Tom Riches was just 17 when he helped carry his firefighter brother's body out of the ruins of the World Trade Center. Six years later, ground zero still holds only painful memories.
He will return to the site Sunday with Pope Benedict XVI, who will say a prayer for Sept. 11 victims that Riches hopes will transform the land into something else.
"Since that day, it's always been sacred to me," Riches said of the place where his brother Jim and more than 2,700 others died. "Him blessing the ground there will make it official."
Riches is one of two dozen Sept. 11 family members, survivors and rescue workers joining the pope for a brief service at the base of the destroyed twin towers. They were randomly chosen from more than 1,100 people who wanted to be there.
"I won a lottery that I would rather not be in," said Linda Litto, whose husband, Vincent, worked in the Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage at the trade center. He was killed when a hijacked jet crashed into his building.
Benedict to pray for victims, families
Benedict will travel down a ramp now used mostly by construction trucks to a spot by the north tower's footprint. He will kneel, light a candle and pray for victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks, their loved ones, and for peace. He is also expected to pray for thousands of workers who became ill after breathing toxic air in the ruins.
The 24 guests include 16 family members, four survivors and four Sept. 11 rescue workers.
Among them are John McLoughlin, a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police sergeant who was trapped under debris from the towers for 22 hours; and Dympnia Jessich, the twin sister of Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge, who was killed while performing last rites on a firefighter outside the towers.
Jessich, 74, said she went to the site with a firefighter in the first year after the attacks. They held hands, knelt and said a prayer. "It was so quiet, and there was nobody there," she said. "It was a very sacred moment to me."
She said it's particularly meaningful to return to a place that was once "so momentous."
Riches' father, Deputy Fire Chief James Riches, will be watching from the top of the site, where the family was allowed to bring one guest. His firefighter son was in one of the first companies to arrive at the disaster, and was last seen climbing up the stairs of the first tower that was hit. He died a day before his 30th birthday.
Comfort from the pope's prayer
Tom Riches, 23, who became a firefighter like his older brother, said he will take comfort from the pope's prayer.
"It gives a little peace and a little solace that he's blessing the place where Jimmy died," said the elder Riches. "He's acknowledging to all the world that it's sacred ground."
Besides the 24 guests, Benedict will be joined by New York Cardinal Edward Egan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the governors of New York and New Jersey, and Port Authority officials.
The site is normally filled with hundreds of workers building a 102-story skyscraper, Sept. 11 memorial and transit hub. It bears little resemblance to the debris-filled pit where crews toiled to remove twisted steel and victims' remains.
Many family members, including some of more than 1,100 victims whose remains were never identified, hoped the pope would acknowledge the dead who were never found.
"A lot of people, that is their cemetery," said Litto, who recovered some of her husband's remains. "It's a place where they drew their last breath. There's a very big connection when you're there when you've lost someone."
Sally Regenhard, mother of a slain firefighter whose remains were never recovered, said she hopes Benedict blesses the dead who may still be at the site. More than 1,700 bone fragments have been recovered in the past two years in and around ground zero, some buried beneath a service road.
"I'm hoping he will symbolically bless the human remains," said Regenhard, who is not attending the service.
Riches said any blessing from the pope will help family members heal.
"Even if he just says a silent prayer, just his presence there is enough," he said. "Twenty or 30 years from now, whatever they do down there, this event on Sunday will be something they will tell their children. The pope came all the way from Rome, and he blessed this ground."