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Bringing Comfort & Hope to National Tragedies

Bringing Comfort and Hope to National Tragedies

Twenty years after 9/11, a trauma chaplain serves at the Florida condo collapse.
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • September 9, 2021

On June 24, 2021, trauma chaplain Bob Ossler ’00 woke up to news reports of a 12-story condo building that collapsed overnight in Surfside, Florida. Wasting no time, he drove four hours south from his central Florida home, praying all the way that God would use him to offer comfort and hope to the families, neighbors, and first responders.

The area of the collapse was closed off for miles, but when Bob encountered someone from the mayor’s office who gave permission to drive directly to the site, he recognized God’s favor. “I went and parked right next to the building,” says Bob. In the steamy, blistering heat, a large crowd had gathered, hoping survivors would be found. Bob spent the day “listening to people’s stories, counseling, praying, being there as a comfort for people.” He also left four crosses at the memorial wall as a reminder of God’s love and the four victims who were identified that day—a number that would ultimately grow to 98, with no survivors.

For Bob, being at Surfside triggered many emotions and brought “flashbacks to ground zero like you wouldn’t believe,” he says, referring to the 110-story World Trade Center towers that collapsed on September 11, 2001. Once again he experienced “the sights, sounds, and smells—the gritty taste in my mouth, the large crowd mourning and grieving, the fire hoses going on a hot day.”

Memories of 9/11

It was 20 years ago this month when Bob responded to the call for chaplains to come to New York City after terrorists flew hijacked commercial jets into the Twin Towers. He came with years of experience in the rescue business—as a Chicago paramedic, firefighter, rescue diver, and ordained minister, but also as an X-ray technician and embalmer. All that experience would be put to the test in Manhattan.

“At ground zero I saw people who suffered so dearly with loss, and my heart broke so much for them and I wept with them, and I held them—burly men and construction guys, cops, firemen, and women and men of all sizes. I didn’t care who they were. We hugged. Women put their heads on my chest as they wept over their children, over their husbands, sisters, brothers.”

Bob was on the “the Pile”—the huge blocks-long wreckage of rubble from the collapsed twin towers—when someone found a body part and wondered what it was. Bob looked at it and identified a human coccyx, part of a tailbone. When medical examiners found out Bob had a degree in pathology, they urged him to keep helping them identify human remains. He agreed, adding it to his chaplaincy work. Often holding his breath to avoid the stench, Bob helped label decomposed remains. With each body part discovered in the Pile, he prayed for the grieving relatives and friends, often reciting Scripture.

Bob showed sensitivity as he ministered to grieving people at ground zero. “You have to take your time and keep your emotions in check, because they’re counting on you to be the strength. And my strength comes from God, from Christ,” explains Bob, who did a lot of listening and chose his words carefully. “I’d say, ‘I’m going to pray for you quietly and let you process what you’re thinking.’”

“There were so many things at Ground Zero that would just crush you,” Bob adds. When opportunities arose, he offered relief—“that Jesus Christ is our Savior, and God will minister to you and touch you and lift you out of this.”

Bob did five tours of duty at ground zero, performing more than 300 mini-services for families who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Later he published his memoirs about his experience. “We can’t escape problems and heartbreak, but with God’s help, we can learn resilience,” he wrote in Triumph Over Terror (Blackside Publishing, 2016). “We can triumph over pain and terror, we can recognize the greatness of God, and we can grow in our faith.”

From Fear to Faith

Bob battled his own fear of death as a child. It stemmed back to the day he came home from second grade and found his grandmother dead on the floor. “It was the most frightening experience to that point,” he says. “I ran out of the house, went to get help, couldn’t find help for three houses.”

After high school, Bob joined the US Air Force and was confronted with the gospel. “I was a real Jonah, running the other way. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I wanted to be with girls and have fun with the guys and drink and stuff,” he recalls. But after accepting Christ’s death and resurrection for his salvation, he had new purpose and assurance that he would go to Heaven when he died.

Later he even got licensed as a mortician and funeral director, an occupation he did for many years. “I don’t fear death anymore,” he says.

Moody Training

Bob was a Chicago paramedic when he first attended Moody in 1979, majoring in evangelism. “I’m an evangelism nut. I love sharing the gospel,” he says.

But he struggled to concentrate in in-person classes and, despite a keen mind, “washed out as a student.” Diagnosed with ADHD, he later took Moody’s external studies and found it much easier to learn. Recently he wrote a book about his learning differences: ADHD: You’ve Got My Attention (EABooks Publishing, 2019).

“Moody was critical to my learning and growing,” says Bob, who applied his studies to his “work on the streets in trauma situations, along with ministry, evangelism, and the love of Christ.” He recalls a memorable course in foreign missions where he extrapolated that “you don’t have to go to a foreign mission field. Everywhere you go is a mission field.” For Bob, that included ministering at Pacific Garden Mission and in neighborhoods plagued by violence. “Moody taught me to reach out and love people,” he says.

In 2000 he crossed the stage to receive his diploma from President Joseph Stowell. “That was my proudest moment, getting my bachelor’s degree at Moody,” says Bob, who went on to get a master’s and doctorate in pastoral ministry. Another happy moment was when he met Sue Swagerty. They married in 1982, and she worked in nursing for nearly 20 years. They have one grown daughter and a new grandson, adopted from Bulgaria.

Rescuing Souls

Bob is retired but volunteers as a trauma chaplain all over the country—in Miami after a bridge collapsed, at the fires of Paradise, California, and after the Virginia Beach shootings. “I’ve been to nine different shootings in the last three years,” he says. In June 2016 he prayed with hundreds of police officers in Dallas, Texas, after five police officers were killed and nine injured by a sniper. Ten days later someone who’d seen him interviewed on the news gave up their seat in an airplane so he could get to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where three officers had been murdered.

Bob sat next to a tennis pro on the plane and led him to Christ. “He’d been seeded and watered and was ready,” Bob says. Then, as he prayed with people at the Baton Rouge memorial site, a news reporter pulled him aside and said, “You seem to be a very spiritual person. What is it about you?” They talked privately, and after Bob gave the gospel, the man started crying, praying with Bob to receive Christ.

“Seeing two people accept Christ was very exciting to me,” says Bob, who credits the Holy Spirit for bringing the increase. Indeed, the inside pages of his Bible are covered with the dates and signatures of people who’ve trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior.

Bob also serves with his local sheriff’s department, riding with officers on calls. If someone dies in an accident or crime scene, Bob says a prayer and gives the gospel in the deceased person’s ear. “The last thing to go in a human body is hearing,” he explains. “I say it loud enough so that all the officers around will hear the gospel.”

Despite the challenges of being a trauma chaplain, Bob considers it “a real privilege to go out there and minister, to reach out to people and to even offer prayer or spend time listening to them and letting them pour their heart out.” His goal: “I make sure people know God loves them.”

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends and senior editor for Moody’s Marketing Communications department.