SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — As flights across the country were grounded on September 11, 2001, a local chaplain boarded a military cargo plane bound for New York to help counsel first responders at ground zero.
Sacramento Law Enforcement chaplain Mindi Russell now believes it was the day she was born for.
Chaplain Russell has two trunks full of memories from her 16 days of providing prayers and comfort to first responders working at the site of the World Trade Center two decades ago.
“This was my hard hat, and when I was at ground zero I had to wear my hard hat,” Russell said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago.”
Russell just happened to be on the National Transportation Safety Board’s Red Cross volunteer list that September of 2001 and got the call to serve first responders in the first hours after the September 11 attack.
“Things were unimaginable,” Russell said. “People saw things that were unimaginable.”
Russell recalls the dignity of the search and rescue efforts in the dust and debris, crews carrying away each body found in the rubble in a flag-draped casket.
“One time, I was asked, ‘Just stand here when they bring out another body and pray,’” Russell said. “OK. So they would go right to the morgue, but I was standing right there to pray as they took the bodies away.”
The sight of the crumbled towers is seared into her memory.
“Those towers, when you walked around ground zero, there was not a trace of an office, desk, phone, file cabinet,” Russell said. “There was nothing.”
In the 20 years since the attacks, Russell has also seen more loss from her time at ground zero—the deaths of many who breathed in the toxic particles.
“You know, several of my partners have died because of some of the illnesses and cancers they got,” Russell said.
Russell has also been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, and can no longer provide chaplaincy services at wildfires. She is now certified by the World Trade Center Health Program to receive medical help as a responder. She was just certified last week after 15 years of filing paperwork.
“So now they’re going to find out all the things that happened to me medically, physically because of being at ground zero,” Russell said.
Russell has no regrets. She believes responding to 9/11 was her life calling.
“I know why I was born,” Russell said.
A life that led her to ground zero in those worst days. Chaplain Mindi Russell provided comfort in the chaos.
“But somebody asked me was it worth it, and every one of us would say the same thing: absolutely,” Russell said. “And I’d do it again, knowing exactly what I’d suffer from.”
Russell has also responded to the aftermath of the massacre at the Munich Olympics and Hurricane Katrina.
She says because of her medical conditions, her work as a chaplain will now center on those in need in Sacramento from now on.