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9/11 — 10 Years Later

Catholics Remember the Tragedy — and Its Spiritual Impact

BY Joseph Pronechen

Register Staff Writer

September 11-24, 2011 Issue | Posted 9/6/11 at 3:07 PM

 

NEW YORK — The 10 years since 9/11 have not dulled the memories of those who were on the scene in New York or Washington or knew someone who was murdered by terrorists that day.

Nor has time lessened the spiritual lessons learned. For the anniversary, the Register spoke to several Catholics who were there that day.

For firemen, it didn't matter whether they were on duty at the moment or not. All responded generously, whether it was going to the scene or remaining at a firehouse to protect the neighborhood.

New York Fire Department firefighter Tom Marsich was at home when he heard the first reports.

"I felt right away this was a terrorist attack," he said. "I was there in '93 during the first World Trade Center bombing. On TV, I saw the planes hit and the size of the tremendous fire. Obviously, a lot killed. I called the [Franciscan] Friars [of the Renewal] and asked for their prayers."

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an order that was started in New York City by Father Benedict Groeschel and several other Capuchin Franciscans, has a friary near Marsich's firehouse in Harlem.

Many of the friars responded to the tragedy, as did many priests in the New York metropolitan area, providing spiritual care for those killed and wounded at Ground Zero — and continuing consolation for grieving loved ones for years after.

Marsich rushed to his station, Engine Co. 80 Ladder 23 in Harlem. He and his fellow firemen commandeered a city bus and rushed down the West Side Highway to the World Trade Center.

"By the time we got there, the two buildings were down and the 47-story Tower Seven building was still on fire. At that moment, it was very surreal looking at the amount of fire and gray dust that covered everything," he said. "My first impression was: How could something so evil and destructive take place? You were aware of what you were seeing, but beyond your worst imagination something like this could happen."

Firemen began doing searches in certain areas right away. "They were aware that Tower Seven would collapse also. It did that evening," he recalled. "We stayed all day and night until 1am, and then had to get back for rescue and recovery. We worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off, for weeks. The scale of the tragedy was so large."

Marsich remembers "finding out daily [about] more people who died. The pain of people lost is with you. I began to talk to God and try to get a better understanding."

Aside from the 19 hijackers, the terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people, including 2,606 in New York City. That included 341 New York City firefighters and two paramedics, 23 New York Police Department officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers.

The nearest hospital, St. Vincent's, stood by to receive casualties, but there were very few. One priest reported seeing what seemed to be 50 ambulances lined up near the scene, but medical personnel quickly realized there would be few wounded, only dead.

Remembering his prayer experiences at the time, Marsich said, "Inside my own heart, the word repent would come to me.

"Repent, meaning turn to God for your comfort, your strength, as an individual. No matter where you are on your faith journey, turn to God and return to God. You need God's comfort and strength. I thought it was also a call to return to God as people, as a nation. To be as good as we can be in God's plan for us.

"At the time, I was practicing my faith and knew the friars — a tremendous blessing to me. I believe 9/11 increased my faith, for sure," he said. "Anytime we go through a big challenge in our lives, it makes us pray more to God, speak more inside to God, asking for his help, and praying for other people going through hard times. "

"Also, I felt that outpouring from people really, really touched my faith back then," he added. "I can't describe how all the people, mothers, daughters knocked on the firehouse door with food and bring things like that to the firehouse. And all those touching cards from kids from all over the world sent to firehouses. Bags of mail! On rotation from the World Trade Center, we sat down and read them.

"We all knew so many who died and were traumatized, but to receive a note from a little boy in another state saying he was praying for us — God worked through all those people to help us put one foot in front of the other to continue rescuing people and recovering remains of those they loved. We might have seen a lot of darkness on 9/11, but, in the aftermath, I saw a lot of love and a lot of light."

Marsich, who recently retired, helps the friars as an associate and volunteers at Mother Teresa's Queen of Peace shelter for the homeless.


Twin Towers' Pastor

Priests were among the first responders to the scene.

Father Kevin Madigan was pastor of St. Peter's Church, a city block from the World Trade Center. On his way to the rectory after celebrating Mass and hearing confessions, he learned that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers.

He said he "immediately ran out into the street, thinking I might have to anoint the wounded and dying. But all I could see was a crowd of people standing in the street looking up at the fire consuming the north tower. I overheard people saying that they had seen people leap to their deaths from the tower. I distinctly remember that I decided not to look, because I didn't want to have such a memory etched in my consciousness.

"I thought that whoever had perpetrated this attack had done their worst, when, all of a sudden, a burst of flame emerged from the other tower, and debris was flying. I remember the wheel of an airplane flying over my head."

After making sure the parish staff was safe, back at the chaotic scene he saw a middle-aged businessman weeping on the steps of the church. His brother's office was on the 78th floor.
"I simply encouraged him not to lose hope," Father Madigan said. "Most likely, that hope was realized, because over 98% of those working in the floors below the point of impact managed to escape."

The north tower was hit between the 93rd to 97th floor, the south tower around the 77th to 85th floor.

"I was going from one corner to another, looking for the wounded and the dying, in order to be of some assistance," he said. "Little did I know that the dead and many of the wounded were being brought to St. Peter's to await transport to either the morgue or hospital. In fact, the marble floor of the church sanctuary served as a temporary morgue for more than 30 bodies."

On his way to an aid center with another priest and policemen, firemen said there was danger that one or both of the towers might collapse. Even though he thought that unlikely, Father Madigan checked avenues of escape.

Right after he spotted the entrance to a subway station, a tower began to collapse. He yelled to his companions "Down here!" and they all ran down the steps. When they exited several blocks away, police told them to go to St. Vincent's Hospital in nearby Greenwich Village.

When Father Madigan returned to the World Trade Center site, he said, "one became aware that mingled with that ash were the remains of the people who had perished."

He saw countless pieces of paper strewn about, mostly financial spreadsheets or family photos from desks. "In a very telling way, these relics summed up what the lives of those who were murdered that morning were all about, the same basic thing — how they had simply gone to work as usual, just to earn a living to support their families.

"Through this whole experience, people admitted to being more reflective about the very meaning and purpose of their lives," Father Madigan found. "There was a profound sense of coming together after having been a city under attack. But it was less out of a sense of vengeance or retribution against the attackers than of working together to find any survivors and offering emotional support for their families."


General Absolution

Among the first responders were priests who rushed to the scene to minister to anyone in need, even before they knew the extent of the horrendous tragedy.

Father George Rutler, an internationally known speaker, author and host of EWTN's Christ in the City, remembers "every moment of that day. ... It's printed in one's mind. I have kind of a total recall."

He had just been named pastor of the Church of Our Savior on Park Avenue but was still at his former Church of St. Agnes by Grand Central Terminal. He heard a plane that seemed to be flying right over his head and wondered why such a large plane was flying so low. Then he heard the sound from downtown.

As soon as he heard that sound, he literally ran the distance to Lower Manhattan, saw the building on fire and went into St. Peter's Church looking for the holy oils. The church was empty, but he said the impact of the crash had been so great that file cabinets were pushed from the walls and everything was coated with white dust.

"A priest, Father [Mychal] Judge — I didn't know him — had been killed, and firemen brought his body to St. Peter's Church," Father Rutler said. "The firemen in shock came in with the priest's body. He was the first officially recorded death. They put his body in front of the altar. It was very moving. There is a picture of the Crucifixion over the altar. I remember blood coming down the altar steps. I shall always remember that scene."

Next, he saw one policeman sitting on the steps of the church weeping.

"That reduced everything to a human scale," Father Rutler said. "I knew everything was bad, but, at that time, I didn't know the scale of it."

"Firemen were lining up to go into the building, asking for absolution. I was giving general absolution; they were going into a battlefield. One always has these mental images of the firemen going up these staircases and the people coming down."

The Catechism explains in the case of grave necessity a general absolution is the recourse (1483).

"Grave necessity of this sort can arise when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent's confession," it states, referring to Canon 961 of the Code of Canon Law. The faithful must have contrition and the intention of individually confessing in due time each of the grave sins which cannot then be confessed.

"It was almost like being on a Hollywood stage set, because it was so surreal," Father Rutler recalled. "It was hard to believe what you were seeing was really happening. In the smoke, twisted metal girders, it looked like one of those World War I films — a definite battle scene.

"Early in the day, I was standing there, and emergency personnel brought a stretcher by, and an arm was hanging down. The person was dead. After the priest's body, that was the first causality I saw. … People jumping was the most horrible thing."

Individual encounters were just as unforgettable.

Father Rutler remembers a "young fellow in a FedEx uniform" approaching him. "'Father, I just got married, and my wife is in the building up there. Do you think she's okay?' I said, 'I'll say a prayer, and she'll be all right.' As I said that, the building came down. I remember his frozen face."

Father Rutler said something else struck him that day — "The weather was ethereally beautiful. … The temperature was mild. A bright blue sky. Such contradiction to all the smoke and the horror."

In 10 years, he has never been able to go back to Ground Zero, although he was near the site running a mini-marathon. He does keep in touch with many firemen. Ever since 9/11, the bonds have been closer. He has been made an honorary fireman or chaplain of some fire departments, including the department in Houston.

"New Yorkers are always great in crisis. When going well, they're at each other's throats, but in crisis they bond together," he reflected. "As a result of Sept. 11, New Yorkers have been able to come together with a certain empathy. When you live in the city, you can easily isolate yourself from people and get priorities wrong, about getting and spending, but Sept. 11 reminded people of their mortality.

"In our culture we just assume old people die, but it was very radical to have so many funerals after Sept. 11 for so many young people, all in their 20s, 30s. That gave a lot of people the awareness of human fragility, and people became somewhat more serious after that."

Father Rutler finds a big difference between this attack and a catastrophe — for instance, people killed in accidents or natural calamities: "This was the consequence of willful evil. Totally unnecessary and gratuitous. That's what made it more horrible."

"It may have made people more serious in their consideration of evil," he added. "How many spiritual fathers have said the devil's greatest deceit is to persuade us he doesn't exist? And trying to explain the motivation of people apart from the cooperation with evil doesn't work. In a culture that has been purely utilitarian and falsely optimistic, the denial of evil softened people spiritually and made them naive. There's a difference between innocence and naiveté, just as there's a difference between hope and optimism."

"We talk about naiveté and cynicism," he said, "but on Sept. 11, you saw real heroism. In that sense, it was a great moment."

Father Rutler attested that this was a very life-changing moment in the history of our country and the city: "New York, we say, is the center of the world, but we realized civilization is very fragile."

This Sept. 17 will be the 10th anniversary of Father Rutler's installation as pastor of Our Saviour. That day will also see the 400th wedding since he has become pastor. Amid the chaos of 9/11, he remembers couples about to be married there asking if they should cancel the wedding — transportation was difficult; people were afraid to come to New York.

Father Rutler's directive: "I was saying, more than ever, we need weddings as a sign of real hope."


Joy and Sadness

For those not on the scene but who had once worked there and knew some people in the World Trade Center, the events took on added meaning.
Robert Astorino, former station manager/program director of the Catholic Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio, who now serves as Westchester County executive, was by a television and watched the plane go into World Trade Center.

"I remember all of a sudden crying and understanding what's happening to people in the building," he said. "I knew people in the building. I didn't know their fate at the time. Some had died.

"How evil people could be to have done that?" he added. "And, like everybody else, I was in utter shock and remember the faces of people around town. Eerily quiet."

"Then you saw the good in the world," he recalled, "where everyone came together and put out a helping hand. The comfort Cardinal [Edward] Egan gave to New York didn't go unnoticed, [nor did] the role of a priest who died, those who were on hand to comfort and be part of the rescue efforts, all the emergency responders we lost that day."

"It was probably the worst moment in my life to witness and then became the best of moments to live through to see the good of humanity and good of people as they helped," he said. "Hopefully people found spirituality in all this. If it brings them back to Church, it's a good thing."

Did it affect his spiritual path? "My spirituality and religious life has never wavered," he said. "My wife and I had just gotten married June 25. At the very beginning of our own marriage, 9/11 happened. Shortly after, our first child was born.

"From the very beginning, we learned how fragile life is. In a split second, something like this changes people's lives forever. It reinforced in me and my wife how important it is to live every day to the fullest and enjoy each other and our family and people we love."


Father Mychal

God can bring good out of what evil tries to do; that good ripple goes far and wide.

Kelly Ann Lynch was living in Lancaster, Pa., at the time of 9/11. She and her family had known Franciscan Father Mychal Judge from the 1960s in New Jersey, when her parents were married and their children were baptized. As Lynch left a Mass the evening of 9/11 to pray for the victims, her husband called and told her Father Mychal, chaplain to the New York City Fire Department, had been killed.

The news was devastating. "It was such a tremendous loss of the man who had provided such spiritual support for us during our entire lifetime," Lynch said.

Eleven years earlier, her baby daughter, Shannon, was not expected to live because of a rare liver ailment. "Father Mychal was the one who got me through that time in my life," Lynch said. "He was there and a tremendous source of spiritual comfort and guidance for us when Shannon was sick and had a liver transplant when she was 7 months old. He was so inspired by God and driven by the Holy Spirit. He was always there."

Lynch said as soon as Father Mychal died, she wanted to share his story. At weekday Mass she was inspired to write a children's book. "I heard in my soul, 'He Said Yes,'" which turned into the title. "He continually said 'Yes' as he heard God calling him to be there with his people, helping the poor and the firemen."

Lynch found a way to continue that mission as a memorial. "Shannon, only 11 years old, discovered the way," she said.

Every January, on the anniversary of her transplant, they thank God for the gift of her life at Mass, then celebrate. After Sept. 11, instead of gifts, Shannon asked for socks for the homeless to give away in memory of Father Mychal.

That first year, she received 1,500 pairs. With every pair the family attached the same prayer card Father Mychal handed out with a prayer he had written, and they gave them to the homeless at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street in Manhattan, the parish where the priest was stationed.

Since then, through their apostolate, Mychal's Message, they have collected and distributed tens of thousands of pairs of socks, underwear, toiletries, baby necessities, clothes and many other items for the homeless and poor not only in New York, but in six states as far away as Louisiana and even Iraq.

"9/11 has clearly, surely, deepened and strengthened my faith and the faith of my family," Lynch said. "It has also taught us to simply love. Since Sept. 11, knowing Father Mychal has challenged us to be better, to give more, to love more, to recognize everyone you encounter has a story, and to pull each other along the way. 9/11 has really taught us that."


'What Does God Want?'

It's typical that the first responders and those who remained on the scene for weeks on end do not think of themselves as heroic in what they did.

Ralph Esposito was a 10-year veteran firefighter with the New York Fire Department and just assigned on Sept. 10, 2001, to the Counseling Unit for his day tours.

"I was involved right from the start," Esposito said. "I spent 10 months, three to four days a week, talking to the guys while they were digging up body parts. I dug up my own share of body parts too.

"I've seen a lot of human suffering, a lot of families broken up. Kids looking for fathers; mothers looking for sons. But a lot of good has come out of 9/11. I've seen a lot of people do great things."

Esposito retired from the fire department in 2011. He knows many Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and teaches youngsters in five CCD classes a week. In 2008 he was named "Man of the Year" for the Holy Name Society out of the entire department.

"I remember thinking in the early days: How am I going to get through all of this? Days went from 6am to sometimes midnight. I couldn't even get home. But you took it a day at a time. If you put your strength in God, there's no limit."

Before 9/11, people knew Esposito was always a strong believer. "I remember them questioning me: 'What do you think of God now?'" he said.

He answered: "I never asked the 'why' question. What I found over the years is you ask the 'what' question: What does God want me to get out of this? What am I supposed to learn? Things happen. From an earthly point of view, Job's friends thought he was a sinner. That had nothing to do with Job. So just worry about your salvation. Are your bags packed? Ready to go? That's what I got out of 9/11."


Inside the Pentagon

Msgr. Philip Hill, command chaplain at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, was the chief of staff for the U.S. Army's chief of chaplains' office at the Pentagon on 9/11, when an airliner commandeered by terrorists struck it.

"My dearest friend, three-star Gen. Tim Maude, the head personnel officer of the entire Army, was killed," recounted Msgr. Hill. "I had just left his office a half hour before. He was out of his office, and I could not wait because I had another meeting. Had we had that meeting on time, I would have been sitting at his desk and killed with him."

That's not all. At the time, Thomas White, the secretary of the Army and in charge of the Army side of the building, had moved the chaplains' office to the other side of the Pentagon. The chaplains wanted it back where it was.

"We fought with him, but he would not let us come back into our building," Msgr. Hill said. "We didn't get what we asked for, but, certainly, got what we needed. If the secretary of the Army had said 'Yes' to us, we would have all been killed. The plane hit right where the chief of chaplains' office would have been. All military chaplaincy leadership would have been killed — 35 people in all."

After ministering to people that day, "We spent the next number of days taking bodies out of the building," he said. "When we found a body, a priest, minister or rabbi would pray over the body immediately, and that body was taken in almost a procession out of the building."

Again, divine Providence was evident. The number of dead and injured could have been much higher. Msgr. Hill said the plane hit the only side of the building that just had completed renovations, with walls reinforced with steel beams and other materials. No other side at that time would have stopped the plane so quickly.

That attack brought more goodness to overcome the evil. Msgr. Hill related how, at the end of the first of the regular staff meetings held with the Army chief of staff and secretary of the Army, "After 9/11, the chief said, 'I want a prayer here.' That started on 9/11 and continues to this day. Nobody was insisting we not pray at Army meetings."

Then a master sergeant of Army Band told Msgr. Hill how the members were asked to volunteer to help recover the bodies. All these young soldiers volunteered until the psychologists explained the gruesome things and horrors they were likely to see. One-by-one they told the sergeant they couldn't do it.

Msgr. Hill recounted: "The chaplain said, 'You're going to go in there and find the sons and daughters and fathers and mothers, the patriots of our country. Remember, these are not just body parts, but these were temples of the Holy Spirit. You're going to restore those patriots to their families.' And with that kind of a refocusing they all said, 'That we can do.' We can take these people and patriots back to their families.' And they enthusiastically did it — for almost two weeks. To me, it showed the fact nothing in what they were doing was changed, but certainly the purpose was changed. And that made all the difference."

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did something for everyone, Msgr. Hill said. "It refocuses you. You come to work in the humdrum office in the morning, and next thing you're dead. It reminds us how much we are not in control of our life."

At the fort and during his time as a chaplain in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, Msgr. Hill has seen that in soldiers who were at the Pentagon on 9/11. Of them and many others, he observed, "As young as they are, all indicate that their lives have been refocused. They never expected the suddenness of this insight. The Pentagon and those kinds of things awakened them to a new purpose in their lives. They certainly carry what they learned on that day with them."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has posted written and video remembrances on its website.

In one video, New York archbishop-emeritus Cardinal Edward Egan, who was heavily involved in the response to the attacks (see interview, page 3), says: "If I had to sum up 9/11, I would say it was a time in which people taught this nation and the world how to be strong and how to be willing to sacrifice themselves for others. It was a terrible tragedy; it was a crime, but it was a magnificent manifestation of courage and willingness to sacrifice self."

He described Pope Benedict XVI's April 2008 meeting with victims' families and time spent praying at Ground Zero this way: "There was so much goodness there that the evil was, I think, not only conquered — it was smothered."

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.