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September 11 in Manhattan: Finding My Son Alive

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My usual routine places me on a 7:02 a.m. train from Long Island to Manhattan, which I catch after morning Mass in my parish. But on September 11, 2001, I had slept late, having arrived home shortly before midnight the night before, after speaking at a Connecticut parish. So on a beautiful, sparkling morning, I boarded the 9:05 train.

The train had just left the station when the conductor announced that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I remembered my youngest son, Dan, saying good-bye to me as he left earlier that morning for his office on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center.

I gingerly asked the conductor where the plane had struck. His response left me sunken in my seat: The upper floors of the North Tower had been hit. I was horrified.

I tried calling my wife, Elaine, from my cell phone but could not get through. She is the librarian at a Catholic school.

When we finally made contact, we stammered our way through mutual fear and unmentionable possibilities: “Where was Danny? Was he O.K.? In which tower did he work?”

Actually, by that time both towers had been struck. Commuters watching from the train windows gasped in horror as the towers became engulfed in flames.

Seated on the north side of the train, I could not bring myself to cross the aisle to peer at the emerging tragedy. Never before had my mouth gone totally dry.

As I prayed, I began to experience the meaning of Jesus’ words, “I thirst” (John 19:28). There was so much for which I thirsted at that moment: Would I ever see Danny again? Why had he taken this new job? He had never liked heights as a child. Why, God, why?

Shocking View

The train ride to Penn Station seemed to take forever. Once there and already emotionally depleted, I raced to a downtown subway station.

At 14th Street I exited rapidly, walking briskly south on Seventh Avenue toward the World Trade Center. I was shocked to see only one tower standing. I leaned over, somehow trying to convince myself that if I bent far enough I would be able to glimpse the other tower.

How could such a large and majestic edifice disappear? What about the thousands of people who worked there or those who were just passing through?

Suddenly, I remembered that Dan had said he worked in the tower with the antenna on top—the North Tower, which was still standing. Despite the raging smoke enveloping the top floors, a rush of hope overcame me.

Cell phones were jammed, but from a public telephone I reached my office, located just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I was stunned to hear from my secretary, Naomi, that Dan had called, anxious to know of mywhereabouts: Ordinarily, I would be at my desk by 8:15 a.m.

Later I would learn that Dan had called from the 78th floor. He was just beginning a downward journey into what would become an abyss of devastation, a journey lasting more than an hour.

People on Seventh Avenue appeared to be eerily silent and seemingly directionless. I was one of them. My heart told me to continue southward, to find my son. So in the midst of this developing maze, I journeyed on toward the World Trade Center.

Horrifying Moment

Barricades began to appear on the street, surely erected to ensure a clear path for emergency vehicles. Though I continued on, my movement ceased and my eyes froze in one horrifying moment, Armageddon-like in its impact: the collapse of the North Tower. I looked at my watch: It was 10:28 a.m.

Motionless and in disbelief, I dealt once again with thoughts submerged just moments before: Where was Dan? Had he escaped? He had called my office, so could I assume he was all right?

Conflicting emotions and an imagination now running wild overtook me. Should I continue to move toward the site of the World Trade Center, now destroyed? Or should I try to find triage points and go from person to person, seeking to identify Dan?

I walked on, observing scores of rescue vehicles heading north toward St. Vincent’s Hospital. I wondered if one of them carried my son. More time passed as I silently plodded on.

Dan’s building was gone. I was overcome by my memories of the goodness Dan had brought to our family and to so many others. I recalled him playing soccer in a high school championship game. I relived his graduation with honors from college. I remembered his Eagle Scout project, focused on assisting victims of Hurricane Andrew. I thought of the infant son Elaine once nursed and I once held.

Overcome by what now seemed to be an obvious conclusion, I wondered how Elaine and I could live without the youngest of our three sons.

I lost track of time, aware only of my burdened heart and the multitude of people all around me. Complete strangers supported one another, and some hugged and comforted me as I shared my uncertainty about my son.

Several times I tried to call Elaine, without success. She had left school for home soon after the first attack. Elaine was keeping vigil with Dan’s girlfriend, Karen, and Karen’s mother all morning long.

Tears of Pain and Joy

Finally, after some fellow New Yorkers ushered me to the head of the line at a public telephone, I reached my wife. I forget what I had prepared to say to her, but it did not take long for me to hear the best news of my life: Dan was alive!

I learned that a friend of Dan’s had tried to call him repeatedly from the time of the first attack. He finally reached our son shortly after Dan had made his way through the darkness onto a local street.

Exhausted and dazed, Dan had collapsed at Canal Street. He did not have to wait long for assistance. Hands of kindness aided him, flagging down an ambulance, enabling EMS workers to do what they do with such care.

As he lay in the ambulance, Dan received a call from Karen, who quickly shared the news of his survival with Elaine.

The news was simple yet profound: Alive! Alive! Alive!

I wept as I held the phone. I remember asking Elaine to repeat what she was saying.

After having seen the North Tower fall, I almost could not believe what I was hearing from my wife, words now surrounded by her own experience as a mother: Yes, Dan was alive. He was injured but alive.

After our brief conversation I sat down on the sidewalk, my back propped against an office building. I wept again. Tears of pain and joy washed me that day.

My thirst was relieved by waters formed in pain and eyes scarred by the tragic loss still continuing to occur before me. To quote Genesis, Joseph “was so overcome with affection for his brother that he was on the verge of tears. He went into a private room and wept there” (43:30).

Elaine had told me that Dan was being treated for a shoulder injury at St. Vincent’s Hospital and was about to be discharged. My walk to St. Vincent’s was deliberate but not frenetic. Emotions of all sorts welled up within me. In the midst of such unspeakable tragedy, our son had survived.

Wrenching Reunion

It took about a half hour to reach the hospital, which was a sea of activity. I searched everywhere but could not locate Dan so I left hurriedly.

Across from the hospital near a corner I repeatedly shouted, “Dan! Dan!”

Then, in the midst of a crowd, I heard a familiar voice shout back, “Dad!”

We held each other in an embrace that seemed endless in its joy and simultaneous acknowledgment of shock and pain. Life had been changed forever.

Our reunion was wrenching. Dan’s shirt was now replaced by a hospital gown and a sling supported his shoulder. He was covered in dust. Dan’s powerful frame enveloped me, seemingly shielding me from danger. His words, known only to the two of us, offered me deep comfort.

People observing our reunion seemed our protectors as we shared this deeply personal moment. Stunned by events now ingrained in our memories, I wondered how Dan had escaped the catastrophe that had seized lower Manhattan.

Helping Others

Then our Emmaus walk began. We walked for about three hours, trying to find a train station that would enable us to get home.

During our walk, Dan identified, randomly, some details of his experience. Unaware of the cause of the impact, he and others on the 80th floor decided to leave the North Tower soon after their building was hit.

Upon reaching the 76th floor, Dan injured his shoulder when he tried to ram a door that would not open. The door resisted, so he and about 30 others from his floor had to go back up in search of an alternate exit.

Then, along the way down, he aided others by helping to carry a motorized wheelchair and encouraging people to continue.

Dan credits his Boy Scout training with helping him to stay calm and focused, knowing what to do when confronted by fire and how to continue breathing.

South Tower Collapses

It took Dan about an hour to reach the lower canyons of the World Trade Center. At the base of an escalator in a popular bookstore, he heard loud rumbling noises and wondered what might be exploding behind him.

Dan started to sprint up the escalator, which was now stopped. As he did so, he heard the shouts of a police officer to get down. The officer ran toward the escalator from the opposite direction.

The blast—the collapse of the South Tower—was so great that Dan and the officer landed next to each other, holding on as the powerful force pushed them against the side of the escalator. They breathed through shirts pulled up over their faces, their bodies now protected by the side wall of the escalator as the tower fell. The officer repeatedly asked Dan if he was O.K., urging him to protect his head and to check the condition of his legs.

Dan never saw the police officer again. When the rumbling stopped, the man moved on, surely seeking others in need.

Getting up from the debris-strewn area, Dan called out but heard no response. He gingerly moved forward, barely able to breathe and seeing only darkness.

Instinctively finding his way outside, following a flicker of light, Dan entered into the choking blizzard-like conditions of dust and smoke. People were staggering onto the street. Dan bumped into parked cars as he wandered.

Eventually, he entered a nearby post office. When officials permitted people to leave, Dan started to walk north.

Suddenly, people began to run by him. He turned and looked with horror as the North Tower, where he had worked, began to crumble. He froze in shock and disbelief.

Continuing on, Dan was able to reach Canal Street. Physically spent, he collapsed.

My Son, My Brother

As Dan related his experience, I realized that this was the day my son—my son, the man—became my brother. As a father with great love for all three of my sons, I read now with new meaning the First Letter of John: “This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21).

I think back now to the day in 1985 when Hurricane Gloria traversed Long Island from south to north. Living near ocean canals, my family had been told to evacuate. As Elaine and I hurriedly directed our sons and our perplexed dog into our ’76 Chrysler, Danny stopped short of the passenger door. Seizing my wrist, he anxiously asked, “Daddy, are we going to die?”

A catechist for most of my adult life, I missed a teachable moment in that event. My immediate response had something to do with our getting to Grandma’s house.

Although I assured our then eight-year-old Danny of our safety, it was subsequent reflection that drew me to Mark 14:36: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” I wondered if Jesus were really saying, “Abba, am I going to die?” while clearly accepting the will of the Father.

The life and death and rising that people experienced in the midst and aftershock of the World Trade Center disaster renders language insufficient for assessing the impact of so great a tragedy. People helped one another naturally, acting as witnesses to the value of life and sharing service unceasingly with those in need.

Jesus was and is truly present in this sacred place. Unconditional shared love of one for another and genuine concern for life, so senselessly snuffed out, were asserted with new force, dignity and commitment on September 11, and each day since.

Conversion and transformation lead us into the mysteries of life and death and life again. Living and dying and rising are not just familiar words for describing briefly what we believe. They are the stuff of our existence; they are firmly planted roots of our growth as disciples of the One who died for all.

These realities help us to realize what we do when we turn life’s corners or emerge from situations transformed by our experiences. For me, the tears that surfaced on September 11 now bring me back to the waters of Baptism, that flowing river of new birth.

To call Dan “brother” now means claiming with fresh awareness that we are, together, children of God. “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are” (1 John 3:1).

Dan was a part of and witnessed firsthand the terrible events swirling all around him. Removed by distance, I watched the tragedy before my eyes. Yet in the end we were linked—by mutual love, prayer and spirit—as children of God.

As Dan and I now walk the way of Christ together each day, we do so amid experiences still fresh in our minds and still felt in our hearts.

In a symbolic sense, the light that summoned Dan from darkness stands in stark contrast to all that keeps us blinded from the presence of Christ in our everyday lives. Each of us can enable the light of Christ to grow brighter. As Paul reminds us, “For all of you are children of the light and children of the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:5).

September 11 was the worst day of our lives and the best day of our lives. Deep gratitude and its accompanying family joy are tempered by the loss of thousands of people and the mourning of countless families.

The unspeakable acts of terror in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and New York will forever mark our calendar as a day when so many good and holy children of God perished. So my rejoicing is almost muted, quieted by the pain and loss of others who never had a chance to try to ram a door, take a step down or follow a flickering light.

I am blessed with a surviving son who became for me in a new way that day, in the family of God, my brother. With new depths of poignant understanding, I pray these words: “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.”

Gerard F. Baumbach, Ed.D., is executive vice president and publisher for William H. Sadlier, Inc. A prolific writer and speaker on religious topics, he served as visiting faculty member at St. Michael’s College (Vermont) last summer. His latest book is Letters from a Wounded Heart: Reflections to Strengthen and Comfort Your Soul (Paulist Press).

St. Anthony Messenger