As a husband and a father, 9/11 is personal for me.
I grew up in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the World Trade Center. As a boy in the early 1970s, I watched the Twin Towers rise floor by floor, and took a certain pride in living near the two tallest buildings in the world at the time.
When terrorists flew planes into those buildings, it hit me in the gut and put my family at risk.
My wife and one-year-old son were in our apartment, six blocks from the towers, when the earth shook with the first explosion. I was at my desk at work that morning, having passed the Twin Towers on my way to the subway a few hours earlier. I remember making special note as the colors of dawn shone brilliantly on their steel-and-glass façade, against a flawless, clear sky.
It was the last time I would see the towers standing.
Ten years have passed since that horrible day, and there will be many media retrospectives and public remembrances to mark the anniversary. Let us hope that these observances will not seek to soften the edges of what took place that day. We must remain aware that our nation was boldly attacked by forces that still seek our ruin. It was a day when thousands were burned in a jet-fuel inferno, and dozens jumped to their death to escape the flames, while others were trapped and crushed by the collapsing buildings. It was a day also of heroes, of first responders going beyond the call, when 343 firefighters – New York’s bravest – ran to sure death, doing their duty on an impossible day.
Let us not forget that downtown Manhattan became a war zone, sprinkled with the sacred remains of innocent victims, its streets ankle deep with the steel, glass and asbestos dust that made breathing dangerous.
I will not forget, as a New Yorker, a husband and a father, the call to duty for me that day when I first heard that a plane had hit the north tower. A terrible accident, we all thought. I called my wife from work, and she told me our apartment building was shaken by the blast, and she grabbed our son from the crib to comfort him. We were still talking on the phone when the second plane hit, a resounding explosion that I heard over the phone line. My wife’s reaction was on the mark: “Brian, we’re under attack!”
We both knew, but did not say, that she had worked in the north building, on the 103rd floor, before a difficult pregnancy forced her to leave her job. The conception of our son had saved the life of my wife, and we knew that God’s hand was involved.
I made it home that day, hours later, through a city in crisis. I walked the familiar streets of my neighborhood, tramping through the fine white dust, looking up instinctively to the spot in the sky where the towers had stood for most of my life, and feeling an ache in my heart to see nothing but the soft blue sky of that Tuesday afternoon. More than two buildings had been lost.
My wife had brought our son to my parents’ apartment, where I had grown up. We were all together, three generations, when the power went out in lower Manhattan and Tom Brokaw faded ominously from the TV screen. At a time when the city, state and national governments were in disarray, we gathered as a family for comfort and support, searching for the flashlights, batteries and bottled water we had stored for the false Y2K alarm. Now the emergency was real. We pulled together with other families and made it through the darkest days – weary and grieving, but wiser and more aware of the persistent reach of evil. The value of our experience today is the strength of our witness to others.
Ten years may seem like a long time, but let us not forget what happened that day.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.