America StaffSeptember 10, 2021
New York City firefighters and other emergency personnel survey the World Trade Center collapse Sept. 11, 2001. (CNS photo/Anthony Correia, Reuters)

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
— Billy Collins, “The Names

Here at America we have a wide variety of ages and backgrounds among our 40-odd staff members; our youngest colleagues are 22 years of age, our most senior is 84. Most of us are transplants to the New York region from elsewhere. As a result, our experiences of Sept. 11, 2001, viewed from the vantage point of two decades, differ markedly. But when we shared our memories of that day and its aftermath—our personal anecdotes or those of our families and friends—one common thread wound through them all: It was a day that changed the lives of the living forever even as it stole the breath of those who died. In New York. In Washington. In a lonely Pennsylvania field. In countless battlefields across the globe ever since.

What follows are some of our memories of 9/11. We invite you to share your stories in the comments section below.

•••

On Feb. 26, 1993, two months into my new job in New York City, I was sent down from the trading desk of Hilliard Farber Mortgage Brokerage at 45 Broadway Atrium to check on the smoke reportedly coming from the World Trade Center complex. I stood in front of the towers, a tangle of police cars separating me from the building entrance. As I pieced together that a bomb had gone off, I froze and thought: Whoa! If this tower falls, it’s going to take out several blocks and about 40,000 of us will be dead. I ran back to the office and gave my report.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I had just walked into my office at 45th Street and Third Avenue when my boss said: “Turn on the TV. A plane just struck the W.T.C.”

My thoughts went to the chaos of 1993, and then I thought: Whoa! My wife is nine months pregnant, and I bet the city is seconds away from shutting down transportation. I ran west across town. Glancing down Third Avenue, I saw the two buildings looking like chimneys. I boarded the first emergency ferry to depart for New Jersey and caught my breath as we got out in the middle of the Hudson River. Looking downtown, where you normally see the towers, there were no towers. I dropped my head, devastated at the thought that 40,000 or more were dead, many of whom I would know.

My thoughts went to the chaos of 1993, and then I thought: Whoa! My wife is nine months pregnant, and I bet the city is seconds away from shutting down transportation.

The ferry dropped us off, and I ran home thinking the medical staff would be so overwhelmed with casualties at our planned place of birth in Hoboken, N.J., that we might be delivering the baby on our own. Sadly, no casualties came, though I had feelings of relief as the death toll seemed to get lower and lower as news came out.

Alina Patricia Arko was born in St. Mary’s maternity ward 47 hours later. She is now a junior at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

Ken Arko
Director of Advertising Services

•••

I have spent most of my life in New York, but on the morning of Sept. 11 was in the bedroom of an apartment I had just rented in New Haven, Conn. I had two thoughts when I heard the news. First, I should call my parents, who lived in the Bronx. Second, I should drive back home.

I made the call, but I didn’t head home.

Instead, I drove north, to New Britain, where I worked as a metro reporter for the Hartford Courant. My editor wanted all of us in the office. I was in shock, but I was also eager to work, to distract myself but also to contribute in some way to chronicling what just happened. I was sent to a local school to see how the students and faculty were processing the news. To be honest, I was not excited about the assignment, but I did what I was asked.

The steakhouse was in Chelsea, so we could still see the smoke from the towers. A fireman was having dinner next to us. My friend bought him a drink.

Five days later I was back in the city. I was getting married in a week, and my brother had scheduled a bachelor party. The steakhouse was in Chelsea, so we could still see the smoke from the towers. A fireman was having dinner next to us. My friend bought him a drink.

Tim Reidy
Deputy Editor in Chief

•••

A few hours after the towers fell, I found myself crowded into a campus shuttle, being driven to a Red Cross donation center with a group of my fellow college students, all of us hoping to donate blood. We had been told that giving our own blood was a thing that we could do to help in response to the blood that had been shed by others in the attacks. But when we reached the site we were turned away en masse. They told us that there were too many donors, that the amount of blood being offered would be impossible to process.

I was a resident assistant, a sophomore watching over a floor of freshman, so when I returned from the shuttle ride I went door to door to check on people, even though, here, too, I felt like I was trying to give some part of myself for which there was no particular need. Each room, usually brimming with chatter or music from open doors, was somber.

We prayed for peace, for the dead, for the first responders, for our country and for understanding, eventually, of the day that even 20 years later remains impossible to process.

Later that night, as the blue skies faded to black, the student body assembled for a hastily planned but powerful prayer service. I stood amid hundreds of drawn faces, each of us feeling like shadows of who we were that morning. Lit by the candles we held, we prayed for peace, for the dead, for the first responders, for our country, for forgiveness and for understanding, eventually, of the day that even 20 years later remains impossible to process.

Kerry Weber
Executive Editor

•••

I was heading to work in Chicago, late as usual, when I was stopped by the news I was hearing on the radio and turned on the television. Then I was just simply transfixed. I forgot all about heading to work. I didn’t even think to call in and tell them I wouldn’t be coming into the office that morning. I watched as the second plane hit and there was an explosion and fire; and then, later, people were screaming and the towers were falling and papers were fluttering in the air and I tried to make sense out of what I was seeing. I thought about what hundreds—thousands?—of families back home would be experiencing that day.

She asked if I knew anyone who had been killed or injured, and I hurried back into my office where she couldn’t see me and burst into tears. I didn’t know.

My dad is retired F.D.N.Y.; cousins and friends of mine were on the job in both the city’s police and fire departments. I had family and friends from grammar school and high school and college and Irish football in the Bronx and Rockland County who worked downtown, and I had no idea who was in harm’s way and who wasn’t when the towers fell. I spent the rest of that day on the phone trying to reach people. The next day, when I had made it to my office, I got back on the phone to do the same. A colleague, recalling I was from New York, told me how sorry she was and asked if I knew anyone who had been killed or injured, and I hurried back into my office where she couldn’t see me and burst into tears. I didn’t know.

Kevin Clarke
Senior Editor

•••

I was sitting in my 10th grade world religions class in a small town in rural Ontario, Canada, when we first got word that something had happened in New York City. No one had smartphones or computers, just notebooks and textbooks. The only technology we had access to was a tube television set on a rolling cart. When whispers of a major news story spread, the first feeling among the students was one of excitement at the prospect of watching TV during class time. Our teacher must have known it was serious; I don’t remember any reluctance or pushback on his part.

None of the students knew what the World Trade Center buildings were. We just knew we were watching something catastrophic, something historic.

That feeling of excitement quickly turned into silent disbelief when we turned the TV on and caught a scratchy signal to one of the four available cable channels. We watched the first tower crumble in real-time. None of the students knew what the World Trade Center buildings were. We just knew we were watching something catastrophic, something historic.

It is one of the few memories I have from my 10th grade world religions class. That, and something instilled in us by our teacher and the entire education we received at our Catholic high school: that we must learn about and respect profoundly the religious beliefs of other human beings.

Sebastian Gomes
Executive Editor

•••

I was 3 on 9/11, so I don’t remember the day. Of all the stories I’ve heard, one sticks out.

I feel an eerie kind of connection to Welles Crowther, who shares my alma mater and who, like me, moved to New York for his first job after graduation. He, too, struggled to find meaning in his transition to adulthood. He was about my present age (Welles was 24 on 9/11) when he lost his life saving others.

The Man in the Red Bandana,” ESPN’s short documentary about Welles, tells the story of a young man whose passion for service led him to volunteer firefighting. On 9/11 Welles was working in the South Tower. As the building began to collapse, he led people down a functioning staircase to safety. Instead of evacuating with them, though, Welles went back up the stairs to find more people in need of saving.

When I think of Welles Crowther, I wonder about the ways in which I am uniquely called to respond to people in crisis.

When I first heard his story as a college freshman, I thought of Welles as someone with the maturity to respond to a crisis in just the right way. I thought the six-year age difference between me at the time and his age in the tower must have brought him all the answers. When I think of him now, it’s difficult to comprehend that he was a young person like me, doubting himself and having some bad days and struggling to handle adult responsibilities all on his own. But when his particular knowledge and abilities were needed, he didn’t hesitate to be of service, even if it led to his death.

I pray I’ll never have to experience anything like he did on 9/11. But when I think of Welles, I wonder about the ways in which I am uniquely called to respond to people in crisis. His example encourages me to ask myself: What do I know how to do? What does this wounded world need from me? And how can I be brave enough to do that?

Molly Cahill
Assistant Editor

•••

September 2001 was the year before I entered the Jesuits. I was living in Cambridge, Mass., and working at a political think tank in Boston. As I was passing the Church of Saint Mary of the Annunciation, I switched on the car radio and heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. By the time I reached my office, the second plane had hit. For much of the morning, we mistakenly thought that the chairman of our organization was on one of the planes. But later we learned that a young woman many of us knew was one of the passengers. Her only child was 9 months old.

But Matty, where was God?” he asked me. Like most of us, I am still stammering out an answer.

That night, I talked by phone with a friend and told him that the scariest part of the day for me was the seeming eternity when nobody seemed to know where President Bush was or who was in charge of the country (this was in the days when partisanship stopped when a crisis began). “But Matty, where was God?” he asked me.

Like most of us, I am still stammering out an answer.

Matt Malone, S.J.
President and Editor in Chief

•••

I remember thinking my cat Charlie must have died. I was the first kid pulled out of my sixth grade science class. One other student was also heading down an otherwise quiet hall toward the office. When I got into the van, my nanny, Beth, quickly said, “Don’t worry, your parents are O.K.” I had no reason to think otherwise, and at the age of not quite 11, my frame of reference for tragedy was the death of our other cat one year before. “Is Charlie O.K.?”

I grew up in Arlington, Va. My parents worked in Washington, D.C., and my older sister went to Bishop Ireton in Alexandria. You could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon from her school. I sat on the floor in front of the television with Beth, and then later my siblings and a few neighborhood kids, watching the planes and smoke and flames, anxiously waiting for my parents to get home. I don’t remember what time they finally did, but I’m sure I sprinted to the door at the sound of an engine in the carport.

It felt like my childhood, or at least one chapter of it, was over.

I turned 11 later that month; and then a month or so after that, our nanny, who had been more like a second mother, left. And it felt like my childhood, or at least one chapter of it, was over.

Ashley McKinless
Executive Editor

•••

That day we had been released early from school. And that night we headed to church.

One of the co-pilots of one of the doomed planes was from my sleepy Massachusetts suburb. Though I did not know him or his family, they were members of our parish. The details escape me now, but I remember the special prayers for use in a time of distress or war. That somehow made it all feel more real. Hundreds of people packed the pews. And there was so much media—television cameras and journalists lining the side aisles of the church to capture images and B-roll for the evening news.

I don’t remember much from Mass that night, though I do recall a message from the pastor. He told us to trust in God, to pray for the world.

Some people were grieving. Others were scared. Still in high school, I was confused, unsure how to process an atrocity that had been beamed live straight into our homes. I don’t remember much from Mass that night, though I do recall a message from the pastor. He told us to trust in God, to pray for the world. He warned us against giving in to fear, to resist looking at Islam as the enemy. He urged us to avoid exploiting the tragedy. He asked us instead to pray for peace.

Michael O’Loughlin
National Correspondent

•••

I was in my office on Madison Avenue when I heard on the radio that a small plane had crashed into one of the World Trade towers. I turned on the television and was having a hard time understanding how this could have happened on a perfectly clear day.

And then it all started to unravel. Clearly a large plane, the second plane, the Pentagon, Flight 93 and the unbelievable collapsing of the towers. Sirens from every direction the rest of that day. My senses were numb. I called my wife at home to check in. We were all in shock and worried about friends and relatives who clearly had been in harm’s way. In the days that followed, the silence that permeated Manhattan was otherworldly. No horns, no yelling. It was New York at its finest while it was also at its darkest. That’s what I remember most: the scenes of people everywhere, no matter what their race, income or status, coming together to donate blood (the lines went around the block), deliver water or food to first responders—anything to be of help.

It was the first and only time in my life where my brain could not comprehend what my eyes were seeing.

A few days later, I went down to an apartment ABC News had taken that was downtown and had a camera shot over all the destruction. It was the first and only time in my life where my brain could not comprehend what my eyes were seeing.

Traug Keller
Chief Operating Officer

•••

I was born in March of 1999, so it may be surprising that I have any memory from Sept. 11, 2001. I swear, though, that I can still see an image of my mom standing in front of our old television in our living room in Fairfield, Conn. She was in tears on the phone with my grandma in Brooklyn, stunned as the news replayed footage on a loop of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. I’m sure I must have thought it was a scary movie and not something real. I think I only remember it because it is a truly startling thing as a child to see your parents cry.

Now, years later, I can only imagine what my mom must have been feeling. For starters, my mom, a born-and-raised New Yorker, had worked in the North Tower for Chase on the 46th floor. Thankfully, after the bombing in 1993, she and her co-workers never returned to the building. My grandfather, “Papa,” on the other hand, was still working downtown on Wall Street. When I got older, he would describe what that day was like for him, running off the street into Brown Brothers Harriman to escape the tsunami of ash set off by the collapse of the towers. When he cleared enough dust out of his eyes to see, he said that the man who came in the door behind him looked as though he had been through a cement mixer.

I think I only remember it because it is a truly startling thing as a child to see your parents cry.

Each time I visit Brooklyn, I remember that Papa walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to get home to Bay Ridge that day, and that kind strangers brought towels to help him wipe the ash from his face.

Although I was too young at the time to appreciate the gravity of what had happened, I now realize that so many aspects of my life have been defined by the tragedy. We live in a distinctly post-9/11 world, a world where airport security has been transformed, a world where we are just now pulling our troops out of Afghanistan. I have never really known anything else, but I will never forget the day that changed everything.

Keara Hanlon
O’Hare Fellow

•••

Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, Rowan Williams,then archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a short essay comparing the present moment to when Jesus was confronted with the woman caught in adultery. When asked by the Pharisees what to do with her, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground ” (Jn 8:6). What he wrote is never elaborated. For Williams the point is not the content but the fact that Jesus “allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently precisely because he refuses to make the sense they want.”

The idea that has stayed strongest with me from that time is the virtue to be found in hesitation, in “holding the moment for a little longer, long enough for some of our demons to walk away.”

I was not yet living in New York in 2001, and my memories of those days are like those of many others, endless hours of watching the news, grieving the loss of life and fearing where it would all lead. But the idea that has stayed strongest with me from that time is the virtue to be found in hesitation, in “holding the moment for a little longer, long enough for some of our demons to walk away.”

Jim McDermott, S.J.
Associate Editor

•••

I was living in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, so the second plane hit the Twin Towers at 6:03 a.m. our time. I was awakened by the land line ringing—already by 2001 a sure sign of an ill wind that means no one good. Who calls on the land line? It was a former professor who had been watching it all unfold on CNN.

I have always been a history buff, so when he told me two planes had hit the towers, I said, “Like the bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945.” “No,” came the reply. “On purpose. Passenger jets. Both towers are on fire.” That woke me up quick.

My sister Kate, who arrived at my apartment soon after the second tower fell, put it well that evening after a 12-hour TV marathon. “Nothing,” she said, “will ever be the same again.”

The entire day was spent in front of the television, just like the rest of the country; it was also spent sending and receiving frenzied phone call after phone call. I and many of my siblings traveled frequently in those days, and we were often careless about letting one another know where we were. And three of the four hijacked planes, we soon discovered, had been destined for Los Angeles. Where is Bobby? Has anyone heard from Jimmy? Were the Irish relatives coming today?

Those moments of guilty relief—at least I and mine are O.K.—were interspersed with the shock and growing rage we all felt. My sister Kate, who arrived at my apartment soon after the second tower fell, put it well that evening after a 12-hour TV marathon. “Nothing,” she said, “will ever be the same again.”

James T. Keane
Senior Editor

•••

Twenty years have passed, but the events of that day have not lost their power to numb the senses: a beautifully sunny morning that quickly turned dark and foreboding, the lives of some ended and the lives of others forever changed.

I think now: What if? What if it never happened? What if all those good people in the towers had lived and gone on living lives of worth and consequence? What if people channeled their energies toward goodness? What if polarization was just another word in the dictionary and not a fact of everyday life? What if we became “sowers of peace” instead of the soldiers of “endless wars”? What if religion were truly pure and simple, “The Way” to foster “the brotherhood of man” under a loving God as the Prince of Peace intended so long ago, instead of being seen as another example of endless exploitation over others? What if the world had a pandemic of love instead of hate, and how different that world would be?

But as I stood waiting for the elevator in America House that morning, pushing the button for the third floor, waiting to go up to the office to begin another work day, these were the unknown questions of the future: questions that had—and have—unknowable answers. The only certainty from that day lies in those two words: What if?

Joseph McAuley
Assistant Editor

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