Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James Martin, S.J.August 29, 2011

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Olson
12 years 10 months ago
There is far more to 9/11, ten years after the fact, than a tragedy which can be responded to spiritually. That has been and continues to be done.  However, there were great crimes committed by American officials and citizens which have been photographed, recorded, studied, probed and investigated by other American citizens and by some citizens of foreign nations, but not by our government, which is responsible for such an investigation. In in this respect, our government remains broken and disfunctional.  This responsibility has been assiduously ignored in our government and in the main stream media.  To this day the Big Lie festers in the heart of our government and in our nation. 

Our government is not a religion, it is a legal structure instituted by people seeking a means of effective self-government.  Our Constitution is a brilliant human document most honored by following it.
12 years 10 months ago
James:  You touched all the right chords.  Thank you for this human account of your response to 9/11 and the description of the service as well as sacrifices of others.  Experiencing love there provides meaning to an otherwise insane and calamitous event.
Eileen Gould
12 years 10 months ago
Thank you for your compassionate response to the victims of 9/11.   This article stirred up so much in me regarding this dreadful blow to the victims and to our United States of America.   I have "skin" in this discussion.   The son of friends of ours, Mary and Jim Maloney of Long Island, an off duty fireman who responded immediately to the disaster and was killed.   A true hero.

But more, I believe that America has been scammed as usual by the Government, the media, and Congress.   No one individual that I can think of in history has done so much in bringing down a powerful country like the United States in one blow, delivered by a handful of fanatics.   I'm speaking of Asama Ben Ladin.    Looking here at home, however, I point to the culpable actions by Bush II in involving us in unwinnable wars, aided and abetted by Congress and leading to our economic downfall.   The ultimate result of this useless ten years of bankruptable warfare are number one, the lives of countless American fighting men (mostly poor, young and expendable) and two, the stranglehold of the resulting superrich who are in control of our government.  Last week, Jon Stewart on the Daily Show listed statistics on the discrepancy between the rich vs. the poor in the countries in the world.   The United States was battling Uganda for the greatest discrepancy.   Does any thinking person still believe that we any longer a government of the people?

Still, in faith, I trust in God that He will lead a basically good people out of the morass we find ourselves in.   It's call hope.   Eileen Quin Gould
Melinda Henson
12 years 10 months ago
Fr. Jim, thanks for your insight - 9/11 is also a story of resurrection!
Sister Pauline LeBel
12 years 10 months ago
Thanks Fr. James for printing this. It brought tears to my eyes. The memorial of 9/11 will certainly again make us think that we need God more than ever in our lives.
12 years 10 months ago

In “Of Many Things” Jesuit priest James Martin wonders what is God like? Then he says, “God is like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone” sometimes losing his life in so doing. Like at 9/11! I think everyone would agree, with Father Martin, including  theologian, professor and religious sister Elizabeth Johnson, who early in her book, “Quest For The Living God” says, “The Bible itself witnesses to multiple expressions for God.” She cites Moses at the Burning Bush where he hears God name himself as the, “I Am Who I Am!” Professor Johnson proceeds to explain that, Hebrew scholars interpret that “unpronounceable tetragrammaton”  as, “I will be there; as who I am will I be there with you.”  THAT’S so exciting! The professor gives no less than forty-four Biblical names for God which she calls  “a few” including “metal worker”
and “baker woman.” How interesting!

But leave it to Father Martin to always see the sun behind the clouds, the flower on the cactus not the arid soil surrounding it, the primary experience of 9/11 as “not simply one of tragedy but also of resurrection.”  His hope-filled realism gets its vitality from the words of the angel to the women at the Empty Tomb, “He is risen, just as he said!” JUST AS HE SAID!  This sure beats the dismal crepe-hanging mentality of our very sad, jaded world - a “been there, done that” no room for Hope world! Father Martin says, “No! There’s always room for Hope, a Hope on which to build Faith and Love.” Thank you, Father Martin.

Norman Costa
12 years 10 months ago
@ Father Jim: Thank you. 
Norman Costa
12 years 10 months ago

Looking for the Resurrection

I'm thinking of taking a train into NYC on Sunday, 9/11/2011. I won't get anywhere near Ground Zero to see the commemorative ceremonies, and certainly not be able to approach the Memorial. I was there over a year ago. The site was cleaned up and looked like one of those old movie sets for filming a story about building the Great Pyramid with ramps descending into a cavernous foundation.

Imagine Cecil B. DeMille's stage directors placing heavy blocks to be moved up and down the ramp. Hundreds of extras are dispersed around the set. Scaffolding, ropes, cranes, shovels, wheel barrows, and hammers are specs of stage props in a huge open air theatre.

I'm hoping to see, for the first time, a materialization from the ashes of obliterated people and structures. I would really like to see a rejuvenation of pride and confidence in New Yorkers and in everyone. I'm still wondering if I'll feel that way. I think that's the real reason I want to go to Ground Zero - why I want to place myself midst the others who will make the pilgrimage and pay their respects.

I was there when the Twin Towers were going up. I followed news stories of the progress, and interesting copy on the engineering and construction of these monoliths. Critics went up one side and down the other of the edifices and the architechs. To hell with the critics, I loved the Twin Towers from the beginning. I don't know how many times I was at Windows on the World having a drink or something to eat. The view of the East River was my favorite. You could see the FDR Drive, the jigsaw puzzle of Federal, City, and State buildings, the BMW bridges (Oh, yeah!), and the reflected sunset from the West, courtesy of the people of New Jersey. 

Today, as then, my favorite view of Manhattan is from Queens, driving on the highway leading to the Queens-Midtown tunnel. It was breath taking for me, and for anyone I took on a visit to New York City. I am not being sentimental when I say that, for me, I grieve when I see that monstrous vacuum in the skyline at the southern tip of Manhattan. If I didn't have to attend to driving, I would pull over and sit and look, as I would at the graveside of a friend or family. There is a big hole in the sky, and it will never be the same. 

By sheer accident, three of my family members who worked at the WTC survived the horror: My cousin received a last minute change in assignment from his supervisor; My son-in-law was late for a Path train from New Jersey into lower Manhattan; my daughter's father-in-law had a scheduled off-site meeting. I and my family were lucky and we are very grateful.

Three-thousand human beings perished; family and friends by the tens of thousands were grieving; our country, and most of the world, were in shock. Now, we have many hundreds of responders who survived the first horror, but were harmed in the process of rescue, recovery, and demolition. Their families are now added to the list of collateral damage from the original devastation

I hope I can take that train into Grand Central Terminal on Sunday morning, 9/11. I think I will regret it if I don't. A Resurrection is meant for all of us.

The latest from america

The head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication has defended his department's use of expelled Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik’s artwork in its official materials.
Colleen DulleJune 21, 2024
A conversation with Rachel L. Swarns, the author of "The 272: The Families Who were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church"
JesuiticalJune 21, 2024
Spanish Jesuit Luis María Roma, who died in 2019, was recently discovered to have abused hundreds of Indigenous girls while serving as a missionary in rural Bolivia, and to have documented his acts in a diary.
Members of Coro y Orquesta Misional San Xavier perform the opera “San Francisco Xavier” at the Church of San Xavier in the town of San Javier, Bolivia, on April 23. 2024.
The opera ‘San Xavier’ provides a glimpse of how Jesuits evangelized with music—a key dimension of the 1986 film “The Mission.”