Remembering 9/11 — FDNY Firefighter Tom Marsich

Catholics affected by terrorist attacks of 2001 reflect on the tragedy — and its spiritual impact.

New York fireman Tom Marsich carried more than his gear to Ground Zero. He carried his faith.
New York fireman Tom Marsich carried more than his gear to Ground Zero. He carried his faith. (photo: Official FDNY photo / FDNY)

NEW YORK — 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 ordered to remain at a firehouse to protect the neighborhood.

New York Fire Department firefighter Tom Marsich was home on his day off 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. Speaking on the phone I saw the next plane crash into the building.”

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which 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 work on his bicycle because he “was concerned that the bridges entering Manhattan might be closed and the subways may have been stopped,” he said. He got to Engine Company 80 Ladder 23 eight miles away in Harlem, and joined the firemen who commandeered a city bus, piled it with equipment 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 7 building was still on fire. At that moment it was very surreal looking at the amount of fire and gray dust that covered everything, said Marsich. “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 7 would collapse also. It did that evening. 

“We stayed all day and night until 1am, and then had to get back for rescue and recovery,” said the now-retired Marsich. “We worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off, for weeks. The scale of the tragedy was so large.”

Marsich still recalls “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.” said Marsich, who now helps the Friars of the Renewal as an associate and volunteers at Mother Teresa’s Queen of Peace shelter for the homeless.

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 oddly, 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 (of the Renewal) — a tremendous blessing to me. I believe 9/11 increased my faith for sure. 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. Tragedy does that to you.

“Also, I felt that outpouring from people really, really touched my faith back then. I can’t describe how all the people, mothers, daughters knocked on the firehouse door with food and bringing things like that at 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.”

Marsich concluded, “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.”

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