NEW YORK (AP) – On the day his firefighter son was lost, killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Deputy Fire Chief James Riches also lost some of his Roman Catholic faith.
On Sunday, when Pope Benedict XVI visited ground zero to pray at the site of the twin towers, he felt like he got it back.
“Our faith was destroyed that day. We said ‘Where was God?’ on 9/11, but he’s come back here today and they’ve restored our faith,” Riches said after the pope’s visit.
All of Riches’ four sons became firefighters, including Jimmy, who was killed at age 29 in the World Trade Center attacks along with more than 2,700 others.
Another son, Tom, who became a firefighter after his brother’s death, was among those invited through a lottery to join the pontiff in the pit where the towers once stood.
“When the pope came down, it was very comforting,” he said. “I’m glad because it’s always been sacred ground to me.”
Benedict invited 24 people with ties to ground zero to join him Sunday morning, a group that included survivors, victims’ relatives and rescue workers.
After arriving in the popemobile, the pontiff knelt in silent prayer for a few moments, then rose to light a memorial candle.
He prayed for peace, for the Sept. 11 victims who died in New York, Washington and in Shanksville, Pa., and for those sickened in the aftermath of the attacks.
“God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy, we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events,” Benedict said. “Grant that those whose lives were spared may live so that the lives lost here may not have been lost in vain.”
Some victims’ relatives had hoped the pope would specifically bless the hundreds of people killed at ground zero whose remains were never identified.
They also wanted him to pray for the removal and burial of any remains that may have been taken to the Fresh Kills garbage dump on Staten Island.
The pope’s prayers weren’t that specific, however, disappointing some of the victims’ relatives.
Rosemary Cain, whose firefighter son George perished on Sept. 11, 2001, wanted Benedict to address the desire of some families to keep searching for remains at both ground zero and the dump so they can be buried properly.
“Nothing about Fresh Kills was addressed. Nothing about the inhumanity to the remains was addressed,” she said. “I know the souls will not rest peacefully until they are buried with respect and dignity.”
The World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial sued the city in 2005, claiming that officials rushed the cleanup at ground zero and failed to deliver on a promise to sift debris taken to the dump to find body parts, remains and personal belongings. More than 1,700 bone fragments have been recovered in just the past two years in and around ground zero.
While Cain was appreciative of the pope’s visit, she also was saddened at not being able to attend in person. “It broke my heart not to be there,” she said.