Reporter's notebook: Sept. 11, 2001
This is a story of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001-an eyewitness account. An estimated 700 New Jersey residents died that day at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Many who perished were from the Archdiocese of Newark.
Like others who started out hurried and unsuspecting on that fateful Tuesday morning, this reporter was on his way to work, catching the Main Line train at NJ Transit's Passaic Station. Two women sitting behind me were fumbling with subway maps of New York City as we arrived at Hoboken station around 8:30 a.m.
"Please-where do you get train to World Trade Center?" they asked, smiling and speaking with lilting Italian accents. I guided them through the crowded station and showed them the correct train to take.
Minutes later, emerging from the Christopher Street PATH station, in the West Village, New York, I walked south on Hudson Street, dressed in a blue suit, with plans to attend a business function later that day. After stopping for coffee and a buttered roll, I came upon three men who stood in a parking lot, frozen in their tracks like statues. They were pointing to a thick trail of smoke in the southern sky.
There was a gaping, jagged hole in the World Trade Center's North Tower. Minutes earlier, it had been struck by American Airlines Flight 11. A slow-motion stream of smoke trickled upward along the edge of the skyscraper. A crowd gathered at the corner of Hudson and Charlton streets; necks craned, faces distorted in horror.
In the ensuing hours, following the collapse of the Twin Towers, frantic pedestrians made mad, zigzag dashes against the backdrop of an ever-darkening curtain of dust and smoke, which could be seen gathering in the distance. By 5 p.m. the turbulence along the avenues had stopped, replaced by an eerie hush on the mostly empty streets, except for cascading sirens that echoed in the distance.
Police barricades were placed at nearly every intersection. You were only allowed to keep walking north. Every few blocks, people were jammed into restaurants and bars; windows framed animated conversations.
My wife and I connected with friends at their apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood. At dusk we made our way to the ferry port on West 38th St. As the boat crossed the Hudson River towards the Hoboken terminal, passengers on the upper deck gazed at the hellish scene of lower Manhattan illuminated by flood lights, still smoldering.
"What street do you work on?" police and firemen asked, steering lines of shuffling, dazed people to various wash-down areas inside the station. Trains departed from Hoboken that night as though it was a normal commute. Most passengers sat quietly, still reeling. A few spoke, cursing profusely, nervously rambling through their harrowing experiences.
Returning to the Passaic station, where the journey had begun 13 hours earlier, there were compassionate NJ Transit representatives and emergency medical volunteers on hand-holding flashlights and lanterns, greeting passengers, offering beverages, cookies and kind words of concern.
In the weeks that followed, the acrid smell of burning electrical wires hung in the air. Newspapers ran feature articles, obituaries and remembrance tributes about people who were murdered in the terrorist attack. The stories sometimes carried a mournful jolt-there on the page was a photo of someone I saw during my daily commute; a distinctive face I could envision sitting in a certain spot in the train car each week, chatting and laughing with friends. Now I knew the names of the strangers who rode on the train. Now their seats were empty.
The Catholic Advocate columnist Rev. Msgr. Richard J. Arnhols had just finished celebrating Mass that Tuesday morning at Saint John the Evangelist Parish, Bergenfield, where he serves as pastor, when one of the church maintenance workers told him that a plane had just struck one of the Twin Towers.
The terror that unfolded that day was especially disconcerting for Msgr. Arnhols. Two days earlier, he had visited lower Manhattan with friends (see related story on page 40). He said the stark contrast between the two days created a heightened moment of perception, when the harsh, transitory reality of life was brutally unmasked. While walking along the South Street Seaport on Sunday, Sept. 9, jet planes flying overhead were a normal occurrence, a sight common to the everyday tempo of life; jet planes in the sky on Sept. 11 suddenly were transformed into weapons of mass destruction.
Four Bergenfield residents perished on Sept. 11, Msgr. Arnhols said; one was a male member of his parish community who had a wife and two young children.
Taking stock of the sobering experience after seven years, "when the world seemed like it was falling apart," Msgr. Arnhols recalled a passage in the Gospel of Luke (13:4-5), when Jesus addressed a crowd and issued a call for penance. Jesus made reference to an accident involving the tower of Siloam, an ancient site near Jerusalem where there had been substantial loss of life.
"...Or take those 18 who were killed by a falling tower in Siloam. Do you think they were more guilty (of sin) than anyone else who lived in Jerusalem? Certainly not! But I tell you-you will all come to the same end unless you reform."
"Faith and trust-there is no simple answer," Msgr. Arnhols said, seated in his office at the Archdiocesan Center.
Most Rev. Dominic A. Marconi, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Newark, was at Holy Trinity Parish, Westfield, that morning, preparing for a deanery meeting. Msgr. Joseph P. Masiello, pastor of Holy Trinity, called Bishop Marconi to watch the TV news reports and together they saw the second plane hit the South Tower.
To help others cope with the existential weight of 9/11, or when offering a homily during a Mass of Christian Burial, Bishop Marconi often cites a reflection from Pope John Paul II. "For those who believe in God, death and evil do not have the final say," Bishop Marconi said.
"In our Catholic tradition, despite the hardships and the pain we endure, we know there is hope," Bishop Marconi continued, offering his thoughts on the pope's reflection. "We know that God walks with us, but it is normal to feel abandoned at the time of great loss or when there is a tragedy like 9/11. We reflect upon these things at the foot of the Cross, in light of the Resurrection."