September 24, 2006

Seen at Ground Zero

A left knee that will no longer get me up stairs has me in the hospital for what I am told will be a five-day stay for a knee replacement. Thus it is that I will participate in the Masses and memorials in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and at Ground Zero on September 11, 2006, only in spirit and prayer. Nonetheless, I am happy to have an opportunity to share with the readers of Catholic New York some reflections on what the tragedy of five years ago taught me.

When the telephone rang on the morning of September 11, 2001, and I was informed that the Mayor wanted me at Chelsea Piers to receive the bodies of those who had been killed in the collapse of the first of the towers at the World Trade Center, my priest secretary, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, and I left our residence immediately in a police car that was waiting for us outside. Driving down Fifth Avenue, we received a second call from the Mayor’s office. It would be better, they told us, if we would go directly to St. Vincent’s Hospital near the towers to assist the injured who would be brought there.

Clad in green "scrubs" provided by the hospital, I stood with Msgr. Mustaciuolo on the loading dock of St. Vincent’s to watch in horror as the second of the two towers sunk into a cloud of white and grey dust that soon blotted out the deep blue sky of a sunny Fall day in New York City.

There was, however, little time to think about what we had just witnessed. A stretcher-on-wheels bearing a woman and pushed by three police officers approached. The woman was brought into the hospital. Every inch of her face, arms and hands were burned brown and black. I gave her absolution and anointed her. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the hospital staff raised his hand in blessing as I was making a final sign of the cross over the woman.

Within minutes another stretcher-on-wheels arrived, this one bearing one of our archdiocesan priests, Msgr. Marc J. Filacchione, a Catholic chaplain of the New York City Fire Department. He had been overcome by smoke while helping frightened men and women flee from the area surrounding what remained of the towers. I anointed and blessed him, and he was quickly taken to a room in the hospital. (Later, I learned that he had returned to his work at Ground Zero that very afternoon.)

Back out on the loading dock, I found a young doctor clad in "scrubs" like mine and staring toward the location of the former towers. He was sobbing. I asked if I could be of help. He told me that his father had his office on one of the top floors of the first tower to be attacked. I suggested that he take a break for a few minutes in a little room the Sisters had prepared for me just inside the hospital door. He replied that he was a doctor, that the injured would be arriving soon, and that this was where he knew his father would want him to be. From the pain on his face, I knew that I should not press my suggestion.

We often read that love can never be fittingly described in mere words. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I saw it come alive and shine in a hospital staff person who blessed a dying woman, in a priest who became ill helping others to safety, and in a doctor who did what the father he loved would have wanted and expected him to do. Love was there before my very eyes in the stark and clear reality of life.

O September 12th, Msgr. Mustaciuolo and I returned to Ground Zero early in the morning. It was dark partly because of the hour and mostly because of the dust and smoke that still filled the air. I had donned my oldest black suit and put on a pair of heavy galoshes that I had stored in the basement of the Archbishop’s residence when I arrived in New York a year and a half before.

The Commander of Patrol Borough Manhattan South greeted us warmly. He and his associates then led us through the streets around the ruins of the towers as police officers, firefighters, and emergency workers searched for persons, dead or alive, under metal posts, slabs of concrete, and dust and refuse that were ankle-high.

It is beyond the powers of my pen to describe adequately the manifestations of courage that I saw on every side. None were thinking of themselves. All were pulling, pushing, and digging as fast and furiously as they could. Monsignor and I were guided through the shell of a building and out into an open space. Three police officers, firefighters, or emergency workers (in the dust and smoke it was impossible to tell who was who) placed down at my feet a black plastic sack with an unidentified body inside. I gave the victim absolution and began to recite the prayers for the dead that I had learned in Latin as a young priest. Suddenly, we heard a roar of triumph.

Looking in the direction of the roar, Monsignor and I watched two men rise up slowly out of the ground while 30 or so police officers, firefighters, and emergency workers applauded. I am told that there is a new movie on our local screens that presents the scene with great power, and I have promised myself to see it as soon as my new knee will take me where I want to go. For I wish to fix my gaze once again on selfless, unalloyed courage-the courage of our New York City police officers, firefighters, and emergency workers-and see it all again with all of the clarity with which I witnessed love at St. Vincent’s.

O September 13th, our assignment was to be at The New School University on 12th Street, not far from Ground Zero. A large room on the first floor of the building that opened out on to the street had been taken over by the City and filled with card tables around which were arranged folding chairs. At each table was a psychiatrist who had volunteered his or her services and a social worker. (Many of the social workers came from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese.) On the sidewalk next to the school there was a long line of people of all ages, most of them with framed photographs of their loved ones in their hands. They were waiting to go inside the school to seek whatever information might be available.

Before I left our residence that morning, I had stuffed my pockets with all of the Rosaries we had on hand, new ones in a plastic bag from a religious goods store in Rome and old ones that I had kept for years in a wooden box that was probably meant to contain watches, rings, cufflinks, and such. Our job was to move from table to table, offering sympathy, prayers, and-above all-a willing ear. When the persons being interviewed were Catholic, I would give each a Rosary.

At one table, a Hispanic woman was telling the psychiatrist and the social worker about her son who worked in one of the towers and had not yet contacted his anguished family. She was deeply upset but in full control of her emotions. She spoke now in English and now in Spanish, and she was treated with exquisite kindness by the psychiatrist to whom she directed most of her words. She stopped for a moment to dry her tears. Thus, I pressed a Rosary into her hand. She kissed the crucifix with extraordinary tenderness and put the Rosary around her neck. She then turned to me and asked if I might have another. I gave her one. She kissed the crucifix and placed the Rosary over the head of the psychiatrist. It fell down around his neck. It was clear that he was of another faith. Still, he thanked her profusely, gently patting her arm.

Hours later, I went outside for a breath of air. After a few minutes, the psychiatrist came out of the door of the school. He waved to me and pointed to the Rosary still around his neck. "Thank you," he shouted in my direction. "I love it."

Three young Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, one of whom I ordained to the priesthood this year, approached to say "hello." They had been walking along the line of people waiting to enter the school, encouraging and praying with those who wished their attention.

The lady who lovingly kissed the Rosary, the young Franciscans who quietly cared for men and women in pain along the street, and the psychiatrist with the Rosary that he "loved" around his neck: All of this said something to me about faith in all of its many expressions-something that I still have not been able to sort out to my satisfaction.

Whatever of this, love was certainly there at Ground Zero. So was courage. So was faith. And so was God. I know because I saw them all.


Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York