by Gail Quinn
September 14, 2001
News coverage of the devastation in New York included mention of St. Vincent's Medical Center. It was to St. Vincent's that at least 500 victims were taken. This was also where Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop of New York, went to help care for victims, pray with them, anoint them, and be a pastor to all in need.
What I focused on, though, was the background. There in every picture of St. Vincent's was Aunt Jennie's apartment on West 11th street. It was from Aunt Jennie's second-story fire escape that my sisters and I as children stood as look-outs over the hospital's emergency entrance. Yesterday I would have told you I knew this area well. Yet, as I watched and listened, I realized this was no longer true. This part of New York I once knew and loved had become a virtual war zone.
As the devastation unfolded, people across the nation sat glued to the TV, simultaneously horrified and confused. A young girl was interviewed, the rubble of the New York's Twin Towers in the background. The interviewer asked how she felt about buildings, planes and fires. But the girl said she couldn't think about these things. "All I can think of," she explained, "is people." People badly burned. People who are dead. People jumping out of windows. People on airplanes that became fireballs.
That buildings in the U.S. could be blown apart by terrorists is almost beyond belief. These losses are very real. They are also symbolic. But what makes the attacks on the United States on September 11 so utterly devastating is what they did to human lives.
What could it have been like for those on hijacked planes, some hurt, herded into backs of plans before being plummeted to fiery deaths? How horrible for those who loved them to think of what happened to their wife, or husband, or parent or child.
Most of us were touched less directly and less harshly. Yet none will ever be the same. My niece Jeannie walked out of New York and across the George Washington Bridge to the relative safety of New Jersey.
My niece Megan and her classmates, college freshmen, watched in horror from a dormitory window as United 175 dove into the second of the Twin Towers and exploded. To say they were traumatized would be to say too little. I don't know the words to explain.
I thought of my brothers Charlie and Jim, police officers in other parts of New York, and the family's volunteer firemen, knowing they could be called to lower Manhattan to help. The thought frightened me. Hundreds of police and fire rescue workers had already died in collapsing buildings.
In the nation's capital, as government and other buildings were evacuated, the city filled with pedestrians whose only way out was on foot. Thousands, confused and feeling very vulnerable, walked home or to outlying areas where they could be picked up and taken to safety.
Fifty or so Catholic bishops were in Washington for a meeting. They went to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where they joined Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in a special Mass. There, in a church filled to overflowing, they prayed for those who had been killed or harmed and for our country.
By early evening, major roads in Washington were open. But the city was a virtual ghost town. Driving past Reagan National Airport was eerie, with no cars in sight and the acrid stench from the still-burning Pentagon fire permeating the air. Businesses were long since closed; stores and restaurants quiet. People were where they needed to be, where they felt secure--at home with family and friends. Most also wanted to be close to the TV. For all our snide remarks about TV, its content and its tendency to keep us isolated, there was a strange sense of "togetherness" in knowing we were all in this together, and all watching it unfold together, even if from our own homes.
Before they left Washington, the bishops asked Americans to pray for the repose of the souls of those who had died, for those injured, for rescuers, and for the consolation of families. They called on Americans "to turn away from the bitter fruits of the kind of hatred which is the source of this tragedy. Especially," said the bishops, "let us not engage in ethnic, religious or national stereotyping for what may be the acts of a few irrational terrorists." And they recalled for us the words of the psalmist:
In you, O Lord, I take refuge..._______________________
Incline your ear to me, and save me.
Be my rock of refuge, a stronghold to give me safety.
Gail Quinn is Executive Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.