Remembering 9/11 — Twin Towers Pastor Father Kevin Madigan

Priests were among the first responders to the scene. Second in a series remembering the 9/11 terrorist attack on America.

Father Kevin Madigan was tending the wounded at Ground Zero when the south tower of the World Trade Center began to fall.
Father Kevin Madigan was tending the wounded at Ground Zero when the south tower of the World Trade Center began to fall. (photo: Peter McDermott / Irish Echo)

For many Americans, the wounds inflicted on their country 10 years ago have been slow to heal. But the healing began right away, in the midst of the Twin Towers falling, as Catholic priests rushed to the scene to anoint the dead and dying, provide solace to the grieving and grant conditional absolution to those going into the inferno in a desperate attempt to rescues whomever they could.

One such priest lived within a stone’s throw of the Twin Towers. Father Kevin Madigan was and still is pastor of St. Peter’s, the oldest Catholic parish in New York City. The stately church is a city block from Ground Zero. The towers, once the tallest buildings in the world, turned out to be temporary neighbors. Many of its workers attended daily Mass at St. Peter’s. The church became a temporary morgue for some of the day’s victims.

Sept. 11, 2001, was a beautiful, clear, late summer Tuesday in New York, and Father Madigan had just celebrated morning Mass and heard confessions. He was on his way to the rectory when he learned that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers. It was 8:46am.

Speaking in May about his remembrances, 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.”

He was thinking that whoever had perpetrated the 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 St. Peter’s. 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. 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 the entrance to a subway station, at 10:05am, the 110-story south tower began to collapse. Father Madigan 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 spread-sheets 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.”