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Lessons Learned at Ground Zero

by Richard Perez
USA

Mr. Perez (center) with his wife, Elin, his son and daughter
Mr. Perez (center) with his wife, Elin,
his son and daughter

I started practicing Buddhism about four years ago when my wife Elin, whom I was then dating, introduced me to the SGI. Before I met her I meditated, but I really didn't have a religious practice. Practicing Buddhism has helped me tremendously, especially at those times when I have been faced with problems. It has also awakened in me a powerful desire to help others, learn about safety and save lives.

I work for the New York City Department of Transportation as a staff inspector for the borough of Manhattan. I am what is known as a "Peace Officer," a law enforcement officer like a policeman who does not carry a gun.

On September 11, I was on the Staten Island ferry crossing the Hudson River, not far from the World Trade Center, when the first plane hit. When I got off the ferry, my coworkers and I began running toward the towers. As I got closer, I saw a man lying on the ground. I approached him and discovered that he was having a heart attack. In fact, Joseph was on the way to his cardiologist for a checkup at the time.

During my years of learning CPR and other safety training, I always wondered why I had to study so hard. Now I was given a chance to apply everything I had learned. I spent a lot of time helping Joseph and, eventually, was able to get a police car to take him to an uptown hospital. As we were lifting him into the car, the first tower collapsed. In seconds, we were covered in dust and ashes. If it hadn't been for Joseph--if I had not stopped to help him--I am certain that I would have been under the tower when it fell.

I have been working at Ground Zero ever since that day. I won't go into detail about what I have seen since, ultimately, that is not what is important. The most important realization that I have had as a result of this ordeal is that there are two very strong emotions--anger and compassion. Every evening on my way home after working on the site I encounter people who are very angry about what happened. But those of us working at Ground Zero, the firemen and the men in other rescue mission units, are not motivated by anger.

We are motivated by the far more powerful emotion of compassion. Every day we witness close-up the destruction that results from anger. Everyone regards us as heroes, but I believe that anyone who takes action to create a more peaceful world deserves to be called a hero.

I feel so much appreciation for everything and everyone I have in my life. I am fortunate to have a family and to be surrounded by people I love. But the people working on the bucket line, removing debris, are also my family. We don't know each other's names, but we communicate with our eyes. It does not matter what culture we are from, what ethnic group we belong to; we are all working as one. We are constantly helping each other, constantly greeting each other. Every time someone is tired, another person jumps up to help. I feel that this is the way the world should be, but I realize that sometimes it takes a crisis for everyone to unite, for everyone to understand how precious life really is.

I have been able to draw abundant strength from Nichiren's letter that states, "Great events never have minor omens. When great evil occurs, great good follows.... What [cause] could any of you have to lament?"

I am very happy that SGI members around the world are chanting for world peace and unity. My aim is to share this humanistic philosophy widely and to instill in others a desire for peace.

Contributed to SGI-USA's World Tribune, October 2001.

[ Courtesy January 2002 SGI Quarterly ]

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