers and listen to their stories.
"It was one of the most personal times," Hathaway says. "They were the greatest folks in the world. They were the most selfless people."
They were also gracious.
"When a guy's been out there pulling bodies out of the rubble and then he comes in for lunch and he sits down at a table with you and starts thanking you for being there, it just blows your mind," Hathaway says.
Many of the workers were volunteering their labor well after their shifts had ended. One man working around the clock told Hathaway, "`I get to go home to my wife and my kids every night no matter how long of a shift I work. What's Christmas and New Year's,' he said. `These people don't have their loved ones back with them.'"
Hathaway gathered the signatures of the recovery workers on his hard hat and even got New York's chief of police to sign.
On the second Sunday of his trip, Hathaway spent the day driving a cart back and forth along the pit of ground zero delivering supplies to what is known as the "Hard Hat Cafe."
Hathaway still says he still has trouble putting the aura of the devastated area into words.
"It's hallowed ground," Hathaway says. "When you're standing there looking at the pit from the Hard Hat Cafe, it's incomprehensible. There's no way to describe it. I put things in order for a living but I could not make sense of it."
Back to the Grind
Hathaway's trip, including airfare and lodging expenses, was underwritten by a number of donors from across the country and the Jefferson County commissioners let their attorney take 12 days off in exchange for some personal benefits.
Today, Hathaway's back to wrangling with land-use laws and other legal matters within the county. His journey to ground zero was a privilege, he knows, and a blessing.
He keeps a photo album full of pictures and mementos from his trip close to his desk and memories of the families and recovery workers close to heart.
"If the country as a whole had the heart and attitude of the workers in New York," Hathaway says, "we wouldn't need lawyers."