Reflections on 9/11/01
If you are thirty or over, you know exactly where you were twenty-two years ago this Monday. It is one of those flash memory dates, like the OJ Simpson verdict or JFK’s assassination.
I was teaching at Borgia High School and on that day, for what- ever reason, our newfangled internet was on the fritz. (I am so old, I remember when we had to look things up in books.) So information that day came dribbling in slowly. In a sense, we heard about the attacks in slow motion. “Did you hear that a plane hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center?” Strangely, my first thought was of a small plane running off course and nicking the mammoth building. Then another plane hit. “That’s very peculiar,” I thought. It wasn’t until the Penta- gon was hit, that I really got scared. That got my full attention. And then we heard that, indeed both towers had fallen. We were under attack and I felt if it happened to the Pentagon, it can happen anywhere.
Our principal at that time, turned to me and told me to get on the intercom, relate in general terms to the students what was happening and “say a prayer.” What was happening? I had no idea. Prayer? What am I supposed to pray for???
When the students who were attending Borgia in 2001 remem- ber the attacks of 9/11, the sound of my voice is what comes to their minds. On that bright Tuesday morning, I told them, as best as I knew, what occurred and I prayed for the victims of this crime and for our country. Years afterwards, the students would tell me that they were glad and grateful that Borgia’s administration was so honest and straightforward with them on that day. They said that we treated them like adults and that made a huge difference to them as events unfolded.
It was only later on in the evening, that I finally saw the horrific pictures and videos of the horror and chaos in lower Manhat- tan. You could not help but be glued to any TV coverage as the scope and the depth of this tragedy unfolded. I was the Pastor of St. Joseph’s Neier at the time, and I remember vividly how the skies around the parish were silenced from airline traf- fic. It was eerie. That following weekend my nephew Greg and his wife Michelle got married and my sister Kathy was unable to make it in from San Diego. (Luckily, my brother-in-law man- aged to make it back home from Mexico.) The whole world felt oddly different.
Once planes resumed flying again, I remember carefully watch- ing them soar out of view. I was not going to be caught una- ware. Looking back on that, it was a bit ridiculous to be so par- anoid, but that was what people were feeling in the wake of the attacks.
Every year on September 11th, I remember a man by the name of Stephen Poulos. Stephen was the husband of the niece of one of my parishioners at Neier, and in the twenty plus years since that fateful day, I hold him and his widow in my heart.
Poulos was an opera singer, but that is a tough business to break into, so instead he turned to a career in finance working for the Aon Corporation which occupied floors 98 to 105 in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Stephen’s building would be hit seventeen minutes after the North Tower. The plane flew between the 77th and 85th floor, thirteen stories be- low where he could have been. When I think about what Stephen must have endured, I shudder.
In the years since 2001, I have become a Facebook friend of Stephen’s widow, who has gotten remarried and is doing well. I let her know I am thinking of him every year.
Back in 2018, I was on my way to play golf in Scotland. A storm around Philadelphia caused a delay and we missed our overseas flight. Instead, we had to spend the day in NYC and we decided to visit the site of the Twin Towers. Around the pool where the South Tower stood, they have the names of all those who perished that day carved into the metal that sur- rounds the pool. I got a map and found where Stephen’s name was. It was both chilling as well as oddly comforting. I sup- pose 9/11 will always feel that way to me.
For a brief moment, in the weeks following the attack, our coun- try was united and together. We were neighbors. It is troubling to think how shattered and fractured our country seems now.
Everyone had taken a side on every single issue, even the af- termath of the attacks on 9/11. I would hope that this week, instead of focusing on our own little tribes, we can see a bigger picture and that we are all just people trying to raise our fami- lies and eke out an existence on this fragile planet.
I encourage you to come to Mass this Monday at 6:15 am or 8:15 am and pray for those whose lives were cut short on that bright, fateful morning, like Stephen, and also keep in your hearts those who mourn them still.