Two Women Share Odyssey of Healing
It was a dazzling day of blue skies and sunshine. The Aon conference began at 8:30 a.m., but there were various technical problems with computers and audio-visual equipment. Lights began to flicker and there were sounds of a commotion outside the conference room.
Rumors of a bomb scare were percolating throughout the South Tower and employees were told to evacuate the building. In fact, American Airlines Flight 11 had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m.
Twelve miles away, Pfluger-Murray's mom, Carol Lee Murray, was having breakfast at home in Montclair. Murray and her daughter, at the time, were parishioners at Immaculate Conception Parish in Montclair.
As the clock ticked and the horrific sequence of events began to unfold, the experiences of daughter and mother reflected the extremes of despair and faith, fear and courage, remorse and thankfulness, spiritual pain and healing from that fateful Tuesday morning.
"It was a darkness worse than death," Carol Lee Murray said, recalling her emotions six years ago when she was certain her daughter had perished. "Throughout my life I had never been without hope. That day I walked the edge of despair, but my God didn't allow me to enter it."
Although Pfluger-Murray and most others in the South Tower still were not fully aware of the gathering danger, she and Jen left the conference room and took the stairs to the 103rd floor to make sure Aon team members were evacuating. She bumped into her boss and mentor Chris, who mentioned he heard that a "small plane" had just hit the North Tower.
Pfluger-Murray gathered her belongings and convinced Jen to ride the elevator with her. Chris did not join them, saying that he wanted to take one last look around the office before leaving.
The elevator doors opened to a scene of confusion on the South Tower's 78th floor sky lobby. Now genuinely alarmed, Pfluger-Murray and Jen got into another elevator and rode the 30-second descent to the main lobby. They exited to even more disorienting pandemonium and walked towards the concourse between the towers.
There was a loud roar. The building began to shudder and debris was falling. People were screaming and panic filled the lobby. Many exits were blocked, but the two women were able to leave the building through a set of doors near 5 World Trade Center.
United Airlines Flight 175 had just rammed the South Tower. The time was 9:03 a.m. One hundred and seventy five Aon employees—including Pfluger-Murray's dear friend Chris—died that day along with hundreds of others.
"It was surreal," Pfluger-Murray said, describing her experience at the center of the 9/11 maelstrom while admitting to harboring feelings of survivor's guilt. "I went to a lot of the funerals and memorials," she said. "There were questions like: "Why did you live and not my husband or wife? My answer is: I don't know. I don't have an answer. Why did I do what I did that morning? What made me leave the building?"
Covered in dust and hobbled by blistered feet, she ran from Ground Zero, made her way to the East River of Manhattan and then walked north. Eventually, she crossed the Hudson River and reached the Hoboken train station.
Meanwhile, stunned neighbors came to Murray's home as they watched the repeated, gruesome video images of the jet striking the South Tower. When the building collapsed at 10:05 a.m., Murray was convinced that her daughter was killed. About 20 minutes later the North Tower imploded.
"The pain I felt when I saw that building come down…" Murray said, her voice trailing off as she briefly relived the moment of terror while being interviewed in her daughter's Nutley townhouse. "No mother should ever have to go through something like that."
Frantic moments passed, but there was no word from her daughter. At the height of Murray's emotional distress, Pfluger-Murray's best friend Debbie called out: "It's Donna! It's Donna! She's on the phone. She's alright."
Most cell phones were jammed that day, but Pfluger-Murray—while walking north through Manhattan— somehow was able to get through to her mother. Murray, hearing her daughter's voice, collapsed with the phone in her hand.
Hours later, when Pfluger-Murray returned safely to Montclair, a tearful reunion between mother and daughter took place on Murray's front lawn. Later that evening, they attended an impromptu prayer vigil at Immaculate Conception.
"It wasn't until I pulled into my mother's driveway and ran out of my car and into my mother's arms that everything hit me," Pfluger-Murray said. "Up to that point, I was in a survival mode."
Six years later, Murray has noticed signs of spiritual and emotional healing for her daughter. Murray also has taken stock of her own healing as well. She recently completed a graduate degree at Caldwell College and today works as a pastoral minister, serving as the director of Family Faith Formation at St. Philip the Apostle Parish, Clifton.
"As tragic as that day was, I can say 'thank you' to God for His blessings," Murray said. "God will heal you where you are."
Pfluger-Murray, still employed at Aon, was promoted earlier this year.
"It's (9/11) on my mind; maybe not everyday," Pfluger-Murray confessed. "There is no rational explanation for why I was spared when so many of my colleagues were not. I believe it was divine intervention and that God has some greater plan for me."
For families and friends who lost loved ones on 9/11, the spiritual journey during the last 72 months has been difficult. Faith sustains Catholics and those able to share their odyssey contribute to the healing process for people of all faiths.
Msgr. Timothy J. Shugrue, the pastor of Immaculate Conception, noted that three male parishioners—employees at the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald—perished on Sept. 11.
"Those who think that religion sugar-coats reality are sadly mistaken," Msgr. Shugrue said. "We take things for granted. We go through life thinking we're in control. The truth is there are no guarantees in this world, but do we let this reality speak to us? Jesus talked about this in the Gospels.
"It's a most-powerful moment when we truly consider the value of our gift of life," he continued. "Many people (here at Immaculate Conception) have reordered their priorities after 9/11. We struggle with these issues, but we also have faith. There is a hopeful message from God."
Msgr. Robert Wister, professor of Church History at Immaculate Conception Seminary of Seton Hall University, South Orange, said the experience and legacy of 9/11 has forced many in the secular elite of academia and government to take religion seriously.
"Our State Department has learned that you cannot conduct foreign policy without understanding religious faith," Msgr. Wister stated. The painful lessons also have been extended to the upper echelon of academia, he added, saying that many Ivy League universities, which had long banished religion from their fields of study, have since adjusted their curriculum in order to come to grips with the post-9/11 world.