Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

The legacy of the attacks would plunge this country into two wars — first in Afghanistan and later Iraq — and has led to the death of thousands of American soldiers and countless civilians. We are still fighting those wars. We are still dealing with the aftermath of those attacks — and the fears they illicit — every time any of us go through an airport security checkpoint or walks into a stadium. 

Before any of that, Sept. 11, 2001 started off as a beautiful, sunny, clear morning. I always mention that when I tell students about that day. I worked at the New York Post at the time. I had been there since the summer of 1998 and had worked on hundreds of stories. From fires to murders, I had covered nearly every corner of the city. This was my dream job. I was reporting in the place where I was born and raised. I worked for a newspaper that was known around the country for its sensational page-one stories and memorable headlines. It was hard work, but I loved it.

None of that would prepare me for Sept. 11.

Reporters, like myself, were taken by surprise just like everyone else. While everyone fled for safety, my task — and the task of many New York journalists and editors that day — was to tell the story. From the first plane hitting the World Trade Center to its eventual destruction to the death of nearly 3,000 people, we had to tell the story. Our job was to chronicle the horrific events, talk to people about what they saw, what they did and how they felt. The need for action left little room for reaction.

Journalists should never get too personally involved with any story they cover. Despite the tragedy that had befallen my city, there was no room for emotion to take over. I had a sense of duty that morning. I called into my editor that morning, like I did every day, looking for an assignment. It was exactly 8 a.m. Nothing was happening. That’s not what a reporter wants to hear. Reporters want to be busy. They want to tell stories. I was told to come into the office.

The world changed in the hour-long train ride from my home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the office located near Times Square. 

At 8:46 a.m., Mohammed Atta and a group of fellow hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11 crashed a plane into floors 93 to 99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. By the time I walked into the newsroom, a few editors were standing near their desks, staring at TV screens above them. This was a time before smartphones and social media. I had been underground for nearly an hour. I had no idea what was taking place above me. It turns out neither did anyone else. The consensus in the newsroom was that this had to be some type of small plane that had by accident crashed into the building.

We were wrong. I jumped back on the subway, located in the lobby of our building, and decided to take the 30-minute ride south to the tip of Manhattan. A taxi wouldn’t have been any faster during morning rush-hour. My instincts as a reporter kicked in. I had covered many accidents in the past. My goal was to get to the scene, interview witnesses and officials gathered there. It was, in my mind, just another story, just another day. It would be far from that.

Once again, being underground cut me off from the world above me. My train moved slowly. The events taking place downtown had caused a chain-reaction of train delays. Finally, unable to get to the World Trade Center, I exited the train at West 4th Street, near Washington Square Park. Although 17 years have gone by since that day, I still remember the chaos in the streets and the giant cloud of smoke on the horizon. I was still nearly two miles away. People were standing around confused. Some gathered near car radios to get the latest news.

It was about 9:30 a.m. and I was still unaware that at 9:03 hijackers had crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into floors 75 to 85 of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. I would later tell family and friends that people watching the news coverage on TV around the world knew more about what was going on than I did. My new cellphone, which I had bought the day before for $200, didn’t work. The lines were jammed. All I got was a busy signal. I tried to call my office, but nothing. I was on my own, laser-focused on getting downtown to cover, unbeknownst to me at the time, the biggest story of my life.  

I continued to make my way downtown, navigating the narrow streets south of Canal Street. My sole focus was to get to the site, talk to people and figure out what happened. I must have been too far away still to figure out that the South Tower had collapsed at 9:59 a.m. All I could see was giant clouds of smoke. From my viewpoint, both towers were still standings and only one plane had hit one of the buildings.

I was on Worth Street near West Broadway — about 10 blocks from the World Trade Center — gazing up at the North Tower when, at 10:28 a.m., it came crumbling down. The sight of the building falling on itself amid a backdrop of people on the street screaming and wailing is the main thing I remember from that awful day. I will never forget the loud, crunching sound those steel beams made as the building came crashing down.

My heart sank. I was immediately overcome with sadness. I was no longer a reporter. I was a New Yorker who had seen part of his beloved city destroyed, his city’s skyline forever altered. I was also an American who had witnessed the worst act of terrorism on our soil in this nation’s history. And I was a Christian facing some ancient questions about good and evil.

Screams immediately turned to fear. I got closer, only to be faced with police officers and office workers covered in thick gray ash running in the opposite direction. I got as close as the New York Stock Exchange, but no one was around. The streets were covered in ash, something that looked like images of a nuclear winter re-creation from a science-fiction movie. This didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real. My brain couldn’t process it.

I knew there was a hospital nearby. I decided to head there. I also had some witness accounts scribbled in my notebook and I had resumed taking notes — about everything. I was finally able to reach my editors by cellphone around 11 a.m. The colleague on the other end of the call greeted me with these harrowing words: “Oh, thank God. You’re alive!” My office didn’t know what had happened to me — and the many other reporters and photographers sent downtown. I said, “Of course I’m alive! I acted like nothing had happened. I told my editors I was going to NYU Downtown Hospital near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Once there, I waited in the lobby. I finally got through to my family, relieved to hear that I was safe. At the hospital, my aim was to speak with the many survivors who would be streaming into the hospital. Doctors anxiously waited outside. The lobby became very active, very quickly.

Hope turned to dread as the hours passed. No one came into the hospital that day, other than a woman who was in labor. That’s when it hit me. No one was coming. There were no injured people, just the dead. Nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11, including the attacks at the Pentagon and in a remote field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Americans are resilient, particularly New Yorkers. During all those funerals, I tried to act like this was any other story, it wasn’t. The attacks took an emotional toll on me a few days later when a colleague asked me what I had seen. It remains the first — and only time — I have ever cried in a newsroom.

I am saddened every 9/11. Memories of that day haunted me for years. However, it’s important to talk about that day and educate people about it, especially younger generations — including journalists.

Some have asked what it was like to survive the attacks? I don’t consider myself a 9/11 survivor. I am not. I was just a journalist doing his job. And as a believer, I am still wrestling with questions — questions that were impossible to avoid on Sept. 11, 2001.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this commentary appeared at Religion Unplugged.

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