U.S. News

05.16.14

A 9/11 Widow’s Perfect ‘Amazing Grace’ at the Ground Zero Museum

A widow’s searing, perfect performance opened the remembrances of those who saved hundreds of lives that September morning, at the sacred site that commemorates where too many fell.

If there is a God, then He (or She) was surely behind the last-minute change in the opening ceremony for the September 11 Memorial Museum.

The original plan was for Broadway star Idina Menzel to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Never mind that she was scheduled to be immediately preceded by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was last seen at ground zero on the 12th anniversary of the attack, yukking it up with the aide who had overseen the lane changes at the George Washington Bridge that were causing havoc in Fort Lee.

According to a senior official involved in the event, Menzel became ill at the last minute.

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Watch LaChanze Sapp-Gooding sing ‘Amazing Grace’

The organizers scrambled to replace her and came up with another Broadway singer, who would have been the right choice from the start and not just because she is a Tony winner.

The replacement singer was LaChanze Sapp-Gooding and she is the widow of Calvin Joseph Gooding, who was a broker with Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower on 9/11. She was eight months pregnant with their second child when he was killed.

With a different singer came a different song, the perfect one, “Amazing Grace.” Nobody ever sang it with greater feeling in more searing circumstances, to the last unfaltering note.

And never was it more appropriate, for grace of the most amazing kind was what met absolute evil on that September morning in 2001.

In his remarks at the start of the program, President Obama spoke of innocents on the 78th floor of the South Tower who had been quite literally saved by the grace of a finance worker known as the man in the red bandana.

He was 24-year-old Welles Crowther and those who had thought they were hopelessly trapped in the fire and choking smoke suddenly heard him cry out that he had found a stairway. He led everybody he could to safety, carrying one woman who was unable to make it on her own. He then climbed back up into hell again and again, until he perished trying to rescue even more.

These 12 years later, the president now introduced the young hero’s mother, Alison Crowther, and one of the people he had saved, Ling Young.

FDNY Lt. Mickey Kross recalled a fleeting beam of sunlight that somehow shone through the wreckage of a 110-story building that had just fallen directly on top of the Ladder 6 crew.

“I’m here today because of Welles, a man I did not get the chance to thank,” Young said. “It was very hard for me to come here today, but I wanted to do so, so I could say thank you to his parents.”

Alison Crowther said of her son, “For us, he lives on in the people he helped and in the memory of what he chose to do that Tuesday in September.”

The red bandana had been lost in the collapse, but he had been in the habit of always carrying one and another of his collection was now on display in the museum.

“It is our greatest hope that when people come and see Welles’s red bandana, they will remember how people helped each other that day,” his mother said. “And we hope that they will be inspired to do the same in ways both big and small.”

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Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

The spirit of the man in the red bandana was so compelling that the chamber did not seem to lose its most important presence as Obama departed much earlier than many expected. The next speaker was Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Then came Christie.

Next would have been the worst possible choice of songs. There was instead the very best and LaChanze proved how right it is that her name means “the Charmed One” in Creole. 

Other symbols of grace in the museum’s collection include an NYPD badge with a battered nameplate reading “SMITH.” It belonged to Police Officer Moira Smith, who was last seen leading a bleeding civilian to safety from the South Tower. She then returned and kept people moving when they became suddenly transfixed by the carnage in the plaza. She is credited with saving hundreds before the tower collapsed. Her husband, retired Police Officer James Smith, and teenage daughter, Patricia, were in attendance as yesterday’s dedication proceeded.

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Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

Were it not for a seeming miracle, FDNY Lt. Mickey Kross would have joined Moira Smith and Welles Crowther among the hundreds who perished trying to save others. Kross was on the fourth floor of the North Tower with members of Ladder 6 when it collapsed, and by a seeming miracle they survived. He seemed still amazed to be alive when he stepped up to speak at the ceremony. He recalled a fleeting beam of sunlight that somehow shone through the wreckage of a 110-story building that had just fallen directly on top of them.

“It was enough to let us know there was an opening,” Kross said. “It turned out the rescue workers could see it too. They finally came toward us. They couldn’t believe we had survived to walk out on our own.”

The survivors emerged to behold total devastation and joined their rescuers in the continuing search.

“To do for others what had been done for us,” Kross now said.

They had all kept on for day after day, united in their effort to help others.

“There was a real sense of caring for each other,” Kross said. “This is something we should never forget and never stop doing.”

After the ceremony was done, those who visited the museum included James Dowdell, son of FDNY Lt. Kevin Dowdell, who had perished in the effort to save LaChanze’s husband and so many others.

James is now himself a firefighter in Brooklyn, as ready as his father had been to hurry in direst danger to rescue whoever might need help. He and all his kindred souls are guided by the spirit that suffuses the museum, the spirit that soared with a perfect song by the perfect singer.

“Am-a-a-a-zing grace…”