Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge arrived just as bodies were falling like missiles from the sky. Few in those last precious moments thought the Twin Towers would actually collapse, which is why so many rescue workers were sent running up stairs to their deaths, and why the greatest danger to people on the ground involved office workers escaping the upper floors’ thousand-degree heat. `Fr. Mike’ — as the 68-year-old Franciscan was known to thousands of New York firefighters — was at Ground Zero, as usual.
“Going with his firemen brothers downtown Tuesday is exactly what he was all about,” Fr. Tom Hartle would later recall. “People were hurt, and he was going to do what he could to comfort them.”
Judge was standing near Chief Bill Feehan — another legend within the FDNY — when Feehan was crushed by a woman who had jumped from the sky. As hundreds fled the scene around him, Fr. Mike knelt to administer Feehan’s last rites. Seconds later, Fr. Mike himself was crushed.
Five days later, more than two thousand firefighters, AIDS victims, alcoholics and ordinary parishioners packed St Francis of Assisi church on West 31st Street in Manhattan, to say goodbye to a priest who had touched the lives of so many.
“His was the first body released from Ground Zero; his death certificate has No. 1 on it. His role was to bring the firemen to their death and meet their maker,” Fr. Michael Duffy said at Judge’s funeral. “Two hundred to 300 firemen are still buried there, it would have been physically impossible for him to administer to all of them in this life. In the next life he’ll greet them with that big Irish smile and say, `Welcome, let me take you to our father.'”
Judge and his two sisters were born to Irish immigrants who ran a Brooklyn boarding house. His father died at age six and Judge became a shoeshine boy. At 14 he entered the Franciscan seminary. His wit, charm and New York street smarts served him well among the homeless, AIDS and Alcoholics Anonymous groups he administered to, as well as the White House dinners he attended. In 1982, he was named FDNY Chaplain, a position he relished.
“He loved his Fire Department, and the men in it,” Fr. Duffy recalled.
Judge was given an official FDNY sendoff, his casket taken away from St. Francis’ church on a specially-built firetruck. Among the mourners was Bill Clinton, who like his predecessor President George Bush had enjoyed Fr. Mike’s company as a guest at White House dinners. In the audience were hundreds of firefighters, many of whom had been consoled by `Fr. Mike’ at the scene of countless previous disasters. Some of the firefighters, fresh from the rescue site and standing exhausted in dusty clothes, wept openly as bagpipes played.
“He was where the action was, he was praying, talking to God, helping someone,” Fr. Duffy asked the congregation. “Can you honestly think of a better way to die?” ♦