National Catholic Register


Recalling 9/11: God Is Always Present

BY Richard Mack

September 11-24, 2011 Issue | Posted 9/6/11 at 10:20 AM


It was a beautiful day in New York — not a cloud in the sky. Although autumn was approaching, the weather was still warm.

I was in my second month at Morgan Stanley/Dean Witter in Tower Two of the World Trade Center. Unlike days when I would normally be at my desk on the 73rd floor, I was in a training session on approximately the 62nd floor.

Training began early, at 7:30am. We broke about 8:40 after a session on technical analysis presented by Morgan Stanley's technical analyst Phil Roth. About 8:48, after taking my break in a room near the center of the building, I returned to my seat near the south windows overlooking New York Harbor, where the view was magnificent.

Upon my return, a fellow trainee by the name of Josh, who was attending from a branch office in Texas, told me there was just an explosion upstairs. I inquired, "Where?"

"Upstairs," he repeated. I went to the window and saw a seemingly unending stream of paper debris blowing over the building. It appeared to be coming from the roof or a floor above.

As I gazed further, I noticed fire on the roofs of several buildings across Liberty Street. Immediately thinking terrorism, I said to Josh, "We better get out of here."

I grabbed my suit jacket, calculator and bag, as Josh and I headed toward the stairwell.

I opted to take the stairs, despite the long trek downward, because I heard it is prudent to avoid taking an elevator when a building is on fire. Josh followed. As we walked out the door, the instructor announced we should stay in our places until we received further instruction. We decided to ignore his request.

I thought the building was burning, given the fire on neighboring roofs. Still conscious in my mind were stories of the bombing of 1993, which motivated me to vacate sooner rather than later.

On our way down, the stairwell was abuzz with conversation about what happened. Several older folks seemed to be having difficulty breathing from their strenuous trip down. Others seemed frightened and may have been hyperventilating as a result.

By the time Josh and I got down to the Sky Lobby on the 44th floor, we heard an announcement that Tower One had been hit by an airplane and Tower Two had been hit by debris. The voice on the speaker sounded calm and advised people that Tower Two had been secured and people should return to their places.

No way, Josh and I figured. We were intent upon leaving the building as soon as possible — as were most people in the stairwell; although I heard afterward a few did return to their desks.

By the time we made it down as far as the 32nd floor, we heard an explosion upstairs. It was muted but concerning.

Immediately, I assumed that a portion of the plane that hit Tower One landed on our roof and exploded. Little did we know that Tower Two had been struck by a second plane.

Fortunately, Josh and I were low enough not to have experienced any physical harm. However, it gave me pause, and I thought to myself: This may be my last day on earth.

Naturally, I prayed that God would guide us out of the building safely. I was not afraid. I felt confident in God's love that I had been forgiven for my trespasses. I felt he would welcome me if he decided to call me home that day.

I continued downward with the others.

By this time, approximately 15 minutes had passed. It would be another 15 minutes or so before we got out of the building.

A young lady on the steps ahead of us kept falling. I believe she was hyperventilating out of fear. Each time she fell, the downward traffic would slow until her friends would help her up. After falling again, I grabbed her by the arm and began a brief conversation with her to try to calm her down. I asked her what her name was. She responded, "Lisa." I asked her where she was from. She said the 73rd floor. I told her that my office was on 73, as well.

At that point I felt confident that most of the occupants of my floor were probably on their way down. I continued to hold Lisa's arm until we reached the exit. Several times I stated aloud that we were getting closer to the ground floor, counting down the floors. I was beginning to feel that exiting the building would become a reality.

Once we reached the mall on the lower level, we found it dark and deserted, except for the line of people moving briskly toward an exit.

Security guided us up to ground level and led us out through the northeast corner of the building, where there was less risk of getting hit by falling objects.

As we emerged from the building, the ground was covered with debris, indicating a large explosion had occurred. The fire and security personnel were shouting "Run! Run! Run!" so I let go of Lisa's arm. She rejoined her friends, and we both ran toward safety. I hope she was as fortunate as I was to get away before the collapse.

As I ran up Vesey Street toward Broadway, I saw shoes, bags, aircraft parts and clothing strewn about the street.

I stopped at the corner of Ann Street and Broadway to snap a picture of the burning towers with a throw-away camera that I used on a recent vacation to my hometown of Chicago.

I stopped to talk to people near a newsstand on Broadway and asked them what they saw. One fellow told me he saw an airplane hit Tower One. I asked if it was a small plane like a Cessna. He said it was an airliner. Another fellow said he saw another plane hit Tower Two. I mentioned that I just came from Tower Two and said aloud, "It must have been a terrorist attack." Observers nodded in agreement.

As I was walking toward the subway, a fellow walking in the other direction told me the subways were not running. He said he was going to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. That sounded like a good idea. Despite my concern that the bridge could be the next target, I was anxious to get out of Manhattan and thought that I would find a running subway in Brooklyn. I was familiar with the pedestrian walkway of the bridge because my father and I walked to the center of the New York landmark during my parents' visit from Chicago earlier in the year.

As I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, I would look over my shoulder periodically to view the burning skyscraper. As the fire spread, I thought it might be weeks before we would be allowed to return. I heard a girl shout that she saw someone jumping. Others were in tears.

About three-quarters of the way over the bridge, I heard a rumble: I looked back and saw the top of Tower Two break off and pancake through the rest of the building. I was not shocked, given that I heard portions of a building could collapse in a fire. I thought it was unusual, however, for the whole building to go down. At that moment, I remembered an article I read in college in the early 1970s when the World Trade Center was being built. The article described the unique, innovative architecture employed in its design. I thought to myself, That's it — that's why the building collapsed.

I sensed Tower One would also fall, and it did — shortly after I reached Brooklyn.

When I got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, I found a Catholic church, St. James Cathedral on Jay Street. A priest was conducting a Communion service, and several people were in attendance. I said a prayer for the people who perished in the collapse, as well as the injured. I also asked God to guide the rest of us on our way before continuing my journey home.

Once I reached my neighborhood in the Astoria section of Queens at about 5:30pm, I stopped again, this time at Immaculate Conception Church on Ditmars Boulevard. I offered a prayer in thanksgiving for my safe return, as well as for all who were affected by the tragic events of that day. It is comforting to know that a Catholic church is always near when one desires to offer a prayer — especially in New York City, where a multitude of churches exist.

Our relationship with God gives us confidence as we journey through life. God was with me every step of the way on 9/11. God is always present and was with everyone that day: those he called home and those who escaped and survived.

Richard Mack currently works as an instructor for a

financial-training firm located near the World Trade Center site.