I can still remember where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the news about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I have the same kind of memories about the death of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero who was assassinated on March 24, 1980. The third event that results in the same kind of vivid recollection occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked.
I was about to go to my office on the first floor of Saint John the Baptist Parish when Sister Patricia Evanick, D.C. told me that a plane had crashed into the towers. My immediate reaction was: how could a plane crash into the towers? There was no fog; in fact it was a very clear morning with almost no clouds in the sky. I turned on the television in the living room and saw thick black smoke billowing from the towers and realized that this had not been some small plane that lost its way and crashed into the building. Still trying to make sense out of what I was seeing, another plane came into view and crashed into the other tower. As I watched in disbelief I experienced an inability to speak. I went downstairs to my office and met the parish staff gathered around a television set in the front office. I have no idea how much time passed but soon news was broadcast that Washington, D.C. had also been attacked and all planes were now being forced to land at the nearest airport. One of the first concerns was for the students at the parish school. Fr. Joe Agostino, C.M. and myself went over to the school and two classrooms on the fifth floor had a clear view of the towers. It was decided to move these students to another room.
Discussion then began about closing the school and releasing students to their parents or guardians. While this was being discussed a call was received from the Diocesan Education Office informing the principals to close all the school. The last student from Saint John’s School was picked up at 6:00 p.m. and all the parents of the children were safe and accounted for.
During the morning hours the parish staff spent many hours counseling and comforting parishioners, staff and complete strangers who were worried and concerned about loved ones who worked in or near the towers. After having spent some time with a woman who walked into the center, I returned to the office to look at the TV and could only see one tower. I remember asking what happened to the other tower. I was told it had collapsed while I was out on the street. While I knew this was going to be a great tragedy I never imagined that the towers would collapse. I stood speechless and within minutes the second tower collapsed as I watched TV.
By 2:00 p.m. the streets of Bed-Stuy became eerily silent. Because all emergency services had been mobilized in lower Manhattan, local businesses decided to close their doors earlier than usual. As the hours passed people would pass by the parish center or call to let us know that they were safe. At 7:00 p.m. we had still not received word from two active parishioners. Around 9:00 p.m. the parish sacristan, Miriam (one of the two people still missing) appeared walking down Lewis Avenue. She was covered with soot and obviously very weary and tired from the hours of walking the streets of Manhattan and then home to Brooklyn. When she reached the center she asked to call her children and tears covered her face (this was one of those situations where there was no need for words).
Now there was just one more person to hear from and sadly the news would not be good. A young mother, the daughter of Do√±a Ada Muniz who worked with the Port Authority Police was on the 81st floor of the first tower to be hit. She died either as a result of the fire or the collapse of the tower. About one month later funeral services were celebrated to a standing-room only congregation in the parish church. Our sister parish on Long Island, however, experienced the loss of over 100 parishioners on that tragic day.
Now, five years later, I am amazed at how difficult it is to write about all that occurred on that day and all of the different feeling that rushed through my body during those first twenty-four hours. In fact it seems as though all of this happened only yesterday and I realize that there are still some very raw feelings that seem to be hanging on. One of the lasting impressions of those hours is the fact that so many complete strangers spoke to one another and comforted one another, cried with one another and embraced one another. There are truly many thousands of unsung heroes whose names will never be recorded in history but who made a difference in the life of another sister and/or brother on that unforgettable day of Sept. 11, 2001.
Fr. Charlie Plock is a member of the University Ministry on the Queens campus. He continues to live and work in New York City.