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9/11 - A Remembrance | by Fr. James Dineen, S.J.

An abridged version of this reflection appears on the inside front cover of the Fall 2011 issue of Prep Magazine.


May I take you with me and share with you experience of 9/11 - never to be forgotten.

I arrived at the scene of chaos and all the toxic dust and destruction, and I could hardly move about in the dense debris. I was trying to find and bless the bodies buried under the fallen materials and to point out their location to firemen and workers. Families of deceased so longed to lay claim to the slightest remains. As I searched, a fireman approached me: “Father, you’re standing on body parts!”. They were so covered in the thick ashes and rubble that I did not recognize them. It was utter Armageddon!

The first masks available were fragile paper. I and so many others breathed in too much of the cancer-causing elements – asbestos, microscopic silicon and fiberglass, etc. Through federal funds I have been treated yearly at Mt. Sinai Hospital for the weakening effects upon the gastro-intestinal system and upon the lungs. Scores have died of such damage.

I would, from time to time, go over to the nearby Brooks Brothers store, where the discovered bodies were stacked in body bags next to the most expensive suits and coats, many of them over $1,000, and some over $5,000. The utter incongruity! What did all those pricey styles matter if the life-styles of the nameless deceased did no true and lasting good, if their ways of life had no value beyond themselves – if they did not gift and lift the lives of others somehow? And for those of faith, the Lord’s promise will be faithful to those who bore fruit in goodness: “fruit that will remain” (John 15:16).

In that very troubled time, during church prayers for 9/11 victims, a young man in a front pew was weeping openly, simply weeping on and on. The high priorities of his bustling life as a climber in finance were shaken to pieces. He was part of a tight group of young men and women who had already reached various executive levels in their companies. The agreed goal of each in the group was to reach “The Big Unit”, that is, to make his or her first $5million. In the tragedy beyond words each member of that group had lost his or her life at 9/11 except for the lone weeper in the pew. “The ‘Big Unit’ – what does it all mean now?”—were his words, “It is over; they are gone forever – my friends.” All the glitter of their big money goals had paled to nothing and now seemed so shallow and so empty. The young man was left with a piercing question: “What were their lives for anyhow? Where am I going?”

Intense sharing of human suffering was often stunning. I tried to help a poor woman who could no longer find peace or rest as she was haunted day and night by images of the possible ways her young daughter died at Ground Zero. Her daughter was so vibrant and engaged in her first career. Was she running down the stairs as the building collapsed and crushed her away? The poor mother would awaken in the night and tremble over and over with such images of horror. So many were tortured with these harrowing images of the possible fate of loved ones and with torrents of unspeakable sorrow. They needed compassionate assurance that it all happened in a moment, no prolonged agony, that the Lord took their dear ones to Himself.

As time went on, a platform was formed over the deep, wide pit of devastation and death – indeed, a massive grave. We would take the close relatives of the deceased to this platform where they could gaze down on the dust and ashes, the only remains of loved ones, and grieve openly. We would like to have come to their rescue as they shrieked out their grief, but of course, that is not wise as they needed free release of such shattering sorrow. I accompanied the parents of two young men who died in the fires and crashes. One was vibrant and gifted, climbing the ladder of success in a World Trade company. The other son had recently received his finance degree from Fordham University and had already started work at the World Trade. Such a loss of both young sons was beyond tears for their parents who fell into a stricken silence with eyes like dry wells of anguish. They could only look toward a steel cross to find hope, the large cross that somehow formed from the fallen construction. I too could only go to the Cross in my prayer to see the God Who is with us, Who came in His Son into the worst and darkest of our human pain.

As both sons were known to be bright, moral, mannerly and personable, how much, I felt, how much they could have enriched the lives of others in a lifetime. Their moment is gone, yours is here and mine is here.

A little 8-year-old boy was building the World Trade Center out of Lego blocks and firing toy planes into it. A most tearful scene – as it was the boy’s way of coming to realize this really happened to his father, his own father smashed away in an explosive blaze. His father was very gentle and loved to lift him close and swing him about. There is also more anger than we realize in children who lose parents. The boy’s rough and knock-down action of hurling planes released some anger.
Violent acts do violence to the violent person and destroy any sense of the sacred in a human being, of the life-giving God, and for Christians, of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Who is Life itself. Such violent wreckage of human life drew me more and more into the mystery of each person, the God-likeness in the beauty and splendor of the Divine, which will not be destroyed. I wanted ever to see the Godly dignity of all humanity and hold such vision always.

What did lift my spirit was the sight of so many, from all parts of the U.S. and even from other countries, as Canada and Mexico, who came to offer services of all kinds – bringing refreshments to firemen, workers, rescue teams, police, relatives of presumed dead – offering gentle face and hand cleansing of the heavy dust, therapeutic massage, etc. Ethnic and racial differences disappeared, and somehow then and there, it seemed all were brothers and sisters. Would that such human bonding could remain forever!

My spirits rose again as I climbed down in the darkness, fire, and fumes to the lowest level below the World Trade, which is the PATH station, to search for the wounded and the dead. But I could sigh in relief as it was clear the alarms had sounded early enough for passengers to run up to safety. Soon after, at the total collapse, several PATH cars were crushed under fallen construction. I tried in the search to crawl through these cars in case a poor soul had fallen behind in the panic escape. I moved about in danger of falling steel beams and cement. Later on, the meds at Mt. Sinai would probe me for a possible trauma. It was necessary as the risks and fears were heavy.

I was set upon a level of more acute consciousness of the awesome brevity of human life and its meaning. We can easily lose memory over the years of the blunt impact of 9/11 upon minds and spirits, our intuition at that time of the profound value of one human life. Many were drawn to question for the first time: Do our frail human lives have any true purpose? What’s it all for, our brief time here? At the end of life, wouldn’t it be so dark and barren to find oneself saying: What did it all matter?
As the poet Mary Oliver wrote:
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The most peace-filled people I know are those who can go to their God, or to Jesus Lord and Friend, so real to them, and ask at any time of their lives where He is leading them. Toward the end of each day, it is so important with the help of the Holy Spirit to ask the Lord: How did I do this day Lord? Did I do it Your way? Rather, how did we do this day together… yes, together Lord?