As Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer of the New York City Fire Department sees it, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provides a transformative opportunity for the world community to pause and think about the tragedy’s spiritual dimension and its aftermath. On Sept. 11, 2001, Pfeifer was chief of the 1st Battalion, one of the first on the scene and in charge of directing firefighter response in the north tower of the World Trade Center.
“People were angry at God and they had every right to be, but that was not my experience,” Pfeifer said. His brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeifer of the F.D.N.Y., died at the World Trade Center that day. “I was walking back to the firehouse from the site on the second day, when we knew there would be no more survivors. It was completely dark except for the lights we had brought in. There was no power and there was smoke everywhere.
“Instead of anger, I felt an encounter, as if I were coming back to an old friend, or putting on an old sweatshirt,” he remembered. “How do you encounter spirituality and what is your personal experience of God? Mine was very much on West Street, walking back in complete sadness, but it was a place I’d been to before.”
Pfeifer is currently the fire department’s chief of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness and addresses groups of people in many parts of the world. “We used to think the 9/11 attacks were just New York and D.C., and Pennsylvania, but they were more than that,” he said. “It was a global trauma; an entire world-encounter and transformation occurred” when people could see that all local acts of terrorism, whether in Ireland or Israel or Afghanistan, were represented at the World Trade Center. “It gave the victims of terrorism an international voice and showed that terrorism is a crime against humanity,” he said.
People encounter spirituality in different ways, he said, and the 10th anniversary will allow people to connect their individual experiences with those of people in a larger group. One such larger group devastated by the Sept. 11 attacks lives in Rockaway Peninsula, at the southwest tip of the Diocese of Brooklyn, home to firefighters, police officers, emergency responders and financiers. Seventy residents were killed in the disaster.
Msgr. Martin T. Geraghty was pastor of St. Francis de Sales in Belle Harbor in 2001. Twelve of the World Trade Center victims were buried from that church. On Nov. 12, three days after the last funeral, Msgr. Geraghty was celebrating the 9 a.m. Mass when an American Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic crashed one block from the church, killing all 260 people on the plane and five on the ground, including parishioners.
“At Christmas 2001, a friend from Michigan asked if I was ‘over it yet’,” Msgr. Geraghty said. “I told him it’ll never be over for us. It has been a defining moment in the lives of families here.” He said, “There is an ongoing role for people. The message of the Gospel didn’t become irrelevant that day. We’re just at the beginning; 2,000 years hasn’t been long enough for our tribal human hearts to absorb the message of Jesus Christ.”
“We’re at the beginning of this. God is calling us out of tribalism into a different understanding,” he said.