Bell resurrected for the death toll

Sept. 11: Meticulously sanded and buffed, an old Chicago church bell will sound for a fire department chaplain and all the other World Trade Center victims.

August 07, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

At 6,000 rotations per minute, the hand sander makes a terrifying noise -- the motor's deep growl coupled with the ear-piercing screech of its abrasive pad scraping metal -- that could curdle milk. But, headphones on, Ryan Parker hears only WHFS-FM.

Behind bug-eye-like goggles that meet the top of his protective breathing mask, the 22-year-old's eyes fix on the fist-sized area of the huge bell he is buffing. His gloved hands gently but firmly press the equipment over the surface so slowly that in five minutes, he has put a shine on a section maybe 11 inches across and 6 inches high.

Parker rubs a wedge of the abrasive pad in egg-sized circles, going over a stubborn area as puffs of metal dust vanish in the wind from the large fan.

This is not just any job for Parker, whose family owns the McShane Bell Foundry in Glen Burnie.

In a few weeks, this bell will leave this cave-like bay to toll in sorrow outside the New York City church and friary that were home to the Rev. Mychal F. Judge, the New York City fire chaplain who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

The 107-year-old bell here is the largest of four that will peal as part of the Remembrance Project, a memorial to all who died in the attacks and their aftermath.

The job will take two weeks -- the 5,000-pound bell stands 50 inches high and is 63 inches at the mouth. But McShane, the lone surviving maker of large church bells in the country, isn't billing labor for this job.

"It's a real heartfelt project for our family," said William R. Parker III, McShane's vice president and Ryan Parker's 33-year-old brother.

The Rev. David W. Schlatter, a Wilmington, Del., fire chaplain, devised the bell-tolling project on a train home from the wake of Judge, a mentor and fellow Franciscan friar. Judge died at the towers, reportedly when hit by falling debris as he administered last rites for a victim.

"I first met him when I was 18," Schlatter, 52, said. "He did a retreat for us at Siena College. I was a student. I was a seminarian." Afterward, they ran into each other "at ordinations, weddings, funerals."

In 1993, when Wilmington firefighters asked Schlatter to be a chaplain, he sought out "Father Mychal."

"I asked him if I should do it," Schlatter recalled. "He said, `You'll love it. They are great people. It'll take you a year to break in.'"

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, Schlatter called the Church and Friary of St. Francis of Assisi in New York City. As has been his habit when a city firefighter died in the line of duty, he wanted to offer supportive words to Judge, a friar in residence there.

"The switchboard operator told me he was gone," Schlatter recalled. "I said to myself, `Of course he's gone -- he wouldn't be sitting here with all this going on.' I said, `Let me leave a message.' And she said, `No, no, he is gone.' "

Two days later, Schlatter mused over ways to remember the man known as the "fire friar," as well as the firefighters he served.

"I just felt I needed to do something," said Schlatter, who also serves as director of Wilmington's Franciscan Center, which has a tradition of tolling bells for various occasions. "We've used bells in the past. Why not do something with bells for this?"

The plan began small -- sounding one bell in New York City as a tribute to Judge and the fallen firefighters. In a day, he had the nod from Charles M. Cawley, president of MBNA Corp., which had bought six old Chicago church bells in 1997 at Schlatter's request, to release the largest for this project. McShane had restored two other bells from the set in 1998.

The plan calls for placing trailer-mounted bells at or near each of the three crash sites and striking each bell once every 10 seconds for each victim at that site, starting at the time of each plane crash.

"We are hoping that friends, relatives, rescue workers, survivors will ring it," Schlatter said.

The bell being restored in Glen Burnie will rest outside St. Francis, where part of West 31st Street will be blocked off for expected crowds.

It will toll in a resounding note of B for nearly eight hours for the World Trade Center's estimated 2,823 victims.

"I think it's a very nice idea," said Erin McTernan, one of Judge's two sisters living in Ocean Pines.

Schlatter also is seeking permission to bring a 3,500-pound bell to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., where 189 people were killed, and ring it about 31 minutes. A 2,800-pound bell will toll for nearly 7 minutes in Shanksville, Pa., for the 44 victims who died in an effort to retake their hijacked plane.

Wilmington's Franciscan Center will toll a 1,700-pound bell for more than 8 1/2 hours for all the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But first, the big bell here must go from dull gray-green to gleaming bronze.

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