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Remembering 9/11 – Twenty Years Later

I can hardly believe that today is the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. I remember that day all too well. At the time, I worked in finance at a bank with offices in Jersey City. I had to take the train from the World Trade Center every morning. On 9/11/2001 I was running really late so I didn’t dawdle. Usually, I’d make a bathroom stop, grab breakfast, maybe peruse magazines and generally kill time before heading off to a job I really didn’t like. Thank the Gods – and I do all the time – I didn’t do any of that on that particular day. I ran to catch the train in order to get to work on time. Mine was the last train out. The first plane hit as our train was leaving. Five minutes later, we pulled into Jersey City and came out of the station to see the smoke rising from the first tower.

I had maybe a block walk to my office and several co-workers were with me – we all took the same train. We noted the smoke but had no idea what it was. I remember we were puzzled but didn’t think much of it at first. It was only when we got into work and saw all the brokers gathered around the television sets (there were televisions mounted on the wall of the brokerage floor and also in human resources). I don’t remember if we watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center on tv. I remember one of my bosses saying that there was a terrorist attack on the Center and on the Pentagon. My aunt worked at the Pentagon.

I’m an ancestor worker. I reached out to the dead and did not find her there, so I knew she was ok. Turns out, it was her office that got hit but she was coming back from having delivered a package. She saw the plane through the window and thought, “that’s way too low” and turned, trusting her gut, and ran out of the building. She was fine. A holy picture she kept at her desk was fine. The rest was rubble.

I tried to call my mother but could not get through. I did manage to call my best friend to let her know I was ok. My poor mom spent most of the day thinking her daughter and sister were dead. The phone lines had gone down or were so busy we could not get any calls out after the first half hour or so. I wasn’t able to speak to my mother until late that night.

Our office evacuated, fearing another, larger attack. We were told to go to an evac center by the pier. I had a member of my religious House who was legally blind working in the brokerage area. I retrieved her and we went together. Once there, I did my best to minister to those who were frightened, passing out water, offering on the spot counseling. I sat with an EMT who was shaking as she told me what ground zero looked like and saw her panic as airplanes (thankfully our military planes) suddenly flew overhead.

At some point, we decided to donate blood and went to the hospital, but they didn’t need more so my friend and I were left with no way to get home. A lovely Hindu family took us home with them and kept us safe until the trains were running again. We brought water and provisions to the local fire department and then this family, whose name I never learned, walked us to the train station and we went home. The next day, I came into the city to work at the Red Cross center (and this is why I will never support the Red Cross again). They refused to allow me (as a polytheist and priest) or a female episcopalian minister with 18 years’ experience, to work with any of the shocked, hurting people filing in for help. This was the case even though the head of the seminary I had attended was there and vouched for my competence as a chaplain. We were only allowed to pick up garbage. The Red Cross can go fuck itself. They only allowed a couple of Catholic priests and a Rabbi to actually do chaplaincy work. I did witness probably the best example of chaplaincy in action in a young priest who was tending those hurting. His humility and compassion were inspiring.

Later, I went to the hospital where I was one of the chaplains and our supervisors wouldn’t let us minister to patients until we sat in a circle and shared our own shock and horror. I remember one other chaplain, a woman sobbing as she recounted that she had been doing dishes when her five-year-old son called her to the tv. News channels broadcast the attack on the World Trade over and over again (to a degree that I actually find potentially traumatizing to viewers) and her child was watching images of people throwing themselves out of the burning Trade Center. He wanted to know why the people were falling out of the windows. At his mother’s honest answer, he hugged her and said, “Don’t worry, mommy, God will catch them.” That night, for the first time, the Gods hauled me out of my sleep, and I found myself guiding confused, agitated, angry souls across the divide from living to dead. I remember arguing with one woman that she had to cross over. She didn’t or couldn’t realize she was dead. It had all happened so fast, so unexpectedly.

For days we went to the Red Cross to help however we could. The city was a ghost town. People walked around but silently, in a stunned daze. When work started up again the next week, we brought in counselors to help everyone. I worked in HR at the time and one of my jobs was to sit in on the counseling sessions. I saw a Vietnam veteran break down in tears, sobbing that he was afraid his son would be called up into a war like the one he himself had fought. His fears were not without warrant and this man resigned shortly thereafter.

I now teach students who were born after 9/11 but for my generation, this is our defining moment. There is before 9/11 and after. The world that existed before is gone. We have inherited a country willing to sacrifice freedom for security. It’s a bad and dangerous trade off. We’ve inherited a country that has been at war for twenty years. I mourn for the dead. Most of all though, on this day, I remember not only those who died in the attacks: World Trade Center, Pentagon, Flight 93, but also their families; and I remember those who worked tirelessly to retrieve the bodies of the fallen. I remember particularly Father Mychal Judge, chaplain and member of the NY Fire Dept and first recorded victim because he ran toward the horror and not away. I remember the search dogs who suffered depression because they could not find survivors in the rubble. Let us remember all those who have died. Each and every name. They are our dead. Let us remember them.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.”

L. Binyon