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Saturday, September 11, 2021

911 20 YEARS LATER: The Night I Knelt at Ground Zero

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911 20 YEARS LATER: The Night I Knelt at Ground Zero

Editor's Note: Twenty years ago, I was at Ground Zero in New York. I wrote the following now abridged version of my experience in the immediate aftermath of that disaster, the Afghanistan insanity at the time, and what we as a nation might have learned through that horrific ordeal. Now, twenty years later, I fear we have learned nothing at all. God help us, I wish it were otherwise. MJM 

NEW YORK (November 12, 2001)—I write these words from the twelfth floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. Emergency vehicle sirens wail in the streets of Manhattan below my window. It seems that the city is crying again. 

Yet another American Airliner—has crashed into Queens. Over 240 passengers and crew are dead; nobody knows how many are dead on the ground where Flight 587 apparently exploded and plummeted into a residential neighborhood. 

 

My own flight is scheduled to fly out in just a few hours; Newark, La Guardia and JFK are closed. In fact, all the bridges and tunnels off Manhattan are closed as well. For the moment, no one is going anywhere.

A few more steps over the powder-and-dust-packed ground and we were there—right in the epicenter of the site of the worst terrorist strike in U.S. history.

It’s a surreal moment. I have no idea how or when I’ll be able to go home. Ironically, I’m here to speak at a counter-terrorism conference. All weekend, we’ve been talking about how to avoid more terrorist attacks and how, if the world doesn’t come back to Christ and Our Lady, we can only expect more of the same.

A woman on the TV news describes the horrific events. She’s scared, but all at once she drops a bomb of her own. She deviates from the line of questioning being put to her by the reporter and goes off on a shockingly Catholic tangent:

"What this country—especially this city—needs to do right now, before another moment passes, is pray to St. Michael the Archangel. Pray to him, that’s what we have to do. We have to say, “St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray."

Only in New York—the city that embodies the worst America has to offer, and, I think there can be little doubt, the city that also embodies the best that America has to offer. Here a simple, middle-aged woman—a New Yorker—was getting across in most dramatic fashion the message that millions in our country so desperately need to hear.It was such a Catholic moment…perhaps the most Catholic moment I’ve ever seen on television.

Sitting here in my hotel room, listening to the wail of sirens echo eerily throughout the city, I pray to St. Michael with the little Catholic lady from Queens. It seems the only thing to do.

Ground Zero

I began to recall the experience from the previous night, when—almost unbelievably—I found myself kneeling at Ground Zero… at the very spot where the World Trade Center towers used to stand… praying the rosary.

It must have been 6:00 in the evening by the time the Fatima counter-terrorism conference at the Hotel Pennsylvania had called it quits for the day.  By 6:30, several of the speakers and I had joined a Romanian priest, Father Linus Dragu Popian, in making the long walk to pay our respects at the site of the city’s wounded heart.

It was a long walk, and a chilly one too. But at last we arrived, only to find a high fence which could neither be seen through nor bypassed in any way. It had been erected around the entire perimeter of the area where the towers once stood; it’s a rather intimidating barrier. Seems we’d made the long walk for nothing. Police and military personnel were everywhere, making sure that no one got any closer to the WTC than that fence.

What to do? I had left my press pass back in the hotel, and, chances are, it wouldn’t have opened the gate to us anyway: the police were simply not letting anyone in. 

But we did have a priest with us, who was wearing a Roman collar. Perhaps that’s the ticket.

“Please, Officer,” pleaded Gerry Matatics, “this priest is from Romania. We’ve come all this way so that we might pray a decade of the rosary at Ground Zero with him for those who have fallen there.”

Only a few yards from the center of the place where so many had lost their lives, we stopped.

This plea would probably have fallen on deaf ears in most cities, but not in New York. The policemen here have heard much stranger requests. In any event, Gerry’s pleading had the desired effect.

“Let me check with the Sarge,” said the officer, who looked to be of Italian descent and was no doubt a Catholic himself.

Moments later, the barricades were—incredibly—being opened with the expressed permission of the “Sarge,” and the six of us were escorted by the police to the heart of Ground Zero.

I’m really not sure how to describe what it was like to go to that horrible place. The smell was terrible, the trucks and machinery were loud, and the strange light cast by the industrial floodlights made everything down there seem unreal. One of the towers has a few bottom floors still standing; the other is nothing but grotesquely deformed iron and concrete rubble piled up a couple of stories high. All the buildings immediately around the spot have that look of a futuristic film about nuclear winter, or some such apocalyptic disaster. There’s a ghostly quality to empty, bombed-out buildings in the heart of New York. Just across the street, the Millennium Hotel still stands, but that’s about all one can say about it. The same can be said of the Century 21 building—at least it’s still standing.

A few more steps over the powder-and-dust-packed ground and we were there—right in the epicenter of the site of the worst terrorist strike in U.S. history. A great crane lifted a huge wrecking ball high into the night sky and let it drop in an instant on top of the rubble below. The sound of its impact was sickening, for it made me think of how deafeningly loud the crashing roar must have been when these two sky-scraping structures had come down.

A powerful fire hose was spraying water constantly onto the mangled mass of steel that used to be one of the “two twin girls” (as the taxi driver had affectionately referred to them on my way into Manhattan the night before). Two months later, the WTC still burns.

Only a few yards from the center of the place where so many had lost their lives, we stopped. Our police escort said: “Okay, you stay here. I’ll step back and let you do whatever you’ve got to do for a few moments.”

“You don’t have to step away,” rejoined Gerry, ever eager to share a Catholic moment with a stranger. “You can pray with us.”

The cop smiled, but not mockingly. He just smiled and pointed to the spot where we wouldn’t be in the way of the trucks.

The 5000 dead lived in such a world. Again, God, please be merciful to them—be merciful to us all. Have mercy.

Quickly, we knelt on the ashen-colored ground and began to pray a decade of the rosary. The priest, Father Popian, stood in the center of the five of us and prayed the Ave Maria in Latin, over and over again. And there amidst death, bulldozers, fire-recovery personnel and construction crews, we prayed with him. I think all of us asked God for basically the same thing—please be merciful to them…to the 5,000. Please God, have mercy.

Like a child repeating simple and anything-but-profound words over and over again, I could only beg God to take them to heaven. It was so sudden… so unexpected; and they lived in this sinful world where so many for so long have tried so hard to convince us that God doesn’t exist or that, even if He does, He doesn’t care what we do; He doesn’t believe in sin; we don’t need to follow His law, so we have no need for His forgiveness.

The 5000 dead lived in such a world. Again, God, please be merciful to them—be merciful to us all. Have mercy.

A sudden crash of the wrecking ball felt like someone had punched me in the chest. Tears burned in my eyes, as a frigid breeze whipped along those shattered streets between those pulverized buildings. The experience was similar to going along Anzio or Omaha Beaches in Normandy—your mind can think of little else save how many died in this spot.

But here in New York, the bodies are still present, lying torn and burned and buried somewhere beneath thousands of tons of unforgiving steel. How many children lost their mothers here? How many wives lost their husbands? How many families will never be the same? How many babies will never be born at all because of what happened here on Manhattan Island on September 11, 2001? 

The sight of so much devastation left me speechless. The thought of so many lives being snuffed out so quickly left me sick at heart.

LATEST FROM REMNANT TV:  WORLD VACCINATION: Michael Matt on the Kennedy Connection

 

Whatever we think about the U.S. foreign policy, or the horrific crime of abortion in America, or the unbridled corruption in our world—September 11th will still remain a day that will live on in infamy for a very long time to come. The impossibly twisted steel wreckage and concrete ruins stands there like a horrific memorial to man’s inhumanity to man. The crime of abortion doesn’t justify this madness; will we ever know how many pro-lifers went down with the 5,000 who died here?

Abortion is evil and sick and perverted; the total destruction of the World Trade Center and the annihilation of thousands of people—some innocent, some no doubt in the state of mortal sin—was also evil and sick and perverted. Anybody—be he Christian or Moslem—who would for any reason celebrate this death and destruction would have to be, it would seem, equally evil and sick and perverted. Standing before what’s left of the WTC towers, I thought to myself: there were no winners here. 

These were the unavoidable thoughts that came to mind at Ground Zero.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, the priest continued to lead the decade of the rosary in a loud voice, and we responded. Then he stepped forward and, raising his hand high over his head, he blessed the rubble that was once the mighty WTC towers; he blessed the workers, the unseen bodies that were buried there, and the firemen; he blessed the policemen, and, finally, he blessed the five Catholic men who knelt at his feet.

One last look, and then the good cop led us quickly away and back to the street whence we had entered this ghastly place where so many had died so quickly and in such a terrified state…and for what?

The Sergeant who had granted us entry to the WTC must have stood six and a half feet tall. He was a huge man, and an amiable one too. We all shook his hand and thanked him for his kindness. He smiled a great big smile and exchanged a few very pleasant words with us. I had a hunch he too was Catholic, and perhaps it wasn’t only Gerry’s expert pleading that gained us entry to Ground Zero on this big man’s watch; no, I have a feeling the rosary moved him too.

I believe that right now is the best time to bring people back to Christ, back to Truth, back to the Church. Terror has a way of bringing men back to God; now is the time for Catholics everywhere to step up their efforts to evangelize for the old Faith, everywhere they go.

Several times before we had gotten his permission that night, we had mentioned that we wanted to pray the rosary at the spot where so many had been lost. I think the rosary got us in. With all the death and terror and destruction inside New York since September 11th, perhaps the idea of the rosary strikes everyone—even tough and streetwise cops—as a good idea. It certainly seemed that way to me.

The Sergeant’s reaction reminded me of something I had written in my last column for The Remnant: I believe that right now is the best time to bring people back to Christ, back to Truth, back to the Church. Terror has a way of bringing men back to God; now is the time for Catholics everywhere to step up their efforts to evangelize for the old Faith, everywhere they go.

But, alas, few in the Church seem to see it that way. The bishops are still talking tolerance and diversity and ecumenism at their insufferably out-of-touch conference meetings; and the Vatican is planning an international Charismatic conference in Rome…clearly, they’ve learned little from the events of September 11th. This prompts me to wonder if, no matter what happens in Afghanistan, the real war won’t continue to rage on, and terror on our streets will become nothing short of commonplace in the years to come. The climate of terror will continue until we as a people learn to listen to the warnings from heaven.

________________

Editor's Note: Dear Friends: Please be advised that we will be moderating this post a bit more than we normally do, and this is because we're posting this 20-year-old article merely as a reminder to pray and remember those who died. It's about man's inhumanity to man, and the need to repent and pray for God's grace and the conversion of our world. We'd prefer not to get into 9-11 conspiracy theories at this time.  Thank you very much for your kind understanding. MJM

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Last modified on Saturday, September 11, 2021
Michael J. Matt | Editor

Michael J. Matt has been an editor of The Remnant since 1990. Since 1994, he has been the newspaper's editor. A graduate of Christendom College, Michael Matt has written hundreds of articles on the state of the Church and the modern world. He is the host of The Remnant Underground and Remnant TV's The Remnant Forum. He's been U.S. Coordinator for Notre Dame de Chrétienté in Paris--the organization responsible for the Pentecost Pilgrimage to Chartres, France--since 2000.  Mr. Matt has led the U.S. contingent on the Pilgrimage to Chartres for the last 24 years. He is a lecturer for the Roman Forum's Summer Symposium in Gardone Riviera, Italy. He is the author of Christian Fables, Legends of Christmas and Gods of Wasteland (Fifty Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and regularly delivers addresses and conferences to Catholic groups about the Mass, home-schooling, and the culture question. Together with his wife, Carol Lynn and their seven children, Mr. Matt currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.