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5 years after 9-11, survivors ask ‘why’ of attack that is still an open wound

By James Martin
September 5th, 2006
America (

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.”

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.

‘Naturally, God is there’

The passage of time has not reduced the immediacy of the most painful question: Why? It was the question the rescue workers asked most frequently of my brother Jesuits while we were ministering at Ground Zero. Why would God permit this to happen? In essence, they were asking the same question that has preoccupied saints, theologians, philosophers and other Christians for centuries (the problem of evil or theodicy): How could a good God allow evil?

For Rev. David Baratelli, a Port Authority chaplain who also serves at St. John’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Bayonne, N.J. , the day’s grief was matched by the goodness he witnessed around him. One day, after Father Baratelli finished celebrating Mass at a nearby chapel, a police lieutenant told him that some of the workers had not been able to receive Communion that day. So Father Baratelli grabbed a large ciborium and walked into the pile of rubble. “All of these cops and firefighters saw me coming,” he recalled with emotion. “And they took off their helmets and with the greatest devotion received the Eucharist.”

Father Baratelli said he was “captured” by the thought that God would have his way, that God’s way is one of goodness, and that God would triumph by the virtue of the good. “I have to believe that Christ was present in that Eucharist and that he was helping those people.”

For others, the grief remains raw. Anthony and Maryann, who live in northern New Jersey, were told on Sept. 11 that their son, Anthony Jr., a police officer with the Port Authority, “never came out” of the towers. His father said, “Naturally I was mad. He was a good boy, and they never recovered the body. You pray that they might discover him so that we could just bury him.”

The devout Catholic couple found solace from the local parish priests, who rushed to their house to pray with them after the tragedy, and from Catholic Charities. “They were terrific. I can’t say enough about them,” said Anthony. Once a week the two visit a local shrine to St. Joseph in Stirling, N.J., to pray for their son, who was 47 at his death. “I feel the closeness of my son there, and naturally God is there,” said Anthony.

He is not angry with God. “I say my prayers for my son and I’m happy I can pray for him. But what can you say? There’s nothing you can say.” His comment reminded me of the observation from some commentators on the Holocaust, that the best response to overwhelming tragedy is often silence.

The fifth-year anniversary is doubly poignant for Steve, 36, who lost his wife, an employee of a firm with offices at One World Trade Center. The two were married exactly one month earlier, on Aug. 11, 2001. In Washington, D.C., on a business trip that day, Steve heard the news of the attack from a taxicab radio, went into a nearby restaurant and saw the second plane slam into the South Tower. After the tragedy, he stayed with friends for a month.

Steve (not his real name) is an active parishioner of St. Ignatius Loyola Church in New York City, which he had attended with his wife before her death. Like Anthony and Maryann, he did not feel abandoned by God. And like Joe Lauria, he understood the event as a “man-made” tragedy. But at the same time Steve does not think this event was part of God’s plan. “I don’t believe things happen for a reason,” he said.

‘It’s only fair to give back’

Mass provides more comfort for Steve now. He admits that this might have as much to do with the fact that attending Mass was something he and his wife used to enjoy doing together. But he has changed, Steve said. He is trying to become a “better person,” trying to be closer to his wife’s family, trying not to be as judgmental and trying to be more open with people. The tragedy has lent his life more perspective, he believes.

“It’s understanding what matters and what doesn’t,” he said. In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, Steve became politically active, traveling to Capitol Hill with family members of victims. Today he laments that the country seems to have lost the feeling of unity that existed immediately after 9/11.

“It makes you wish for what we were back then – with all the bipartisanship and everyone not stuck up on petty differences. I’m amazed that we’re still dealing with things like same-sex marriage and the flag-burning amendment, when there are more important issues.”

When I asked how long he felt that spirit of unity existed in the country, he was blunt: “About six months.”

When Joe, the New York City firefighter, also lamented the loss of the common spirit that existed at Ground Zero, I felt as if I knew something of what he meant. During the few weeks I worked there, I remember walking north from the site one day and hearing people applaud. After I looked around and saw no firefighters or police officers, I asked a Jesuit who was walking with me, “Who are they clapping for?” He said, “I think for us.” There was a strong sense of support from the city, the country and even the world.

As I finished an interview with a French journalist, the man threw his arms around me and said, “Nous sommes tous américains” (We are all Americans).

The spirit within the site was even more palpable. During the weeks I spent there, I found a tremendous spirit of unity and concord, which for me betokened the presence of the Holy Spirit. People from all over the country – firefighters, nurses, Red Cross workers, National Guard volunteers – united in a common cause made for a strangely comforting environment.

Joe felt that Sept. 11 forced people in New York to move out of “their own little worlds” and “pitch in.” One reason, he believed, was that for New Yorkers it happened close to home without the buffer of television. “It allowed them to see it firsthand, and forced them to look within themselves.”

Father Baratelli told me the story of an employee of the Port Authority who fled from the burning towers, disoriented and bloody, and ran into some total strangers who said, “Let us help you.” They brought her to a nearby physician who cared for her, and even brought her back home. “In the darkness of this moment, the goodness of God came forth,” he said.

But Joe Lauria felt that this spirit has ebbed considerably. In the days following Sept. 11, the New York Fire Department had logged a marked decrease in the number of false alarms, but today it’s back to where it was five years ago. “As that day becomes more distant and as the site is cleared up, things disappear and people go back to their own routine. Most of the firemen felt that there was this tremendous feeling at the site, but they also found out that it was to be short-term.”

Anthony, the New Jersey father who lost his son, was not surprised that people have changed. “What’s the use of kidding ourselves?” He wears a wristband with his son’s name on it, and though people ask about it and sincerely express their sorrow, it usually ends there. “That’s about as far as it goes.”

Carol, the woman who lost her husband, saw a change, but she also sees a lasting effect today. After her husband’s death, a candlelight vigil was held on her front lawn. That night more than 200 of her neighbors came out to support Carol and her children. Since then Carol has made many more friends in the neighborhood and feels that if she ever needed anything, she would receive it. This has also helped her feel more generous to others. “So many gave to me,” she says. “It’s only fair to give back. I will never forget that.” After Hurricane Katrina she donated a washer and a dryer to a school in New Orleans.

‘No easy answer’

Last month I visited a Jesuit friend who works in a high school in Jersey City, N.J., just across the river from the site of the World Trade Center. When I emerged from the subway, I found myself standing next to a colossal bronze monument to the Katyn Massacre, which dominates a popular plaza. One reason for the site’s popularity is its commanding view of Lower Manhattan. Five years ago, I had heard stories of people watching the collapse of the towers from here. But it seems almost impossible to imagine: it’s too close.

That evening I took a train that passed through a stop named “World Trade Center.” Still, I was shocked that it ran directly through the site itself. On the way over I had been reading a book and so missed the sight. The windows gave a full view of the monstrous hole and the retaining walls: the massive space that is, in essence, a mass grave.

Passing through Ground Zero on a subway car seemed shocking, an offense. Some passengers paused to stare, but others continued with their business. I thought of the final lines from a favorite poem by Robert Frost, called “Out, Out,” in which a boy dies after a terrible accident with a buzz saw. The narrator ends by describing the onlookers: “And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

But that is overly harsh. Most likely, those commuters had passed through the site many times and were first shocked, but then settled into a more placid reaction. That workaday response, then, was both surprising and not surprising. As Anthony said, “What’s the use of kidding ourselves?”

My discussions with these people indicate that things are still too raw. Like the World Trade Center site, it is still an open wound, yet to heal over. They grapple with finding meaning, and probably will for some time. As Joe, the firefighter, said toward the end of our conversation, “Did it shake my faith? No. You could ask why God didn’t stop those guys from doing what they did, but I guess I just don’t ask that question.”

“Because I know that there’s no easy answer,” he said. “And who’s to say which answer is the correct one?”

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Father James Martin, SJ, is an associate editor of America and author of Searching for God at Ground Zero (Rowman and Littlefield).

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