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September 11
A Year Later

In midst of grief, anxiety, testimony to grace still pours from ground zero

New York

Nearly a year after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the aftershocks of the terrorist attacks are still being felt in the hearts and psyches of millions of New Yorkers and others affected around the nation. The evidence of evil, of death and destruction, the loss of loved ones and livelihoods and the foreclosure of futures have become an acute scar on the face of the city.

Yet amid the tears and anxiety, many who have ministered to the fallen and those who attempted to rescue them from the burning ash and crushed steel testify even today to the presence of the Spirit of God and the outpouring of grace emanating from ground zero.

Joe Bradley, an operating engineer who spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week at the site from Sept. 16 until May 28, doesn’t understand how he survived. “I can’t explain it,” he told NCR. “This was such a cruel evil. It was such a harrowing scene. Yet we were well protected by those souls down there and by the Almighty.”

So many depended on the 5,000 construction workers and the thousands of firemen, police and rescue workers to find their loved ones, or at least their remains. “The most expensive workers in the world cleared the site in half the time, at half the cost and lost nobody” in the recovery efforts, Bradley said, “just a few broken bones and injuries …

“The Spirit of God was upon us always.”

Bradley’s colleagues dubbed him “the General.” At 57, with more than three decades in construction work, he was one of the senior engineers at the scene. At age 22 he had been part of the crew that erected the towers.

Back then he was able to talk via ham radio to his brother, who was serving in Vietnam. “I told him how lucky I felt working on the two tallest buildings in the world at that time.” Bradley’s brother, a retired Army colonel, helped him adjust to the horrors that befell the towers 35 years later.

“He told me to put a drop of wintergreen into my respirator. It masks the smell of death,” Bradley said.

“Did it?”

“A little,” Bradley said.

From a coffee cup

What did help Bradley and his mates were the chaplains. He described a sidewalk ministry of men and women of all faiths. “Whatever you needed, whenever you needed them, they were there for us.” Bradley said he was moved by the visit of Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre in Long Island. “He came when the pile was still burning, introduced himself as ‘Father Murphy,’ gave general absolution as he came in and passed out Communion from a coffee cup.”

Bradley lauded the work of Franciscan Fr. Brian Jordan, chaplain to the iron and steel workers at the site. “There are no atheists in foxholes or at ground zero,” Jordan told NCR. “Here we saw evil at its worst and goodness at its best.”

Jordan acknowledged that ecumenism and interfaith relations improved “big time” at the site. “All these reservations we have about each other just disappeared. We found our unity here.”

Many of the rescuers helped their spiritual recovery by taking advantage of two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held at either end of the destruction site.

A few blocks away at Our Lady of Victory Parish, some 20 to 25 Wall Street workers still attend a weekly lunchtime meeting on how to cope with posttraumatic stress. People were “trembling” when they began coming to church shortly after the attack, said associate pastor Fr. George Baker. He described the “state of warfare” outside the church where National Guard troops paced and bus and subway lines were rerouted on Sept. 11.

People in other parts of the country consider New Yorkers “tough guys,” Baker said. But for nine hours -- from the first attack at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11 to the fall of the last building at the World Trade Center at 5:20 p.m. -- New Yorkers were under attack. “There was a crater in the earth when it was over,” he said.

Confession lines continue to stretch at the commuter parish. And Baker is spending more time with penitents who have “deepened their reflections on their lives.”

Along with the visible fear caused by the Sept. 11 attacks, Baker saw repeated acts of compassion -- lending cell phones to strangers, giving bottles of water and napkins to soothe burning eyes.

Although church attendance has fallen from its record numbers in the first six weeks after the attacks, he noted that now when people share the kiss of peace, “there seems to be a deeper warmth generated. Since 9/11 people know that the persons next to them carry their own world of sorrow, too,” he said.

Five blocks south of ground zero at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Fr. Pete Meehan contrasted the thousands fleeing the day of the disaster -- who stopped by the church on the way out of Lower Manhattan -- with the scarcity of worshipers today. For hours the pastor and others at the church handed out paper towels and lent their telephones to the escapees. Then the area became a “ghost town,” subject to evacuation. Since the priests had a supply of food and nowhere to go, they stayed. Since then, Mass attendance has fallen by 20 percent, Meehan said, a measure of fewer commuters and tourists.

Meehan believes that New Yorkers -- and perhaps all Americans -- will come to view 9/11 as a “formative event” just as the Depression was a benchmark in his parents’ lives. “They will carry it with them forever.”

People discovered what was important to them -- their families -- and then found that nothing was important, he said. “It jangles nerves to know a job doesn’t matter. I could get blown up tomorrow. You can’t go in and sprinkle holy water on that,” Meehan said.

Biggest parish in New York

When Jesuit Fr. Jim Martin volunteered to help at ground zero, he thought that the work he had done in soup kitchens, hospitals and prisons might help him, but “I had no training in trauma,” he told NCR. Yet what he experienced time after time during his six weeks as a chaplain was that “the works of the Holy Spirit were pulling people together.” Never had he seen so much charity, concord and unity, he said.

Martin carried liturgical vessels to the site on Sunday, Sept. 16, prepared to say Mass amid the cinders. Looking out on the sea of firefighters, policemen, rescuers, medics and steelworkers, “I thought it was the biggest parish in New York that day.”

The Jesuit said he was overcome by the faith of the dozens of firefighters who knelt for Communion in piles of ash. Only two days before he had seen firemen lie atop the rubble and let search dogs “discover” them. The canine corps had grown depressed and anxious, their handlers said, because there were no live victims for them to find.

Martin, 41, who describes his experiences in his memoir, Searching for God at Ground Zero, was familiar with spray-painted signs at the site, announcing: “danger,” “morgue,” “triage station,” but he confessed utter surprise by the poster workmen spray painted and set before the makeshift altar. It read: “The body of Christ.”

Being “with the guys” at ground zero created a “heightened awareness” for Martin, much like a retreat does, he said. Seeing firemen eating with electricians, policemen with truck drivers at the rescue workers’ dining hall aboard the “Spirit” cruise ship “showed me this is the kingdom of God.”

Like many New Yorkers, Martin experienced “survivor guilt” when he’d take a day or two off to decompress or catch up with work at America magazine, where he is an associate editor.

A year later, Fr. Kevin Madigan describes feelings of lethargy that still visit him and make it “hard to get going some days.” Some nights he dreams he is trapped inside a burning building.

But Madigan wasn’t in the towers when they were hit. He was hearing confessions across the street in St. Peter’s Church. The church is the oldest Catholic parish in New York, its former wooden structure the place where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was received into the Catholic church in 1805. Madigan, its pastor, stood in front of the Church Street subway station, indicating the place where he had seen the South tower collapse.

He called the attacks a personal “wake up call. … Certain things fall about, but other things are coming together,” he said. When the symbols of our security collapsed, many discovered that real security is in our human relations, he said. As Madigan walks the neighborhood, its sidewalks decorated with shrines and memorabilia, he said he can’t point to a single sign of people wanting to bomb the terrorists. Instead some 40 families of victims have united. Calling themselves “Peaceful Tomorrows,” they are dedicated to promoting effective nonviolent responses to terrorism.

Inside St. Peter’s he indicates where columns of supplies for the rescuers once stood. In the far northwest corner of the upper church, part of the engine of one of the hijacked planes dug a small hole in the church roof.

The damage was meager compared to what befell St. Francis de Sales Parish in Belle Harbor. The church buried 12 victims of 9/11 by Nov. 9. Six were firefighters. On Nov. 12 an American Airlines jet crashed a block from the church.

Find your loved ones

“I felt the vibration. I felt it in my legs,” Msgr. Martin Geraghty told NCR, clutching his thighs. “I stopped Mass and told everyone to go and find their loved ones and be safe. We all thought it was terrorists.” Besides 260 deaths on board, five people died on the ground -- all of them parishioners.

Geraghty and his flock have survived because “we’re all caregivers,” he said. They have received help from Catholics, and others, across the nation. The group Hearts Across America delivered teddy bears to each of the 800 children in the school. Donations of $170,000 poured in for victims of 9/11, including $36 from a boy in the South who sold lemonade to aid the parish’s school children.

Another $88,000 arrived to help those affected by the plane crash. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Geraghty introduced John and Stacey Connolly and their children to the congregation. They had flown from Texas, bringing $44,000 collected at their parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Houston. John Connolly told those assembled: “This is what it means to be Catholic,” Geraghty said.

“We’ve had to learn to be receivers,” the pastor said, adding that part of the parish’s follow-up ministry is to be a good caretaker of the funds.

Geraghty said he noticed a “bit of a break in the grieving cycle” this summer as parishioners in this Far Rockaway peninsula community have enjoyed the beach -- just three blocks from the church. He said he hopes the anniversary will rekindle the community’s strengths.

Belle Harbor clergy participate in an active interfaith conference among the five-towns-area of Nassau County. Some 600 people are expected to attend a memorial service in the parish schoolyard Sept. 10. Each clergyperson attending will be given a lighted candle to bring to his or her own sanctuary on Sept. 11.

Across New York on that day -- and in much of the nation -- church bells will ring, prayers will be offered and people will observe four moments of silence to mark when the two hijacked jets hit and when the towers fell. It promises to be a tough day for Fr. Tom Iwanowski, pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Jersey City.

His parish is the closest religious institution to ground zero in New Jersey. For years he didn’t see sun until 1 or 2 p.m. because of the shadow cast by the towers. He now confronts the gap in the skyline whenever he walks along the Hudson’s shoreline.

“For people in this metropolitan area, it’s in front of you all the time,” he said. In August Iwanowski crossed the river to view what he had been seeing for months -- the giant absence of the steel goliaths. “I feel I haven’t faced the whole situation yet.”

Iwanowski, like so many in the shadow of the fall, wants to know: “How do you put into words what happened on Sept. 11?”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002