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A ground zero chaplain from Youngstown reflects on Sept. 11

The aim of the chaplain corps, Jim Jenkins said, was to provide "Ministry of presence" — to minister to people by being present in the midst of their grief. In doing so, he learned lessons — and formed a bond with a special German shepherd.
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Jim Jenkins (photo provided)

YOUNGSTOWN — In the middle of his 12-day stint at ground zero ministering to those affected by the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001, Jim Jenkins broke down.

As part of a chaplain crew, he had spent six days praying with people on the worst days of their lives.

And he needed a moment.

So he removed himself from a crowd of families and sat down to put his head between his knees.

After a moment, he felt a warm breath behind him. A sweet German shepherd laid his head in Jenkins’ lap.

"The dam just broke," he said. "It was the only time I cried. I had a good cry. It was very cathartic."

He thought he heard the dog's owner say the dog's name was Bruno, but he didn’t get the woman’s information. And he thought he'd seen the last of the dog.

Jenkins, now 73, was born in Youngstown and attended Cardinal Mooney High School and then Youngstown State University. In 2001, he was a Coast Guard Reserve chaplain and a pastor in Cottage Grove, Ore. 

Watching footage of the attacks, "I just knew I was gonna go there to New York," Jenkins said.

Within days, he joined a team of chaplains at ground zero. 

The aim of the chaplain corps, Jenkins said, was to provide "Ministry of presence" — to minister to people by being present in the midst of their grief. 

Part of Jenkins' work included accompanying groups of grieving family members on a ferry to a staging area at ground zero. He prayed with people as they screamed at what they saw; as their knees buckled; as the sight made them physically ill. 

One woman, he said, pulled out clumps of her hair. 

A psychologist from the New York Police Department arranged for a second group to be present: family members of those who died in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was hope they could singularly empathize with the devastated New Yorkers.

"They may be the only people who know exactly how [the families] feel," he recalls the psychologist saying.

He added, "When you go into the emergency room and they put you on the gurney, sometimes they give you a warm blanket. That's what it felt like. It's like a warm blanket, that [Oklahoma City] group."

The chaplain group also spent time in a makeshift morgue where volunteer morticians and funeral directors sorted through human remains.

One noticed that Jenkins caught a glimpse of something grisly enough to jar him. The man stood between Jenkins and the sight, and said, “There are worse things than death."

"He was talking about an eternal perspective," he said. "I knew exactly."

When Jenkins relayed this, he apologized for his voice, which is raspy and croaking, due to the toxins he inhaled during his stint at ground zero. 

Jenkins also returned to Oregon with post-traumatic stress disorder. While driving, he would smell death and need to pull his car over to vomit.  

He insists God took care of him. 

Several years after his return, a member of his congregation asked him to visit her daughter, who was in the hospital. 

During his visit to a hospital in Eugene, Ore., he saw a German shepherd with a female owner. 

He looked at the dog's owner and asked if she had been at ground zero. She had. It was Bruno. 

"I was so overwhelmed. I still didn't get the lady's contact information," he said. Bruno was out of his life again after another fleeting moment of comfort.

Just before the pandemic, Jenkins was preparing to travel to Florida for his sister's funeral. 

He stopped by a Starbucks while running errands before his trip and spotted a little German shepherd and the dog's owner sitting outside under an umbrella. 

He approached her to pet the dog and told his story. 

"You've got it wrong," she said.

He was puzzled. 

"That dog's name was Uno. I bred my dog with Uno and this," she said, pointing to the little dog, "is his daughter."

"This time I insisted on getting her contact information," he said. The woman, Pat, lived in Cottage Grove, Jenkins' town.

It was God taking care of him, he said. 

Jenkins' book about his experience, "From Rubble to Redemption: A Ground Zero Chaplain Remembers," came out Aug. 1 and is now available for purchase

Just a few weeks ago, he and the owner of Uno's daughter did an interview together. 

These moments are "not coincidences," Jenkins said.

"I don't think they are. I call them divine appointments."

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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