Never Forget

On September 11, 2015, students and staff at the Nuclear Power Training Command gathered to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Truth be told, only the staff could really remember since most of the students that year had been in kindergarten in 2001. I was asked to speak at the event. Here are my remarks:

Today marks the 14th anniversary of the September 11th attack on the United States. Like this morning, that Tuesday morning began bright and clear, without a cloud in the sky. Passengers boarded planes in Boston, Washington, and Newark headed for California. Workers commuted to their jobs at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People sipped their coffee, sat in traffic, changed into their uniforms, scanned their emails, greeted coworkers, rode the subway, bought a newspaper to read on the flight, dropped their kids at school and kissed their families goodbye. It was a normal day.

It was a better-than-normal day for me. Having worked through the weekend visiting Marines standing watch in the guard towers along the Cuban fence-line and also leading worship and other activities at the chapel in Guantanamo Bay, Tuesday was my day off. I settled into my recliner with a bowl of cornflakes and turned on the Today Show to spend an hour with my fellow New Yorkers. When Matt Lauer’s visage turned grim and they cut to a live camera shot of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, I was stunned. A plane had hit the building—an enormous plane. A jet. Not a misguided thrill seeker with a small plane or anything else one could imagine. A commercial jetliner.

This was not a mistake. I had lived around the New York flight patterns for many years, and I knew this could not be an error. I tried to call my parents in New York, but the call would not go through. Thinking the issue was with my phone, I called a friend elsewhere in the US and she answered.  This worried me because that meant the problem was with the New York phone system. Anxious, I hung up and dialed my mother at work. This time the call went through: “United Methodist Church, how may I help you?”

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center. Go home and stay there.”

“Oh, a Cessna hit the Empire State building when you were a baby. Don’t worry about it, your dad and I are heading to the city on Saturday. We’ll take a look then and tell you what happened.”

“Stay away from the city,” I demanded. The second plane hit soon after I hung up.

I’m not sure what happened for the next few minutes as I stared at the TV screen. Everything seemed muddled. Between what was going on inside my head and the confusion from the commentators, it felt to me like what happens to a ceiling fan when you flip the switch to make it turn in the opposite direction. There is a slowing, followed by a complete stop, and for a moment you wonder if it can or will start again. Then it does, slowly, but not in the way it went before the switch was flipped.

9/11 was that moment. It was the stopping point at which the world started going in another direction. We were being attacked. It was intentional. Soon there was word of a plane hitting the western facade of the Pentagon. Then a newscaster announced that a plane had hit Camp David. Soon that was changed to somewhere in a field in PA, a place we now know was Somerset, a rural farming community.

My phone rang. It was a call from the chapel telling me about an emergency meeting at 1400 and that one of my neighbors wanted me to visit her. When I walked outside my townhouse, I could see that our world was already changing. Down the main street that ran the length of the base, the Marine re-act teams were already setting up concertina wire and check points. We were at Threat Condition Delta. I cut across the field to my neighbor’s house and we spent the next hour glued to the TV and weeping. Then we prayed, composed ourselves, and went bravely about doing what needed to be done.

A few months later, construction began on Camp X-Ray, the detention camp for captured Al-Queda, including those believed to be a few of the “9/11 masterminds.” It was so near my home that, when the detainees were being held there, I could see them in their orange jumpsuits from my bedroom window. In January 2002, I was assigned as chaplain to the Fleet Hospital where they received their medical treatment. Part of my job was to mitigate the anger of their caregivers who were deployed from the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune and their guards who were activated reservists whose previous assignment had been to comb through the rubble at the Pentagon. I remember the first time I saw a detainee, a man our nation called an enemy. He was lying on a stretcher on his way back from receiving care at the main hospital. He looked young, scared and weak. I guess that since he was our enemy, I had expected him to look evil. He looked like us.

Within a year I was in Kuwait with another medical unit, waiting to invade Iraq. When the war finally started, we followed the Marines on their northward trek toward Baghdad. Our job was to pick up the pieces. Literally. Wounded, dead and dying Marines, Iraqi Republican Guard, civilians, children. Trust me, the only people who glorify war are those who haven’t seen it. And why were we there? Because September 11th, 2001 had changed everything.

I remember visiting a neighboring Cobra helo unit and seeing the names of New York City Firemen or military members killed in the Pentagon written in Sharpie on the missiles they carried. And I remember that so many of our corpsman, and most of our Marine wounded, could be counted among those courageous post 9/11 patriots who joined the military in response to the attacks.

In 2002 the Navy honored those who died on 9/11 by naming three LPDs for the places where the attacks had occurred: USS NEW YORK, USS ARLINGTON and USS SOMERSET. In 2008 I had the privilege to be the first chaplain assigned to USS NEW YORK, which was built, in part, with steel from the World Trade Center. I also served as the ship’s commissioning coordinator. In that capacity I acted as a liaison between the ship and various New York City entities such as the World Trade Tribute Center, the 9/11 Families Association, the fire and police departments, the mayor’s office, even the NY Jets. And everyone had a story to tell.

Here are a few of them:

The owner of a popular pub, located a block from the Twin Towers, took my husband Ken and I up on the roof of his building. Pointing toward Ground Zero, he told us that on the morning of 9/11 he had gone up there to see what was happening at the North Tower, when suddenly a deafening roar overwhelmed him. He looked up just as the second plane flew over his head and into the South Tower.

On several occasions, firemen related to me what had happened to their chaplain, Father Mychal Judge. He had been with them at the Control Center set up in the base of the North Tower when suddenly the sky began to rain people. Father Judge ran over to pray for the jumpers as their bodies hit the ground. It was then that the South Tower collapsed, causing an enormous dust and debris filled shock wave. As those in its path who survived, struggled to get their bearings, two firemen came across Mychal Judge as he was taking his last breath. Not able to leave their beloved chaplain lying there, they gathered up his body and carried him a block away to St. Peter’s Church and placed him on the altar before turning back to their gruesome work. Later, when the coroner was assigning death certificate numbers to the deceased, Father Judge was issued number one. I was told it was because thinking of him leading the way for those they lost gave them great comfort in the midst of tragedy and chaos.

A fireman shared with me what it was like to hear jumpers hitting the pavement and another, what it was like to hear the floors of the Towers impact on each other as the buildings came down. I learned that as horrific as it is to imagine your loved one jumping from that height, their bravery gave their families an unexpected gift, evidence of their death. Those who died in the towers and were compressed between floors left no trace. Of the 2,749 people who died at the WTC, 1,123 just disappeared.

My husband Ken and Mickey onboard USS NEW YORK

One night, while walking near Ground Zero, I met a former fireman named Mickey. On 9/11 Mickey was one of those heroic men who headed up the stairs while everyone else headed down. On the 23rd floor of Stairwell B, he and his partners came upon an older woman named Josephine who had gone as far as she could when panic and her limited physical condition overwhelmed her downward trek. Refusing her requests to leave her, Mickey and another fireman found a chair, placed her on it and, surrounded by several others who had slowed their descent to encourage them, continued on their way. Just as they reached the 4th floor, they heard slamming, screaming and a deafening roar as tons of steel and concrete plummeted around them. Then there was silence. It took Mickey and the other survivors three hours to find a way out of that small section of stairwell, which was all that remained of the North Tower. Had those 14 people chosen to leave Josephine as she had requested and run to safety, they would have been outside on the concourse when the building collapsed. Saving Josephine saved them all. 

Three firemen from the only VFW in the country to require its members to be both New York City firemen and combat vets told me about one of their friends who had been driving a fire truck down West Side Highway when he radioed back that he was lost in what seemed like falling debris. When he told the dispatcher his approximate location, she responded that he could not be there because that stretch of roadway was gone. That was the last anyone ever heard from him. The search for the truck lasted 100 days and when it was finally found, it was 60 feet below street level, and had been turned into dripping hunks of metal by the fires that raged underground until Spring of 2002. After telling me this story, one of the firemen opened the velvet bag he was carrying and took out a battle cross fashioned out of WTC steel at whose base was a piece of that truck. I placed my hand on it reverently.

“What’s this other piece with the rivets?” I asked as I moved my hand on top of it.

“That is a piece of one of the airplanes,”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and a chill ran down my spine.

Together we carried these disparate fragments enshrined at the foot of a battle cross aboard USS NEW YORK, where they remain today.

One evening after the World Trade Center Tribute Center at Ground Zero closed for the day, I sat with my friend Lee, a retired firefighter who is its founder, in one of the museum’s rooms.  The room was papered floor to ceiling and wall to wall with each 9/11 families’ favorite photo of the one they lost.  In the semi-darkness, Lee pointed to one smiling face after another. “I went to that man’s wedding… I pulled what was left of that man out of a pipe in the wreckage… that young lady’s mom gives tours of Ground Zero. It helps her cope. This man’s dad and I spent months in the rubble looking for our sons. He never found his.” On and on the stories poured out of him. On the other side of the wall in the adjacent room, Lee’s son Jonathan’s fireman’s turnout gear hung in a display case. Only 174 intact bodies were recovered at the WTC. Lee’s son was among them.

Lee and his younger son Brendan onboard USS NEW YORK

A steel worker stopped me in the street to tell me how he had helped build the towers in the 1970s and how awful it was to be among those shifting through the rubble looking for bodies. He, like many I met, talked not only of the disappointment of finding so few human remains but also about the skin lesions and breathing difficulties which were ongoing health concerns for those working in the debris.

A 9/11 family member sent me a Christmas card. In it was a map of Ground Zero that had x’s for the 8 locations where they had found her son’s DNA. A wife told me that after the second DNA finding for her husband, she requested they not call her with any more evidence so she could finally find some closure. By the way, the last reported human remains were found in 2013 in the mangled 1.4 million tons of WTC rubble which had been transported to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to be sorted.

During Fleet Week 2009 I attended a Yankee Game. As I was leaving the stadium in my summer whites a woman walked up to me. “You are the NEW YORK’s chaplain, right?” she asked. Before I could respond, she removed the bracelet from her arm and clipped it on mine. “Please wear this when the ship is commissioned,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. I looked down to read the name.

“Who was Paramedic Carlos Lillo?”

“My partner. We had worked together for years. We parked our truck near the Trade Center that morning, and we split up for a moment in the chaos to figure out where we were needed. I turned to the right. He turned to the left. I never saw him again.”

I wore the bracelet to the commissioning, and every Patriot’s Day since.

On my other arm is a bracelet for two brothers, John, who was a fire fighter and Joseph, who was a police detective. Their parents gave it to me as I led them on a tour of USS NEW YORK. Their father, John, was a former Marine, a retired FDNY captain, and one of the most decorated firefighters in the city’s history. He and his wife had come on board that day with the youngest of each of their sons’ children because they felt it was the proper place to tell the children about their fathers who died saving others at the World Trade Center.

A farmer near Somerset, PA told me she had been outside in her garden when a flash of light cut across the sky. It was followed by a loud boom. Soon after, scraps of mail floated into the trees near her house. The local volunteer fire company was called and one truck responded. It drove out to a field to find a smoldering cut in the earth. That was all there was to be seen of Flight 93.

My friend Barbara worked in Protocol and Public Affairs at Arlington Cemetery. She was walking a distinguished visitor through the graveyard up toward the Custis Lee Mansion when the Pentagon was hit.  She remembers being momentarily shocked by that sight, then politely excusing herself from her guest and running as fast as she could down the hill, past the graves, down the roadway and over to the Pentagon Parking lot in heels because her daughter was in the Pentagon’s day care center. When she arrived, she saw that the Marines had already brought all the children outside, with their cribs, which they had circled up like a bunch of wild west wagons. The children had been placed in the center of the circle so they could not escape, and the Marines were standing guard on the outside of the circle to protect them. Her daughter was safe. Not long after, Barbara left Arlington Cemetery and took a job working at the Wounded Warrior Regiment, the unit responsible for caring for wounded, ill and injured Marines.

One last story, a personal one, from the morning of 2 November 2009 when USS NEW YORK, with 7 ½ tons of World Trade Center Steel in her bow, sailed into New York harbor for the first time:

It was cold and windy on the weatherdeck. Already many of our crew had begun to man the rails. Finding a spot near the bridge, I assumed parade rest and waited. None of us will ever forget this day, I thought as I looked around at the gleaming faces of those with whom I stood—Sailors and Marines, most of whom had joined the military post-9/11.

Along the shore I could already see the twinkling lights of police cars positioned about two blocks apart. Just before we passed under the Verrazano Bridge, we were joined by police boats, which looked tiny, compared to our 684-foot-long vessel. Smaller still were the Coast Guard RHIBs—inflatable rubber boats with mounted weapons. Off our starboard side a diminutive barge displayed a huge American Flag hung like a curtain through which the rising sun was beginning to shine. Above us flew a host of police and media helicopters, and around us sailed a collection of bright red tugs. But the most impressive of all were the fireboats shooting streams of red, white and blue water 200 feet into the air. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty and there before us sat lower Manhattan, glowing in the reflected early morning light.

It was almost time. As we approached Ground Zero, instinctively conversations came to a close. Then a whistle sounded. As one, we raised our hands in salute.  Our ship, USS NEW YORK, with its bow stem made from World Trade Center steel, slowed and then stopped in the water.

To my right, seven guns shot once. Twice. A third time. As I gazed across the water, I could see formations of First Responders in full their dress uniforms, arms raised to return the salute. Around them flickered the emergency lights from ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Families and friends held up signs with the photos and names of those who had died. “I pray they can see this,” I whispered. After a long silence, a bagpipe band began to play. Strains of America the Beautiful blended with the sound of the lapping water. Tears flowed down my face.

The World Trade Center, transformed, had sailed home.

I will never forget that day. I will never forget 9/11, and I will surely never forget what I learned from it and the events that followed, about humankind’s capacity for evil, hatred and self-centeredness. But I will also always remember, that even in the midst of such devastation and horror, even as the events were unfolding, immediately, there were those who responded with passion and resolve; who put honor, courage and commitment above self and answered the call to serve; and by so doing taught us profound lessons about humankind’s capacity for incredible acts of love, kindness and self-sacrifice. As we pause today to remember 9/11, it is my hope that these heroic individuals be the ones we remember, that it be their stories we tell, and that it be their lives we emulate.

Copyright © 2022

3 thoughts on “Never Forget

  1. I am sobbing here. Wonderfully written Laura. Thank you for letting
    me by your guest aboard the USS NEW YORK. An experience that was equally humbling, heartbreaking and thrilling. This brought it all back for me. I will
    Never forget 911. I watched it all unfold on the tv in real time. Surreal and horrifying. Unbelievably, yet very real.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this piece, for all you have done to comfort and serve others over the years, and for all you continue to do. I read and enjoy all of your blog posts. I read this one with tears streaming down my face. I remember my sister (Robin Orton) telling me about her and Marc being on that ship with you during one of its arrivals into NYC. Hollyann Snyder Fineberg

    Liked by 1 person

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