Most people remember what they were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
For me, the details of that day
are as clear as the photo that appears on this page, which I took from the
balcony of our family’s apartment, five blocks from the
When I heard the thunderous impact
of the first plane hitting the
I stayed indoors and turned on the
television to nervously watch the live news coverage. As the cameras caught the
second plane flying into the
“We are under attack!” I blurted out over the phone to Brian. He instructed me to take our infant son Stephen and go to his parents in their apartment on a lower floor.
In the rush of gathering clothes,
food and diapers, I took a moment to grab our small camera and stand on our
17th-floor balcony. Having worked as a consultant on the 104th floor for Cantor
Fitzgerald, I recalled some of the people I knew at the
As I stood there on that fateful morning, I shuddered at the thought of what might have been. As my husband said later, the life in my womb saved mine.
After taking the photos, I prayed that the employees would find a way to safety, but learned later that Cantor Fitzgerald lost more workers than any other company in the attack.
To this day, the image of the burning buildings makes my skin crawl and my stomach turn. What would make 19 young men think that martyrdom meant turning four planes into massive missiles and killing thousands of innocent people? As a Catholic, I know martyrdom means giving up one’s life to save others, not taking innocent lives to fulfill one’s suicidal mission.
Yet the horrible scene of the burning buildings was only a prelude to an even more terrible sight: empty space.
Less than two hours after the first plane hit, both towers collapsed, each time shaking the foundation of the apartment building where I helplessly held my baby. As the ground shook, the view from my apartment was obliterated by a thick cloud of white dust that was replaced slowly by the grim sight of vacant airspace where the towers once stood.
Soon, my mother-in-law arrived to help me take Stephen and some emergency supplies to her apartment, where it would be easier to leave the building if the authorities told us to go.
Fears continued to crowd my mind. Not only did I worry about my infant son in my arms, my husband, who was far away, my in-laws, who were with me and my former co-workers in the tower, but I also feared for my parents, who had just boarded a plane from Baltimore to Manila.
My parents visited me in
Before leaving my apartment, I
hurriedly made a call to my siblings in the
Shortly after, all telephone
connections were cut and transportation was shut down in lower
For Stephen’s sake, we decided to
leave the city that evening. We stayed with friends and relatives in
We found God in the faces of friends and relatives who helped us, and in New Yorkers who banded together after the attacks. Our Catholic faith guided us in those troubled days, and sustains us still.
Five years later, I have learned to see not just the tragedy but also the heroism that followed. I still look to the Mass readings of that day for inspiration. Colossians 2:6-15, the first reading, begins:
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
I see the firefighters who turned to a priest for absolution before rushing into the burning buildings as examples of people who received Christ and continued to live in him. Many others responded to the act of war with acts of heroism and kindness. The evil intent of the terrorists was no match for the good will of many ordinary men and women who became extraordinary heroes.
The reading also warns:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the rudiments of the world, and not according to Christ.”
The passengers of United 93 refused to be captives. They overpowered the hijackers and saved many lives by their supreme self-sacrifice. The terrorists were deluded into believing that their destructive actions would merit them paradise, but the passengers of United 93 knew otherwise. They are the true martyrs of 9/11. They showed us that the real meaning of 9/11 is to cherish faith, family and freedom, which are God’s gifts that cannot be taken by terror.
Maria Caulfield now lives in