Cardinal Egan Remembers 9/11

Cardinal Edward Egan, in an exclusive interview with the Register, reflects on his experience responding to the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York 10 years ago.

Cardinal Edward Egan appears outside St. Patrick's Cathedral after Easter Mass, April 12, 2009.
Cardinal Edward Egan appears outside St. Patrick's Cathedral after Easter Mass, April 12, 2009. (photo: Verne Equinox / Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0)

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared Sept. 6, 2011, at the Register.

Though he's a Chicago native, Cardinal Edward Egan has spent enough time in the Big Apple to be considered a New Yorker.

Aside from being archbishop of New York from 2000-2009, he also served as auxiliary bishop of New York from 1985-1988, when he was vicar for education.

Now archbishop emeritus, he resides in Manhattan and continues to assist in the work of the archdiocese, while serving in a number of offices of the Vatican.

He spoke by phone Aug. 25 about his recollections of Sept. 11, 2001.

Where were you when the World Trade Center was attacked?

I was living at the archbishop's residence. That morning, I was there with my secretary and vicar general. We had finished breakfast and were waiting for people to come for a meeting.

After the planes hit, Mayor Rudy Giuliani called and told me that he'd sent a police car that would take me over to the Chelsea Piers, where they were taking the dead. But as we drove there, Giuliani called back and told me to go over to St. Vincent's Hospital. After we arrived, we saw a tower go down and got ourselves in the scrubs at the hospital. I couldn't figure anything out. I was like everyone else. I was shocked and prayed for the city and for the nation.

What happened at the hospital?

The Sisters of Charity of New York, who run the hospital, waited inside the door for the people to come. Most of the sisters are nurses. I waited with them.

The first person to appear on a gurney was a woman who had died and was completely burned. I anointed her from head to toe. The second person to arrive was a New York archdiocesan chaplain. Fortunately, he was all right.

Standing with me were two doctors. One was trembling and weeping. I went over to him and asked what was wrong. He told me, “My father was on one of the highest floors of the tower.” I asked him if he'd like to sit down and have a cup of coffee.

He said, “No, Your Eminence, I am a doctor, and this is my place.”

Soon after, I told Pope John Paul II about that young man. He asked me, “Has he finished his education?” I said he still faced years of training. The Holy Father asked whether the doctor would have to cover the costs himself, and I said, “Yes.” The Pope said he would like to help him. Later on, Cardinal [Leonardo] Sandri, prefect for the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, delivered a check to the young man.

And you went down to Ground Zero?

Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo — he was my secretary and now is the chancellor — and I went back and forth over four or five days after the attack. Neither of us talked about it to anyone for maybe six years. It was such a shock.

After we arrived the first time, Cmdr. Allan Hoehl of Manhattan Borough South in Lower Manhattan made us put on gas masks.

Cmdr. Hoehl looked exhausted. I asked him, "Where is your gas mask? It's time for you to go home." But he told me his duty was to remain. The emergency workers looking for survivors couldn't wear masks, but the thick dust didn't stop them.

One day, they had opened a plastic body bag so that we could anoint the body. The air was full of dust, and we could hardly see. Then, Msgr. Mustaciuolo said, "Cardinal, look!" A man came out of the ground, covered in white dust. It was like Lazarus rising from the dead. Everyone clapped, and then a voice was heard: “Get back to work!” ... Every time we went back to Ground Zero, we'd walk blocks and blocks, trying to encourage people. I had my pockets full of rosaries. We did what priests should do — we weren't policemen or firemen. We did what we could.

President Bush visited Ground Zero and from the stage shouted down to me to say an opening prayer. I shouted my prayer in the sky. Afterwards, the president said, “Isn't it a shame we don't always pray with that intensity?”

There were many funerals in the wake of the attacks. There were two or three funerals a day. They were for firefighters, police and emergency workers. The mayor went to almost every one. He was outstanding and gave great leadership. The same was true for those who worked with him. At one Mass, there was a woman, the widow of the deceased. She was pregnant and had a baby in her arms. Her sons were serving at the altar. You would have to be a stone not to be touched.

The terrorist attacks brought many people into the city’s churches.

On 9/11 we arranged to have a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As I returned to prepare for the Mass, I thought we'd have the usual group for a daily Mass — about 500. The cathedral was packed. People were out on the streets. 

I went back to the cathedral for two other Masses on two different days. At one Mass, I said during the homily, “I don't call it ‘Ground Zero.’ I call it ‘Ground Hero.’”

I came back from Ground Zero on one day, and a police call was waiting for me. Inside St. Patrick's, Ed Koch, the former mayor, was sitting in the front row and crying. I went over to him and asked what was wrong. He was upset that a priest he knew had been killed in the World Trade Center. I told him that I didn't think the priest had been killed, and that he was one of the survivors who ended up in New Jersey. The mayor lit a candle for him, and we were able to confirm that he was fine. I told the mayor, "He's in better health than you or me."

Many of the dead and the survivors were Catholics. Did the city ask the archdiocese to provide other forms of pastoral outreach?

I was asked to offer support for the families of the dead and others. We took over the first floor of the New School [a university in New York City] and had psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers available for people — they all provided their services without pay. It was New York at its best. They were needed, and they were there.

Outside, lined up along several city blocks, were people carrying photographs of their loved ones. As they stood waiting their turn, priests walked along the line, praying with them. Then, each person would sit down at a table and receive some guidance.

I walked around and spoke with the people. One psychiatrist pulled me aside. He said it was the first time he had counseled people after they had a chance to pray. And he said it was one of the most beautiful experiences of his life — working with people who had already spent time talking with the clergy.

Catholic Charities of New York was headed by Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, and when he found out that all the employees who had worked at the Windows on the World restaurant — located at the top of one of the towers — had lost their jobs, he paid their salaries for six months, until they could get back on their feet.

How did the attacks affect you personally?

It was a time of great tragedy, but also of great heroes.

New York and the world saw examples of self-sacrifice that I don't think have ever been matched in our time. People worked around the clock, with dust and sand from above or below. No one was thinking about themselves. Police officers, firefighters, emergency workers poured themselves out for others. You couldn't help but be inspired by that. We saw heroism and self-sacrifice — expressions of great holiness.

Brian Williams, the anchorman and a friend for many years, asked me, “What has been the spiritual impact of the attacks?”

It had an amazing effect. By the time I stepped down in 2009, the archdiocese had grown by 204,000 people. Catholic Charities’ annual budget had more than doubled. Contrary to everything you have read, our school enrollment actually increased 15,400.

How do I explain this: 9/11 had a lot to do with it. It woke us up — Catholics and non-Catholics. Now, I wonder if we are receding from the powerful impact of this tragedy.

It was evil, but the people reacted with renewed commitment to the Lord. It might have done us more good than we suspect.

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