Being at Ground Zero on Sept. 12, 2001 was the last place on earth I expected to be. When a confrere and New York native, Franciscan priest Fr. David Engo, insisted we leave Franciscan University in Steubenville, where we were on sabbatical together, and drive to Manhattan, I instinctively knew it was the right thing to do.
The memories of those five days spent at the worst tragedy on American soil will be with me forever. Shortly after arrival, we got through a tight security check into the disaster area and got ourselves a hard hat, mask, safety boots and FBI badges indicating our legitimacy.
We got our first look at what used to be the twin towers and trade centres. It was hard to believe we were not looking at a Hollywood set for the latest apocalyptic film. It was far worse than anything we could have imagined. Piles and piles of twisted steel and concrete with smoke and fire everywhere. The steel itself made an eerie, twisting sound as it continued to melt. Furthermore, the stench of rotting corpses, an unforgettable smell, became more pungent as each new day of rescue efforts began. The overwhelming question came to our minds: “How could something so evil happen right here in the land of the free and the brave?”
The climate was one of confusion and fear. Was anyone safe? Would there be another rapid strike in a co-ordinated effort? Was this the start of World War III? We quickly went to work and counselled distraught police officers, firefighters and others, blessed mortal remains in makeshift morgues (I did not see a complete body in the first two days) and looked for survivors on “the pile” of rubbish. This was a particularly dangerous job. As we worked within the rescue effort with volunteers and police dogs, we were told of one firefighter who had to have his leg amputated after he fell in a deep hole within the debris and had to be rescued himself.
Despite the evil actions of those responsible for this holocaust, we were deeply impressed by the kindness and generosity of New Yorkers (often mocked for their peculiarities), who responded with the greatest enthusiasm to this tragedy. One particular group, just outside the restricted zone, had the sole mission of cheering their heroes, the rescuers, each time they passed by. Help that came from all corners of the U.S. and Canada was equally impressive. Firefighters worked around the clock to assist fallen comrades, even to the point of denying themselves proper sleep and nourishment. The amount of food collected there was almost enough to feed a starving country.
One year later, I realize the world will never be the same and is indeed in a fragile state. Pope John Paul lI is correct to say that we need to build a “culture of life.” Almost 3,000 lives were wiped out in an instant and we kill more than that daily, both born and pre-born. After Sept. 11, we see first-hand how far things can develop when hatred, greed and injustice prevail in society. We must learn the lessons of history and build a culture of life, beginning within our own families. If we commit ourselves to loving our neighbours as ourselves and treating each person with the dignity deserved within a common humanity, then we’ve made a good start.