Historic church became refuge for 9/11 workers
Across the street from the site of the fallen World Trade Center, Carlos Lopez lingers at a Sept. 11 exhibit inside of St. Paul’s Chapel, where he and thousands of other workers found refuge after the terrorist attacks on New York City 10 years ago this month.
“It was pretty much quiet like this most of the time,” says Lopez, 49, of Astoria, N.Y., who at the time was an emergency medical technician with the New York Fire Department. “There’d be areas with a little buzzing of conversation, but low tones, because people were always sleeping.”
Within these protective walls, Lopez met Rhonda Villamia, then 46, of Sunnyside, N.Y., a volunteer who comforted workers during their breaks from searching for bodies at ground zero, cleaning up tons of debris from the toppled twin towers, and keeping the peace in shell-shocked Lower Manhattan. They struck up a conversation and, during the stressful weeks and months that followed, forged a unique friendship.
“Our own families couldn’t understand what we were seeing and doing [at ground zero], but volunteers like Rhonda did,” Lopez says. “There was a growing closeness to that.”
A decade later, Lopez and Villamia remain close, often getting together for meals or 9/11-related events and reuniting with other volunteers and workers they connected with during those tumultuous months.
“It’s like no time or space has come between us—the special bond that soldiers form when they’re in the trenches,” Villamia says.
Lopez agrees, noting that the relationships forged at the chapel didn’t end when the last battered steel column was removed on May 30, 2002.
“They’ll last the rest of my life,” he says.
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