I was in Los Angeles, preparing to fly back that day. That day I was scheduled to take a morning flight from Los Angeles to return to the University. I had hosted an alumni gathering the night before.
I was still asleep [when the attacks occurred] and coach [Lou] Carnesecca, who was with me on the trip, called me and told me that his wife had just called him.
I think, as many people, my presumption was, at first, that it was a mistake, it was an accident. It took a good while to process what it really meant to us. And then on top of that the experience of not being able to be in touch with anyone.
As they began televising shots as best they could, one of the things you saw first was the St. John’s University sign on the side of the building. It was just very striking.
We had only three months before taken on the College of Insurance which is the Manhattan campus [located] a block from Ground Zero. We had no way of finding out “were the students safe, were the faculty safe, was the building safe.” We knew nothing.
[However], we were very fortunate. A board member in Los Angeles arranged to get a private plane to fly us cross-country because there were still no commercial flights. So on Friday, the four of us traveling together, we flew across the country in a small private jet.
When we got on the plane the pilot said, “I don’t know how close we’re going to get to New York. We’re cleared to go into Westchester but nothing’s gone in so far so we just don’t know. Where would you want to go?”
I said, “As close as we can, [then] we can try to rent some cars.” We did get in. We were one of the first planes coming into Westchester. As we circled to come in you could just see the smoke pouring out of lower Manhattan. It was very sobering. It made it real.
Then I spent days going to funerals for all the alumni. Many of our alums obviously worked on Wall Street or at insurance companies, but many also are policemen and firemen. We lost at both levels, in a sense. The people on the ground and the people in the offices. I remember I came back Friday night and Saturday I was at a funeral.
About two weeks, maybe ten days, afterward I was asked to go down to Ground Zero for the blessing of the cross, the steel that had been twisted in such a way that it was a cross. They asked me to come down just to be present at the blessing ceremony.
I had no desire to go to Ground Zero, not out of curiosity, but there was a reason to go. I went down and my chief of staff was with me. We got as far as we could by van and then we walked in to the campus. Of course the campus by then had become the respite center. It was just so different from what we knew. Then we walked down the block to Ground Zero and we had to have the hard hats and the masks.
It was a profoundly moving experience being there so soon afterwards. There was still smoke and they were still taking bodies out. Everything else that seemed important kind of faded away and this was really looking at life and at god head on. It was just a profound experience. It was very difficult just to speak to people because you’re in the presence of something very sacred.
How can we continue to believe that violence is going to help bring peace? Violence just forces more violence. That’s my hope, that more people will come to see that violence begets violence. Beginning in our own hearts as individuals, and then as a university and then as a country and a world, [we must] forgive one another.
One of the things I am most proud of at St. John’s is that I don’t see division here. We have wonderful diversity and very little division. Sometimes I just wish the world could be like St. John’s, and I don’t mean to be pollyannic. But we have to begin with valuing the human person as an individual.
If you’re starting point is what life’s really about, what God calls us to do, which is to value every person and respect every person, then things like 9/11 aren’t possible because you can’t do that to people.
That’s what that whole experience brought me to. That the starting point [to peace] is deep respect for every person, including the hijackers, including those who planned this. Something in their hearts drove them to this; that doesn’t mean you approve of it, but we respect them as people. That’s the only answer.
Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., is the president of St. John’s University. He continues to live and work in New York City.