I live right near the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, and on the night of September 11th I went there to see if there was anything I could do: answer phones, comfort someone, that sort of thing.
When I walked in their side door on 80th Street you could have heard a pin drop. Not one casualty so far, same as the hospital where I had just been giving blood. Dominick, one of the directors said, what they had expected hadn’t happened, at least not yet, but then while talking, a hearse pulled up.
The first fatality to be brought in was Father Mychal Judge, the beloved Chaplain of The New York Fire Department who, when he heard what had happened, rushed downtown to help. When the South Tower collapsed he was killed instantly.
There’s a famous photograph of firefighters carrying him out of the debris that I find hauntingly beautiful – the handsome man that he was without a visible scratch on him, the way they held him, reminded me of The Crucifixion.
I watched as they gently wheeled the gurney in. I didn’t know who it was till much later, but I do remember the peace that accompanied his arrival as though it were yesterday.
He was a follower of St. Francis and in true Franciscan fashion there was no fuss, only grace, existing in its place. I later learned he was listed as Victim 0001, the first official casualty of 9/11 because his body was the very first to be recovered.
As the days and weeks passed I stood outside of Campbells to watch and pay homage to the many Firefighters and Policemen carried from its doors alongside their crestfallen families.
The heartbreak of a young son holding his Dad’s hat, a look of sad confusion on his face holding onto a Mother drenched in black, as the new, can’t be more than 7, head of the household.
The Priest, Father Walter Modrys from St. Ignatius Loyola performing the rites, once again, made me wonder if the look of sadness on his face would ever take flight. How many would this be, thirty, fifty? He was my pastor at the time so when I asked him this question he said he honestly couldn’t remember. He had stopped counting.
It wasn’t unusual to hear bagpipes first thing in the morning or to smell roses everywhere you went. My neighborhood, swollen with grief, hosted the dead and their mourners with all the poise and sympathy it could gather.
We mustn’t forget their stories.
The M.T.A. driver who was told not to stop, but did anyway, picking up sixty or more people who otherwise would not have survived since it was the very last train that made it out of the station.
The young Harlem man working at the jewelry store beneath the towers who said to his bosses, “We need to go, NOW.” “Not until we empty the window, they told him, “and if you leave and don’t help us, you’re fired.” He didn’t listen, and they never made it out.
My friend Max, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, finally got that appointment with his allergy specialist and was going to work late that day. Every pal he had perished while he sat reading The New Yorker in the waiting room.
The city is in lock down.
Traffic is backed up due to check points as we walk to our churches.
Coming home from mass I watched two musicians being led away by a rattled police officer. He searched both their guitar cases while they somberly looked on as if to say, it’s okay – it’s the day, we understand.
I know about the threats. Now we know what it must be like to live in the Middle East every day.
Our lives changed on September 11th, 2001, making us different New Yorkers, mistrustful Americans, but I want to remember that day and its fallen…with a heart wide open…