July 25, 2006
Rev. Msg. Edward Burns
Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation
3211 Fourth Street NE
Washington DC 20017-1194
Dear Msgr. Burns,
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, I wear two hats. The first is the hat of a Pastor, and the other is the hat of Fire Department Chaplain. On Sept. 11, 2001, I responded to the World Trade Center and arrived just after the second plane hit the South Tower. For the account of that day, I would ask you to go online and do a search of my name. You will find among other articles the Official FDNY Interview about my experiences on 9/11. It is too lengthy to put in this letter.
The days following the attacks were very busy days and I was fortunate that Bishop Daily assigned an extra priest to my parish so that I could devote my entire energies to firefighters and families of the deceased. During the months following 9/11, I was engaged in the following:
- Escorting families of the deceased firefighters to the Trade Center Sight. This always began at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and we traveled by boat to the marina behind the financial center, which is the building across the street from the World Trade Center site. There I and some firefighters would point out where each building stood, and we tried to answer as many questions as we could. When the questions were exhausted, I would ask the family members to be quiet and to speak to their loved ones in their hearts and then take a few minutes to listen for their loved ones to speak back. From here we would escort them to a makeshift memorial, where we prayed, and they left their flowers or teddy bears or pictures. We would then return to the Navy Yard.
- Attending the initial support group meetings. The FDNY Counseling Unit established many different support groups, for parents, wives, children, siblings and fiancées to name a few. I went to the beginnings of each group and returned for one or more sessions until it was obvious that the leaders of the group had things well in hand.
- Celebration of funeral and memorial services. I was either the main celebrant or concelebrant at countless Masses or services. There were some days when families had scheduled up to sixteen services. The most I was able to attend on one day was three. There were some days when I would look at the list and say to my driver (the department provided me with a car and driver) that I couldn't go to another memorial service, and we would go to the site and encourage those who were searching for more remains.
- When we finished the services each day we would spend our time at the site or visiting firehouses or families, particularly those who asked me to preach at an upcoming Mass.
- There were times that I was asked to do very different things, such as helping to organize the various priests and ministers of the city into a trained corps of ministers for use in future major incidents. I was asked to speak to different groups throughout the country. A few that come to mind were a hospital group in Tyler, Texas, a group of ministers and pastoral care givers in Watertown, NY and a Fourth of July Celebration in Minnesota. The most interesting trip was being part of the first commercial humanitarian airlift into Afghanistan. This trip was billed as "The Spirit of America: From Ground Zero to Ground Zero."
As we come to the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, I hope and pray that we never experience anything like it again.
Rev. Msgr. John Delendick
Pastor – Shrine Church of St. Jude
Administrative Chaplain - FDNY
Father Robert J. Romano, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, was ordained in 1977. He is the Pastor of the Shrine Church of St. Bernadette in Brooklyn. He is also the Deputy Chief Chaplain of the New York City Police Department.
Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, started, out as a beautiful crisp and clear day. I was getting ready to celebrate a Funeral Mass when I heard something on the radio about a plane and the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV to see what was happening. I was shocked at what I saw. I changed from my clerical clothes into my NYPD work uniform. I knew I had to get to the site right after the funeral. As I celebrated the Mass, I noticed a lot of commotion in the rear of the church. The funeral director was in and out of the building. As I completed the funeral and reached the doors of the church, I was told about the second plane in the WTC and the planes in Washington and Pennsylvania. They also told me about the collapse of the buildings. I made my condolences to the family and they told me to “go and help those poor people.”
I returned to the rectory and called the local precinct for a police car to get me to the site. Within a few short minutes I heard the siren approaching and was sped to Manhattan. As we drove on the highway leading to Manhattan we could see the smoke cloud that had enveloped the city. It was eerie. I reported to a fire house in Greenwich Village which was the temporary seat of the city government. I met with Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Kerick and asked what they would like me to do. “Check the hospitals,” they both said. The Commissioner gave me one of his cars and one of his drivers that day. We went to Bellevue Hospital which was empty. No patients had been brought there. We sped to St. Vincent’s Hospital. There was only one cop there who got stitches in his hand. The cop told us that it was horrible downtown. I looked at the driver; not a word was said; we knew where we had to be.
As we got closer, the dust in the air blocked out the sun. The sound was muffled because of all the material that was in the air. The sight and the lack of sound reminded me of the words of the Passion: “darkness covered the whole world.” We got two surgical masks to help us breathe. They were useless. We then were confronted by what continually sneaks into my dreams—the carnage, the destruction and the death. I caught sight of my classmate, Msgr. John Delendick the Fire Department Chaplain. He had a far-away look on his face. He told me that hundreds of fire fighters were unaccounted for and feared dead. He also told me that Father Mychal Judge, a fire chaplain, had been killed. Reality hit like a ton of bricks. I told him I had to go and check on the cops. I started to find out that many of the cops I knew were among the dead. I found out as the hours passed that a college seminary classmate, several of my former altar boys and my godson also perished that day.
September 11th was going to be the most significant event in my priestly life. I went to Police Headquarters, where a temporary Family Center was started. It was here that families would find out if their loved ones were okay, injured, missing or dead. It was hard to be supportive, especially to the families I knew, but I had to be positive and optimistic. We prayed and we began something that had never happened before in Headquarters - daily Mass. Each morning all the chaplains celebrated Mass for the families who basically lived in the auditorium of Headquarters. After Mass I would make the rounds and distribute Holy Communion to the cops in the Emergency Operation Center and Operations unit. They worked twelve hour shifts and could not leave their posts. It was a sight to behold.
Besides the Masses at Headquarters, I realized that the cops out at “Ground Zero” had to be ministered to also. From the first Sunday after the attack to the day the last piece of steel was removed from “the pit,” I celebrated Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day for the families and members of the Emergency Service Unit at “Ground Zero.” Each Sunday the Commissioner and Chief of the Department would attend. The numbers grew. Faith was on the rise. Mass was brief, it had to be to accommodate the rescue shift that was finishing and the one that was about to start. I would tell them, “Give me 22 minutes and I’ll give you faith.” We started with a handful of cops and by the last day I had to say Mass outside on the corner of Murray St. and Greenwich St. I never thought I’d celebrate Mass in the middle of the streets of lower Manhattan. I give thanks to God for using me and allowing me to fulfill three promises I made on 9/11: to celebrate Mass and the Sacraments at the site till the recovery and clean up were finished and to bless and walk out of the “pit” the bodies of every one of our police officers that were found. These two promises I have kept. I pray that I will be able to keep the third, to remember the deceased and their families as long as I have breath in me
It has been five years since that dark day. People have gone on with their lives. Children have grown, spouses have remarried and faith has thrived, but we never forget. We should never forget that day and the lives that were taken from us. The anniversary of 9/11 is always remembered with a Mass that I celebrate with the families and the cops who worked during those days. The memories will always be there. They are recorded for history. I give thanks to God for the fact that I not only lived history, but was a part of it.
Rev. Msgr. Joseph J. Slepicka
9/11/01. On that memorable morning I traveled to Mason City to attend our Holy Family Alumni monthly breakfast. Mason City, with a population of some 29,000, is located in North Central Iowa. Tom Burnett, Sr. and I had started kindergarten at Holy Family and after graduation from High School there we went on to attend Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Before I left Mason City to return to Clear Lake, ten miles to the west, I stopped at our Central School, Newman Catholic. There the news greeted me that New York's Twin Towers were in shambles, the Pentagon had been hit, that our nation was under attack. All flights were grounded. A somewhat eerie feeling came over me, one like when a youth I heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On arriving home my answering machine's red light was flashing. I had had a call from the Burnett Family in Bloomington, Minnesota—“Call as soon as you get home," it announced. Returning the call, Mary Margaret, Tom Jr.'s younger sister, greeted me—“Msgr., Tommy's in trouble. He's on a hijacked airplane, United Flight 93, and we don't know what has happened to it yet, so please pray." Deena (Tom Jr.'s wife) had had several calls from him from the plane and she was calling from their home in California to let Tommy's family know.
I punched on the TV and witnessed the crashes all over again, I don't know how many times, and it wasn't until mid-afternoon that the news finally came that United Flight 93 crashed in the coal mining hills about ninety miles southeast of Pittsburgh near Shanksville. I called Tommy's parents, Tom Sr. and Beverly, again to express my sincerest condolences to all the family over such a tremendous loss and made arrangements to drive to Bloomington. Prayer services were being planned, one at St. Edward's Parish in Bloomington late that afternoon and one in Clear Lake at St. Patrick's in the evening for the victims of 9/11, for our nation, for the fire, police and ambulance personnel and volunteers, many of whom lost their lives in the rescue attempts.
My friendship with the Burnett Family was through the years. We've celebrated much together – baptisms and marriages, family gatherings, and reunions, fishing, hunting and golfing. They took me in as one of their family. When Tommy was about ten he started going with his dad and me on many of our fishing and hunting expeditions.
Prior to one later trip, he wrote to his parents and added a P.S. "Dad—have done some reading concerning the Summa Theologica—great work of Thomas Aquinas, Thomistic thought, Catholicism, and life. Look forward to friendly, casual, and uncensored discussion with you and Father Joe. A tremendous opportunity for the proliferation of knowledge that the rest of us want and need." It was a privilege for me to witness Tommy and Deena's marriage back in 1992.
There have been many inspirational moments and difficult moments since 9/11. The media was intense and I marveled at how Deena, Tom Jr.’s parents, and his sisters Martha and Mary Margaret handled it all. What strong and courageous persons they are! I delivered the homily at Tommy's Memorial Mass held at St. Edward's. Over 1,400 people crowded the Church that evening of September 18 to support, comfort and be with the family.
The intention of the Morning Offering that our Holy Father Pope John Paul II gave us for the month of September 01 was prophetic when he asked us to pray for our youth—“that the adolescents and young people of the third millennium may discover a profound ideal to give meaning and value to their lives."
I believe Tommy was prophetic, too, in the course his life would take when earlier in 2001 he, who was the Vice-President and C.O.O. of Thoratec Corporation, was given the task to give a pep talk to the combined executives of his own company and two other companies that had merged with them. Thoratec is a company that specializes in developing devices for the correction of cardiovascular diseases. The paper he wrote was extraordinary. I quote one paragraph of his presentation:
"What we accomplish in life, our pursuits, our passions, echo in posterity through our children, our neighbors, and ultimately in our souls. Treating people that would otherwise die has a resounding effect on those around us. The struggle to preserve life enriches all of us, and our humanity is fortified by the process. To deem life important, and to act, affects all of those that bear witness to it."On April 20, 2002, I visited the crash site with the Burnett Family north of Shanksville. This was probably the most difficult moment I experienced. On April 19, the Burnett Family was in New Jersey to listen to the tapes of the Black Box on Flight 93 released by the FBI by the urging of Deena. They heard the voice of Tommy shouting orders. I was in Maryland visiting my brother, who joined me in the drive to Pennsylvania. Emotion began to rise the closer we got. We met Tommy's family and together we cried, we prayed, we were silent in our thoughts. I offered Mass for Tommy and the other passengers on Flight 93 from the hill overlooking the crash site, and we were grateful to the people of Shanksville and the surrounding community for all they did and for their constant vigil and protection of the site. Wally Miller, the coroner of Somerset County, spent two and a half hours explaining the details of the crash. "No bodies were recovered here, at least not as we normally think of bodies. In the cataclysmic violence of the crash the people of Flight 93 disintegrated. Searchers found fragments of bones, small pieces of flesh, a hand. It comes down to pounds." Miller supervised an intensive effort to gather their remains. In the end, just 600 pounds of remains were collected, and of these, 250 pounds could be identified by DNA testing and returned to the families of the passengers and crew. The rest of the remains will stay in the ground forever; they are buried there. Miller explained, "This is a cemetery, this is hallowed ground."
The Burnetts returned to Bloomington with a casket containing Tommy's remains and, on May 24, all of us gathered again to celebrate the Rite of Christian burial for Tommy at St. Edward's. Again I delivered the homily and Father Mike Tegeder, the pastor of St. Edward's, and his staff continued their strong support for the Burnett Family that began on 9/11. A tree was planted and blessed and a stone erected with the inscription, "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friend" (John 15:13). The children from the school across the street lined the street waving flags as the funeral procession proceeded to the cemetery at Fort Snelling. This day brought to a close an exceptional journey that had begun 255 days before.
I suppose the most inspirational moment was the anniversary date of 9/11, 9/11/02. I gathered again with the Burnett Family to celebrate Tommy's anniversary Mass at the Poor Clare Monastery in Bloomington. The Poor Clare's became friends with the Burnett Family and always responded to the requests for prayer for them. Tommy relied on them.
We then traveled to Fort Snelling to visit the grave site and view the white marble military head stone that had been erected. It told the story in simple fashion: Thomas E. Burnett, Jr., Cadet, Air Force, May 29, 1963, September 11, 2001, Citizen Solder, Flight 93.
Next we went to the Mall of America. A silver sculpture was erected there in Tommy's honor, designed by his sister Mary Margaret, a door frame with a partially opened door. Tommy's mother said this at the unveiling:
"When I look at the sculpture, I see the cockpit door of Flight 93 and I am awed by the courage of my son and his cohorts. He knew they needed to break through that door and they did. They did something incredibly important. They saved 100's perhaps 1000's of lives in Washington, D.C. We need to look through that open door to the future and draw inspiration from the actions of those on that plane and create a world that is safer and a world that is better for all of us. I ask you to remember this day always and step up to the door that is part of your future, to open it, and do something, something good, something kind, something bold, something right."On the door of the sculpture are engraved the words, "To deem life important and to act, affects all of those that bear witness to it."
There are two high schools in Bloomington: Jefferson, which Tommy attended, and Kennedy. They both share the same football field. In the Fall of 2001, they retired Tommy's Jersey #10 at their annual football game. Tommy was Jefferson's quarterback. Also, each school has a plaque with a picture of Tommy and a Scholarship Program to honor him.
At the Mall that day, the Bloomington Band and the Kennedy Choir were present as part of the program, and as I looked into the faces of those young people I thought—what might you accomplish in the future in the next 18 to 20 years with your lives?
Tommy's last words to his wife on his fourth and last phone call after learning of the crashes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in his previous calls were, "We're going to do something."
Repeating Beverly's words, "The future challenges all of us, young and old, to step up to the doors of our futures, to open them and do something, something good, something kind, something bold, something right."
St. Paul had it right in his letter to the Philippians, "We must conduct ourselves worthy of the Gospel."
What future evil lurks in the hearts of men? Well, our God is so powerful that He can bring good out of evil. Salvation history teaches us this and also that God seems to call the right people at the right time and place to do the right thing for the good of others. Tommy did that. He answered the call.