National Catholic Register


Faith Hits Ground Zero: Eyewitness Accounts

BY Joe Cullen

September 23-29, 2001 Issue | Posted 9/23/01 at 1:00 AM


LOWER MANHATTAN — I was just two blocks from the World Trade Center and one block from my own office when I heard the first plane slam into the North Tower. The tall buildings right in front of me prevented me from seeing the strike, but the sound was enough to make me jump back several steps. Within seconds I could see the leaping flames and thick black smoke that have come to symbolize the attack.

Assuming the worst, I ran toward my office building on Church Street and to a better view of the Trade Center. Others were also running in various directions as emergency vehicles screamed past.

I stopped at historic St. Peter's Church, which was already filling with office workers who sensed evil and the need to plead for mercy. I tried to calm two Polish cleaning ladies from the World Trade Center by repeating news that a colleague had just yelled to me from the street: “It was an airplane that did it — an accident.”

As I left the church I witnessed a near stampede up Church Street that was caused only by the police asking people to move back. It offered a hint of the panic that would sweep the area in a matter of minutes after a second plane exploded against the South Tower.

In the wake of the second explosion came a huge fireball, more black smoke and the clear sight of people falling from the skyscrapers. Men and women cried openly. Caution replaced curiosity as people moved inside and awaited the word to evacuate.

The plan was simple: leave your building and start walking north. Within minutes, FBI agents were coordinating the mass uptown migration — on foot — of tens of thousands of people.

I joined up with a few colleagues in the march, and one asked if I had made contact with my wife. I said yes, not bothering to mention that I had broken down while speaking to Jeannette, who was home with our 1-year-old son, Finn.

God's Silence

I had not experienced conscious fear during the attack, but I wept at the thought of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other fathers of young children who would not get home that night. Yet the tears were born of joy because Finn still had his “Da-Da.”

I don't think I so much as offered a quick prayer of thanksgiving during my long march to Grand Central Station or the almost equally long wait for a train back to suburban White Plains.

I awoke early the next morning after a fitful night and opened the paper to see photos of scenes that were already frozen in my mind — the shock and fear of onlookers, the blood and dust and death descending on people I work alongside every day. I was again overcome with grief.

I went to a parish that offers perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament — a practice that always brings me light and consolation, but which gave me neither on this occasion. I covered my face, and tried not to let the others see my tears of despair. It was futile, no doubt, as I could feel my shoulders pulsate under muffled sobs.

Though not plagued by doubt or anger, I could only feel God's absence, that he was far away from me and a world lurching with new vigor toward the abyss. I could not see him or sense his presence, not even in the very sacrament of his presence. It was not God's time. Satan holds sway, I thought, at least for now.

In my disjointed prayer, I remembered how some reported apparitions of Our Lady include warnings of coming tribulations. I also recalled one of the few unfulfilled prophecies of Our Lady of Fatima: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

A Positive Outlet

We had dinner that evening with Jeannette's family on Long Island. While there, I spoke by phone with my best friend, who happens to live in nearby Floral Park. He told me that his parish church would be open that evening to collect bottled water and juices for the rescue workers in the city. I jumped at the opportunity to get away from my thoughts and to do something positive.

Jeannette, Finn and I took off for the store and were soon trotting up the steps of the church with our gifts. We opened the door to find a church filled to overflowing with families who were concluding a holy hour in reparation for the Sept. 11 attack. “I never heard such perfect quiet in a crowded church,” said my wife.

We then made our way to the drop-off point in the parish school, where we found a small army of elementary school students, along with their older siblings and parents, assembling the abundance of donated supplies. My eyes were opened as I surveyed this scene of practical, loving concern for others. While grief must be dealt with in stages and over time, I realized that hope had been returned to me. God was again present in the generous joy of those children who, along with their prayer partners in church, were healing the world — beginning with my soul.

The scene made me remember some of my other experiences in the prior 48 hours: the New Yorkers who let me use their cell phones and gave me water, and the waves upon waves of blood donors filing into our little Red Cross station in White Plains. But the people at this Long Island church seemed to know something deeper. They were not so much going to war, so as they were executing a supernatural battle that had already been won for them.

As we left, I glanced at the sign in front of the church that offered an additional reminder that the Fatima prophecy does not await fulfillment. It is accomplished in those who retain their faith, hope and love — and who do so right smack in the teeth of everything that evil can throw at them. The sign simply announced the name of the parish: Our Lady of Victory.

A former Register assistant editor, Joe Cullen is a senior editor at Moody's Investors Service in New York.