NYPD Chaplain Monsignor Joseph Zammit has never missed a 9/11 anniversary ceremony.
Every year, the Catholic priest meets the families of the officers who were killed in the Twin Tower attacks or have since died of 9/11-related illnesses for a private gathering at police headquarters, before heading to the remembrance ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial in lower Manhattan.
In the early days after the attacks, many families needed to be at Ground Zero to feel close to the husbands, wives and children they lost. There they prayed for their loved ones, hoping they were still alive and breathing under the rubble, said Zammit, who took them to the pile where he offered a comforting shoulder to lean on.
The lives lost on September 11th are still in Zammit’s daily prayers. For him, the mantra “We will never forget” is not just a slogan recited once a year when thousands pay their respects on the anniversary.
“People don’t seem to realize that it is important to remember the dead,” he said, adding that praying for those who have died ensures they reach heaven faster. But he acknowledges it can be difficult to think about dying.
But “when you think about dying, you think about living better,” he said with a smile.
After 16 years, the faces at Manhattan’s lower Manhattan memorial ceremony have changed.
“As time goes on there are less people,” he said, adding that some have died and others attend services at home instead.
“That’s life,” he said. “But never forget.”
Zammit had just finished saying the 8:15 a.m. Mass at a Battery Park City apartment building’s chapel, where he was a senior priest, when he got a call about the attacks.
As an one of dozen NYPD chaplains, Zammit is always ready to offer last rites.
“I took my oils to see what was going on and then I saw the second plane hit,” said Zammit
He remembers debris falling “like a hurricane” and onlookers being covered with what looked like cement. The hot dog vendor was giving out water for free. Zammit rushed back to usher people out of the chapel.
The next day, Zammit, who lives in Battery Park City, could not return to his apartment and moved into a Staten Island rectory. He returned each day to police headquarters.
“I needed to be here for the cops that were missing. To be with the families. To talk and help them find out,” he said.
The days and weeks that followed were about “sitting and waiting” and visiting Ground Zero where the smoldering fires continued to burn.
At 86, Zammit, born in Manhattan, is still on call to bear the news to loved ones when someone in the department dies in the line of duty.
“Everyday I remember the cops who died,” he said. “It’s just what I do.”