5 years after 9-11, survivors ask ‘why’ of attack that is still an open wound
NEW YORK (America) – When I left the World Trade Center in October 2001, after working there for several weeks alongside fellow Jesuits and other volunteers, I wondered what would become not only of the physical site but of the people we had met. One ironworker, who spent long days at Ground Zero cutting apart the steel beams of the destroyed buildings, said that when he went home at night, he could hardly bear to see his wife and child, for they reminded him of the people he had pulled out of “the pile.”
HIJACKED PLANE HITS WORLD TRADE CENTER – United Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York as the north tower burns after being hit by American Flight 11 in this file photo from Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks claimed the lives of 2,749 people in New York. (CNS/Reuters)
A firefighter told me that when he first arrived at the site, he had run one way, and his friend another. He lived, while his friend died. A police chaplain said that he felt as if he were the one being ministered to at the site.
What would happen to these people? What sort of meaning would they find in their experiences? Five years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, family members of victims, rescue workers and chaplains are still coming to grips with the legacy of that day. Over the past weeks I have spoken with a few, who reflected on where they have been and where they are today.
‘Sheer luck or the grace of God’
Last month a journalist told me that when you ask someone about Sept. 11, 2001, they seem almost compelled to recount the entire story of where they were that day – as if a partial telling would be an insult to those events. So it was not surprising that Joe Lauria, a 15-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, would speak at length about the day.
On Sept. 11, Joe’s fire company in Queens was immediately dispatched to the World Trade Center. But they were held up from entering Manhattan out of fear that the traffic tunnels under the East River would be bombed.
When he reached the site, Joe was horrified to see people leaping to their deaths from the towers. “They were like mannequins falling through the air,” he said.
“We said prayers that they would face as little suffering as possible.” Joe watched as the upper floors of the North Tower leaned slowly, then split in two and collapsed, creating a deluge of debris and choking smoke.
“I stood motionless, not believing it, frozen in time,” said Joe. “Then all of a sudden we were trying to outrace this huge storm cloud.” He spent the entire day and the following weeks working at the site, almost around the clock. The time he spent excavating and searching for survivors and, later, remains, Joe describes as “horrific.”
The delay in getting into Manhattan probably saved his life. “If my company had been there 20 minutes earlier, we would have been in the lobby of those towers. There were 343 firefighters who perished, and I would have been one of them.”
Today Joe, a Catholic, often thinks about how close he came to dying; he also wonders how God could allow so many of his friends to die. He was angry at the terrorists – but not at God. And though he has no easy answers, his faith has not been shaken: “More because it was a man-made event, as opposed to Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami.”
Did Joe feel that God had spared him? “It was either sheer luck or the grace of God,” he said. “Why were we held up? Who knows? That’s a question I’ll have to ask the big guy when I get to heaven.”
The 38-year-old firefighter husband of Carol (who asked that her real name not be used) was not as fortunate as Joe was. Carol’s grief has been complicated by the very public nature of the event that took her husband, the father of their two children. She spoke passionately about her emotional struggles from her home in Long Island. “Every year at 9/11, you try to please both sides – those who want public grief and those who want it private,” she told me recently.
“But I don’t need the world to help me remember. I will never forget him going off to work that day, or the phone call or the worst thing of all: telling my children.”
Carol and her husband, both Episcopalians, were not especially religious. After the tragedy, she found it difficult to attend services: hearing certain hymns raised emotions too painful to bear. But eventually, Carol’s children, now 10 and 13, wanted to return to church to prepare for first Communion and confirmation. Today, she says, “I’m trying to become more spiritual, because I realize more that there are so many things over which I have little control.”
When Carol was 24, her mother died. She now sees that event as a kind of spiritual preparation that helped her to bear her husband’s death. There was also a striking coincidence, or providential moment, that connected her mother to the events of Sept. 11. “They found my husband’s body on the day of my mother’s birthday,” she explained. “It was as if she were bringing him home to me.”
Like Joe, Carol does not blame God. “I’m a realist,” she says. She realizes that a firefighter’s job means that he might not come home at night. Men and women in her husband’s profession are often called upon to save people at risk to their own safety and even lives. “So I don’t place blame on God. It could have been any circumstance that led to his death.”
Lately, church has become consoling for Carol. It offers a private time for her to think about her mother, her husband and when they will all be reunited. But she is honest about the complexity of her emotions. “Sometimes I yell at him for leaving me,” she said. ...
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