For the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, some memories of the time:
Two days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I made my way to one of the emergency trauma centers in Manhattan. It had been hastily set up in a cavernous sports facility called Chelsea Piers, on the Hudson River. I had been there earlier, on the evening of Sept. 11, still stunned from the day’s events like many New Yorkers, and, also like many New Yorkers, wanting desperately to do something. But on that surreal and awful night, I simply waited with dozens of doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and volunteers for what officials expected would be hundreds of survivors. I ran into three young Franciscan friars, who were planning to spend the night there. They were full of energy and devotion. But though we wanted to help, after a few hours the stunning reality dawned: there would not be many survivors to attend to.
When I return to Chelsea Piers two days later to offer assistance, I discover that I have already been preceded by scores of members of the clergy. “Another priest,” says one harried, sweating volunteer as I enter. “Go upstairs and ask for Ellen.” Ellen tells me that she already has plenty of priests, ministers and rabbis. I wander downstairs, trying to think about where I might be able to help most. The day before I had spent at a center set up by a local Catholic hospital, where family members painfully searched dog-eared sheets of paper that listed the names of survivors. But at that hospital too there was a surfeit of help: there are so many mental-health care professionals in Manhattan.
Outside, surrounded by ambulances, U.S. Army vehicles, police cars, fire engines and dump trucks, I ask a police sergeant a question upon which I had reflected not at all. But it seems the right thing to ask: Do you think they might be able to use a priest downtown?
He knows where I mean. And I am terrified he will say yes.
Of course, he says; yes. Almost instantly a police car materializes to bring me to the site of the former World Trade Center. One of my spiritual directors used to say that sometimes if God wants you to do something, he removes all roadblocks, and I feel this intensely as we sail downtown. I ask, he answers, we go.
My own fear increases with every southerly block. With me in the back seat is a well-dressed psychiatrist. “Have you dealt with trauma victims?” he asks, as we speed through the streets. No, I say; please give me some advice. He does.
The sights of the first few minutes of the drive are familiar, comforting: the river on the right, the Manhattan skyline on the left. We make a lefthand turn, and there are fewer and fewer people walking on the street. When we stop briefly at an intersection, crowds of people surround the car, cheering and clapping, waving flags. My window is open, and a hand is thrust in, offering muffins, donuts, bottled water. We turn again, and presently there are many parked cars covered with fine soot. Our car passes the line that cordons off the press from the rescue area; I see cameras, reporters, news vans. And then we make another turn: here are cars crushed by falling debris, papers floating in the breeze, and more and more pale grey ash. We continue on and I catch sight of a burned, twisted building. The psychiatrist gets out of the car, wishes me well and sprints away.
The car turns once again, and I see the sight familiar from repeated viewings on television: the horrible remains of the Trade Center, issuing forth a brown, acrid smoke that chokes one and brings tears to the eyes. It is repellent. I feel the urge at once to vomit and to weep.
A U.S. Army soldier walks over and greets me, providing me with a sort of friendly escort. Ashamed that I cannot tear my gaze from the site of the embrowned buildings only a few yards away, I make an effort to ask after the soldier’s welfare. But, instead, he ministers to me. “That’s O.K., Father,” he says. “Everybody stares when they see it. It’s hard to see, isn’t it?” He hands me a face mask, which I notice everyone is wearing, to protect against the smoke and dust.