On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was working at my desk at America. Around 9 a.m., my mother called from Philadelphia to say that she had heard about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I found it odd that she would call; she knew our offices were uptown, not downtown. A few minutes later, I turned on the TV. It was only then that I saw the unfolding tragedy.
That morning I had a doctor’s appointment and so, still unsure about what was happening, I walked a few blocks to his office. But as I peered down Sixth Avenue (a few feet from our office) I was horrified to see inky black smoke pouring from the tops of the twin towers. Panicked people were streaming uptown, desperately trying to use their cellphones (many of which had ceased to work because of damaged cell towers at the Trade Center).
An hour later, after the doctor’s appointment, the scene was radically different. Everyone’s eyes faced downtown, people were weeping in the streets, worriedly scanning the skies for another plane, racing toward subway entrances and desperately hailing cabs.
When I returned to our office, our receptionist said that one of the buildings had collapsed. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “What radio station is saying that? That’s impossible.” But turning on the television confirmed the worst.
That evening, I put on my Roman collar and made my way to a local hospital a few blocks away, where victims were to be brought. But the police officers in the lobby suggested that I walk farther downtown. So through the empty streets I walked to Chelsea Piers, a large sporting arena, to wait for victims who never came. The next day was spent at a counseling center, helping family members pore through local hospital records of patients. In the end, there would be few survivors.
On Sept. 13, I returned to Chelsea Piers and asked a police officer if they needed help downtown. He nodded smartly, waved for a police cruiser, and I jumped in and was taken down to “the site.” It was an appalling sight, of which you’ve surely seen photographs. Ten years later, I can still remember the acrid smell that pervaded everything.
After emerging from the police car, stunned, I wondered what to do. I thought: I cannot bear to look at bodies or to be in the morgue; but I can help the rescue workers. So I spent the next few days and weeks, in between work at the magazine, ministering to firefighters, police officers, EMTs, nurses, construction workers, military personnel and government workers. In time I was joined by my Jesuit brothers, many of them still in training.
In this hell I found grace. Working at the World Trade Center was one of the most profound experiences of the Holy Spirit I’ve ever had. For there I encountered an overwhelming sense of charity, unity and concord. Every person working at ground zero was other-directed. Every person was utterly unconcerned for himself or herself. There I found great kindness.
Everyone’s work, of course, was informed by the sacrifices that had been made days before by the fefighters and rescue workers who gave their lives as they raced into the burning buildings on Sept. 11. For me, it seemed as if God was offering us a new parable, the way Jesus had done for people of his time. I thought: “What is God like?” God is like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone. That’s how much God loves us. And I saw this love expressed in the charity of the rescue workers who gathered at the American Golgotha.
My primary experience of 9/11, then, was not simply one of tragedy but also of resurrection. For me, it embodied the Christian mystery of the cross: the place of unimaginable tragedy can also be the place of new life, which comes in unexpected ways.
View Father James Martin's video report from Ground Zero.