New York’s firefighters gather to remember the heroes who rushed to help as the Twin Towers fell 15 years ago—and one firefighter who survived that day finds a new way to minister to to those in need.
The latest miracle of 9/11 was preceded by a Mass at the Church of Saint Francis in Manhattan on what happened to be the same day Mother Teresa was canonized in Rome.
“For the first time, we pray to Saint Teresa of Calcutta,” Father Chris Keenan said from the altar on the morning of September 4.
Keenan is an FDNY chaplain. The Mass was immediately followed by the 15th annual 9/11 Walk of Remembrance, held on the Sunday before the anniversary of the attack.
The walk always begins at this church on W. 31st Street and retraces the steps of Keenan’s predecessor, FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, on 9/11 from there to the World Trade Center. The participants pause at the firehouses and police stations along the way as if at Stations of the Cross.
The event was conceived and organized by NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who was shot and paralyzed by a teenager back in 1986.
This year also marked the 30th anniversary of the shooting that left him unable to move his limbs or even to breathe without a respirator. He, as always, led the procession in his motorized wheelchair, accompanied by his wife, Patti Ann McDonald, and their son, NYPD Detective Conor McDonald.
At W. 19th Street, the procession paused at the quarters of Engine 3, Ladder 12, Battalion 7. The plan was for Keenan to read Judge’s last homily, delivered the day before the attack at a firehouse dedication in the Bronx. His words on 9/10 were so prescient as to be considered the first Miracle of 9/11.
But Ladder 12 was out on a run, extricating a man who had become stuck in an elevator, which had a certain significance, The 9/11 dead from the firehouse included Battalion Chief Orio Palmer, who was a renowned elevator expert. Palmer had been the only one able to get one running in the stricken South Tower.
Rather than wait for Ladder 12 to return from the run, the procession continued on Judge’s route. The new plan was to meet the firefighters further down Seventh Avenue whenever their job was done.
As it happened, Ladder 12 was able to extricate the man quickly and swing around to meet the procession just as it reached a stretch of Christopher Street that has been renamed Stonewall Place. This is the block that was recently designated Stonewall National Monument. It includes a pocket park and the Stonewall Inn, scene of the 1969 riot that sparked the gay rights movement.
As many now know, Judge was gay and worried that the firefighters would shun him if his sexuality became known. He wrote in his journal that this apprehension rose in him even during a wonderful welcome he received when he arrived at a parish hall gathering of the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums at the end of the 1999 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade:
“I arrived at St. Ignatius to greet the band – Wow! They treat me like a long lost brother – hugs, kisses, laughs, jabs and ‘I’m home!’ And I ask myself again, ‘But, if?’”
In another entry, Judge imagined what he might accomplish if he came out. He wrote, “Mychal Judge – well respected, loved by many, faithful to his profession, loyal to his community and friends, compassionate beyond bounds – you would like to be in his company, to be his friend – well, if he is gay, there must be something okay about ‘them’ – you would talk so freely, explain so much, release fears, explain the pain, show the job and give peace to so many.”
But he remained afraid that it might not go that way at all.
“I keep thinking my fear is lessening, but there is still so much there,” he wrote.
He overcame all other fears on the morning of 9/11, when he dashed from his room in the friary next to the Church of St. Francis and raced down to World Trade Center. He showed uncommon courage as he stood in the lobby of the burning North Tower, giving spiritual witness and support as the firefighters, cops and other first responders headed up to answer hate with greatest love, pure evil with absolute good. A photo of Judge’s body being carried from the fiery ruins would be called the modern Pieta.
Two cops crouched by Judge’s body and improvised the Last Rites. A group of firefighters carried him up into St. Peter’s Church. The roof had been struck by the landing gear of one of the hijacked jets, but the interior was undisturbed and the firefighters placed his body before the altar. The firefighters set his chaplain’s badge and a priest’s stole on his chest. They then removed their helmets and knelt to pray.
Word spread and other firefighters came in, their eyes reddened by grit, but not weeping yet, though they had all lost friends, some an entire company. The crying began as they prayed over their lifeless chaplain. Their tears left dark tracks in the grey dust that caked their faces and everything else in the transformed realm outside.
In the days that followed, a number of people took it upon themselves to make it known that Judge was gay. His fear proved to have been groundless.
The firefighters continued to embrace Judge as their beloved Father Mike, the one and only. They noted that the Medical Examiner had recorded Judge was the first fatality of 9/11, assigning him the number DM0001-01, the DM standing for Disaster Manhattan. That seemed only right because he was surely the one who led their comrades into heaven.
A poster appeared in firehouses that featured small headshots of the fallen firefighters at either end and a large image of Judge in the center, beaming as if from on high above the ruins of the World Trade Center. The top bore the words:
“FDNY Our Brothers Will Never Be Forgotten”
Those who had been at the firehouse dedication in the Bronx on 9/10 remembered Judge’s homily and wondered if he had somehow sensed what was coming. The words were now read aloud these 15 years later by FDNY Chaplin Chris Keenan, not outside the W. 19th firehouse as was originally intended, but at the Stonewall National Monument thanks to happenstance that some might consider a kind of miracle.
“Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job—which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
After Keenan’s recitation and a prayer, the members of Ladder 12 returned to its quarters until the next call to get on the rig and go out and do their job, whatever it might bring. The procession continued on downtown, pausing at firehouses and police stations to read aloud the names of those who had left there on 9/11 and never returned.
The hundreds of participants included FDNY Captain Liam Flaherty of Rescue 2, drum major of the pipe and drum band than had given Judge such a warm welcome now nearly two decades before. McDonald remarked along the way that Judge should be made a saint, just as Mother Teresa had this very day. A friend noted that Judge’s twin sister, Dympna Jessich, had once suggested that her brother would have considered it a demotion. Judge was of the opinion that such goodness is in everybody. He would say that just as the Devil is to be found in evil, then God is to be found in good and that by recognizing good in others we make it – and therefore God – stronger.
As Judge saw it, good and God were stronger in McDonald then in anyone. McDonald’s wife had been pregnant with their first child when he was grievously wounded and he had chosen the christening as the occasion to forgive the teenager who had shot him. McDonald had said that his badge was a badge of compassion. It had passed on to his son when Conor grew up to become a cop. McDonald remained of the opinion that there should be a Saint Mychal.
“We need heroes,” McDonald said as if he were not one, as if he had not been Judge’s greatest hero.
Up ahead stood the Freedom Tower, the lone building that had risen where Twin Towers once stood. The heroes in the now vanished South Tower had included FDNY Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca. McDonald had first met Bucca back in 1986, shortly after he was shot. McDonald had been fighting despair that even Judge could not dispel when a figure in a steel back brace scuffled into his hospital room. Bucca had suffered a broken back when he fell eight floors while fighting a fire and could not move without considerable pain, but he had heard a critically wounded cop had been brought. He had forced himself to rise and take one excruciating step after another to McDonald’s bedside.
“How are you doing?” Bucca asked.
By 9/11, Bucca had recovered so completely that he was able to dash up the stairs of the South Tower all the way to the 78th floor. Palmer had joined him with the help of an elevator he managed to get running, Palmer radioed that that they were actually preparing to fight the blaze
“We’ve got two isolated pockets of fire,” Palmer reported minutes before the tower came down “We should be able to knock it down with two lines.”
His words seemed to hang in the air these 15 years later as the procession ended at St. Peter’s Church, where the firefighters had set Judge’s body before the altar. The participants placed their hands over their hearts and sang God Bless America, just as Judge had at that firehouse dedication on 9/10.
On Saturday, a 9/10 fifteen years later, the FDNY held a memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Firefighters solemnly carried in 343 flags down the center aisle, representing the 343 members of the department who died on 9/11.
“Each flag is a ‘What if?’” said Margaret Arce, mother of fallen firefighter Dave Arce.
All the families have no doubt asked themselves such questions as what if the attack had not come just as the shifts were changing? What if it had come just a few minutes later when the earlier shift had headed home instead of responding along with the new shift? What if their loved one had not been working? What if he had not gone into that burning tower? What if he had been ordered out in time? What if he had been one of those who somehow surviving having a 110 story building collapse on top of them?
The clergy attending the memorial included the newly ordained Father Tom Colucci, the only retired FDNY firefighter ever to be become a priest. Colucci had been assigned to the firehouse on W. 19th Street from 1994 to 2002. He had survived 9/11, but had been suffered serious injuries in a gas explosion in 2004, undergoing multiple surgeries afterwards. He retired and experienced a new calling and spent seven years in the seminary before being ordained in late May.
“The benefits are eternal,” he said when asked to compare his new job with the old.
Colucci had intended just to sit in one of the pews with the firefighters during Saturday’s memorial, but Cardinal Timothy Dolan insisted he join his new bothers in proceeding down the center aisle at the start of the service.
“It’s like he grabbed me out of the stands and said, ‘You’re coming with me,” Colucci later said.
Keenan was also there and sat up by the altar with Colucci as prayers alternated with the reading of a letter from President Obama and speech by Mayor de Blasio and tender remembrances by family members and stirring hymns. Two candles were lit, one for the those killed outright at the World Trade Center, the other for the 127 members of the FDNY who have died of 9/11-related illnesses since then. The candles flickered on either side of a large video screen on which one face after another appeared as the corresponding names of the dead were read from what was called the Scroll of Honor. Palmer. Bucca. Judge. So many, many others.
Keenan offered the Prayer for the Fallen, followed with a final blessing by Dolan. Colucci led the way as the clergy followed the 343 flags from the cathedral. He stood at the curb with all the attendees as the flagbearers strode up Fifth Avenue and fell into formation behind the band. A giant American flag hung from a pair of tower ladders directly across from the cathedral.
When the drum major, Flaherty, gave the command, the band struck up a mournful beat and led the flagbearers to the foot of the front steps. Everyone saluted as the buglers played taps. The band then played Amazing Grace, all the pipers joining in, their spirit as strong as ever, filling the early September air with a sound such as Judge once said was the sound of goodness determined not to be undone.
Amazing grace indeed.
At the ceremony’s end, the flags were placed in stands marked with the names of the dead they represented. Flagbearer Mickey Conboy is the father of one of the two ironworkers who put the last piece of steel into the Freedom Tower. He himself is an FDNY lieutenant at Rescue 3 in the Bronx, which is where he was headed as he climbed into his car.
“I’m going to work,” he said.
Colucci is scheduled to say the 9/11 Mass at Judge’s church. He allowed that it still seems unreal that he is saying a Mass anywhere.
“I was just a fireman,” he said. “Here I am, consecrating the Body and Blood of Christ. I can’t believe I’m doing it.”
Judge would have argued that there is no higher calling that being a firefighter, risking your own body and blood while showing what Christ taught in word and example is the greatest love; the willingness to give life to save others.
Judge would often remark on the holiness that would descend on seemingly ordinary men when an alarm came into a firehouse and they hurried to hop of their rig.
At 11 am Sunday, another 9/11 miracle will occur as the Church of St. Francis becomes doubly holy by having a priest up on the altar who was once a firefighter, for a time the firehouse on W. 19th Street. Colucci may even wear the vestments given to him by his former comrades. The vestments are FDNY red and bear the words “Brothers Forever.”
Who knows, Colucci may someday be offering a prayer to Saint Mychal of the FDNY.