The years may pass, but the memories never fade. A seminal event marks us and remakes us, whether we will it or not; but in the end, it matters to us. So it was, back then, on that day, 14 Septembers ago, when horror struck our hearts and imparted an ache that can never go away. The cocoon of security that was always ours was punctured, and our country was forever transformed. And most of all, thousands upon thousands of lives of loved ones, friends, colleagues and complete strangers—but all members of our human family—were jolted by the reality of violence, hatred, sin and death. And even greater than that, untold numbers of innocents lost their lives in the most unimaginable way, ultimately to be gathered in the hands of God, when it was way before their time to leave us and when it was much too soon for the rest of us to be the witnesses of such a horrendous leave-taking.
That day started out so beautifully; it was a sunny and cloudless September day, when for children, school had resumed, and for most adults, it was back to work after another summer season had concluded. It was the normal hustle and bustle of another workday in midtown Manhattan: people scurrying about, quickly grabbing a large beverage to go along with their morning roll or bagel in an attempt to give a much-needed jolt of energy to jumpstart their workday and themselves. And, if you cared to (or if you didn’t do it yourself) you could see the passing pedestrian stealing a furtive glance at the newspaper’s headlines before heading into their places of work and their desktops full of paperwork demanding complete and immediate attention. All that didn’t matter by 8:45 A.M., when everything suddenly changed, when the bright skies were suddenly darkened by a terrorist act involving two airliners and two twin towers in the lower part of Manhattan island. For the people alive on that day, September 11, 2001 became what November 22, 1963 or December 7, 1941 were to earlier generations.
I can never forget how it all started: I was coming in to the city and heading toward America House on West 56th Street, where I worked as a literary assistant. I had walked some number of blocks from the Metro-North train terminal at Grand Central Station; before that, I had taken an express bus from my home in Rockland County over the Tappan Zee Bridge in order to get over to Tarrytown to take the Metro-North train in order to get to work. It was a two-hour trip, but it was to a job that I loved and with people that I liked and enjoyed working with. I had made my way in the front door and was headed toward the elevator, when I heard the news. Somebody from the business office said—loudly—that “some plane” had crashed into the World Trade Towers further downtown and quickly scurried away, alerting others to what had happened. I shook my head; the only thing comparable that I could remember was an event that happened long before I was even born; I remembered reading about the small military plane that crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940’s. The cause of that crash was a fog. This September 11, 2001 was bright, sunny and cloudless. Could it have been pilot error or an equipment malfunction? Before long, we all knew what happened, and we would all be in a fog-like state.
By midday, Manhattan had become a ghost town, literally and figuratively. An eerie quiet descended upon a normally bustling, hustling metropolis. At one point, I stepped outside to see a deserted landscape where normally it would be bursting with activity, but not on that day, not then. At America House, we did any and all of three things: pray, watch the latest developments on the television, and call to see if our loved ones were alright. A terrible feeling of tightness overcame us; none of us could fathom what all of this portended. Little did I know that the tragedy that was about to unfold—and was unfolding—before us all was to involve me in two particular ways.
When I fully realized what had happened, I called home to see that my mother and father were OK. They were; they were just watching the breaking news as it was happening on TV and perplexed as the rest of us were at what was happening. They had just switched the channel after having watched a morning Mass that was broadcast from St. Agnes Cathedral from Rockville Centre, out on Long Island. I asked about my sister, Cathy, who worked at Emigrant Bank on 42nd Street, just steps across from Grand Central. My mother had mentioned to me that she was at some meeting for the bank someplace downtown.
It turned out, however, that she was attending a meeting on behalf of the bank at the Federal Reserve Bank building some three blocks away from the World Trade Center. As I was to find out later, the minute the attacks occurred, the building was put on immediate lockdown and everyone in that building was not allowed to leave until much later that afternoon. (When I eventually caught up with her on the phone and realized that she was safe, I called home to reassure our parents of that fact and to make sure they were safe, too.) Fortunately, I caught up with her later that day, and met her at Grand Central for the trip home. Since the city was virtually shut down, there was little—if any—public transportation within it, so my sister, along with a great mass of people—had to walk from wherever they were to wherever it was they had to get to in order to find their way home. And when I finally saw her, she looked the same and her dress was fine, except for one thing: her shoes were covered in gray soot. (And the coda to that day occurred when the obviously overcrowded emergency train that had left Grand Central arrived at our stop in Tarrytown. It was there that I saw a scene that said it all and summed up the trauma of that day: a man, who had disembarked, stood in the center of the platform. In trying to act normally, he took out a cigarette, with the obvious intention of smoking it. Instead, it just hung limp from the corner of his mouth; he did not move; all he could do was stand stock-still, in the middle of the platform, with his face—as well as his body—in total shock. )
But that was not the end of the day for me, not then; it would be years after the fact that I would discover by accident that that September day claimed the life of someone I once knew as a boy growing up in the Bronx.
When you have idle time—and when you have a computer—you tend to have reveries: you think about certain times and places and people and I, being no exception, succumb to such reveries from time to time. One afternoon, I started to thinking about my school days in the Bronx and the people that inhabited those days. And like many others, my memories were peopled by those who were nice and not so nice; after all, such were the stuff that made up one’s life. So, one day, with time on my hands and curiosity teeming in my head, I went on the computer to see what information I could find on my old school, St. Nicholas of Tolentine in the Bronx. As often happens with most people, when you graduate from school (at whatever level), you think that nothing will change and you will somehow “keep in touch” or know about the whereabouts of your classmates. But, as times and life marches on—and memories recede—only to be replaced by other people, places and memories. Such is the way with school days. But, as I say, I was teeming with curiosity and wanted to know more. So, when I searched, I was shocked at what appeared.
I wasn’t prepared for what came up when I scrolled down the different items and clicked on a site called the “September 11 Memorial: Anthony, Kansas—We Have Not Forgotten; We Will Never Forget; We Will Always Care.” It was one of the numerous tribute websites that appear on the Internet that hail those who died on that day and recognize those heroes who helped people affected by the tragedy, like the first responders, the police and other civic personnel. I wondered what St. Nicholas of Tolentine had to do with this site and so I typed “Tolentine” in the page’s search box. It came up with a letter written by a classmate from my Tolentine days, Colette Minogue-Cannataro, who had taken the time to write a tribute on the site. I was to discover to my shock that she was writing about another classmate of ours, Donald McIntyre, who died on that day at the World Trade Center.
Donald McIntyre was a police officer, affiliated with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Unknown to me at the time, while I was starting to work at my desk at America House, Officer McIntyre was killed while attempting to rescue the people who were trapped in the World Trade Center. As the “Officer Down Memorial Page” described it: “He had been assisting victims evacuate the first tower when the second tower was struck. He immediately went to the second tower and was assisting with evacuating the 32nd floor when the tower collapsed…” He, along with all those public safety officers that were killed that day were posthumously awarded the 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor by President George W. Bush. The boy I had known so long ago in grammar school and high school had died a martyr, an American hero.
The realization of it left me in stunned silence. To learn this after all these years left me with a bracing feeling. Who could have known that someone among those children in a parochial school on University Avenue in the Bronx would grow up and actually have lived the dictates of the Gospel and actually offer up his life for his fellow human beings? As children, we were taught the Gospel by the Augustinian priests from Villanova and the Dominican nuns of Blauvelt, and here was Donald McIntyre, who grew up and lived out that biblical command on that awful day. He was 38 years old and married; he was the father of two children and a third child would be born three months later. As my classmate Colette recalled, “Mackey” was “sweet and funny.” He was a good boy who became an even better man.
We could not know it then, when we were children—on the streets of University Avenue in the Bronx—in the shadows of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church—that one day, one of us would be called to perform such an awesome duty and at such a fearful cost. Yet, Donald McIntyre—like so many others like him on that day—did not flinch. He had the faith that was imparted to him from his parents, his family and his church to do what was necessary and needed—and besides, Donald McIntyre was that kind of person. And because he was that kind of person, he—like all the others—will never be forgotten and the sacrifice they rendered will always be gratefully acknowledged and remembered with awe.
If there is any teacher that is discouraged after a rough day, dealing with rambunctious youngsters and wonders whether their work will ever bear fruition, or fear that the lessons they're trying to impart will ever have meaning to young minds and hearts, they need only to look at the example of a man who was once a boy, growing up in the Bronx, who was once “sweet and funny,” but who thought nothing of giving up his own life so that “so that others might live.”