This article originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2001, edition of The Sporting News.
There’s a friary next to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on New York’s West 31st Street. The friary is a building of stone turned dark by the city’s grime. There, the Rev. Mychal Judge lived for 15 years. The priest’s room was small and spartan. He had a desk, a chair and a couch that turned into a bed.
The morning of September 11, 2001, the priest left that room to do what his God had asked of him.
There was fire. It was fire where no one had ever seen fire. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, gouging a wound high into the north tower, fire and smoke roiling from the wound. Before anyone could know what had happened, before anyone knew about a second plane, before anyone knew what evil had done, firefighters from the 31st Street firehouse did what firefighters do. They ran to the fire.
Those firefighters knew the priest from across the street as “Father Mike.” He was 68. His hair was white and his cheeks were those of a boy, the color of roses. A friend, Harry Ryttenberg, told the Washington Post that Father Mike’s face was a “map of Ireland.” Once, working with the city police, the priest spoke of an officer rendered quadriplegic by bullets. He said, “We have to drop the baggage of hate. We have to move on.”
If only we could.
Hate brought fire to the World Trade Center, to the Pentagon, to a field in Pennsylvania. President Bush says we are at war. It’s likely that more Americans were killed in these acts of war than in any others on our land in a single day. In the deadliest single day of the Civil War, 3,620 men were killed at Antietam. If the death toll of September 11 reaches 5,000, and it may, more Americans will have died on one day in New York than died in all but the five bloodiest years of the Vietnam War.
Hundreds of our dead were firefighters, those men and women whose courage and commitment are so profound that as people run away from fire, they run into it. The World Trade Center towers burned with 1,800-degree flames given life by jet fuel. What can be done when elevators no longer work and the fire is 80 stories above the street? This: Firefighters in full gear begin climbing stairs to get there.
Father Mike was there. He had left the friary and gone five minutes down the West Side Highway. A fire department chaplain for years, he did his work.
He knelt at the side of a firefighter who had been killed when a person falling from the building struck him. He gave the man last rites.
Then debris from the collapsing tower rained down on them both.
At ground zero, there was horror. An eyewitness account from Richard Bodmer, a national account manager for The Sporting News, a former Navy fire and rescue worker who volunteered and worked with an EMS crew: “It was more frightening than I can describe. What you saw on TV doesn’t begin to tell the story. There were fire engines covered with ashes and dust, and you knew their guys were lost. One EMS ambulance was running with nobody there. Very, very spooky. Before I could understand what I was seeing, we were moving the body of a policeman crushed to death by a piece of the building.”
Soon enough, Bodmer saw more.
“The most amazing thing was the character of an army of men who didn’t know one another. They came from all over the country, and their spirit was incredible. No panic, only unity. The nightmare that was supposed to kill our spirit, didn’t. It did the opposite. I saw honor, pride, integrity, courage. These were Americans united. If you weren’t a patriot before, you were after seeing that.”
Joan Fiesta, an Illinois police officer, thought her urge to help was only that of her job. “I was mistaken,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It was an American urge, a human urge.” She went to a blood bank and was told to come back later because the bank was already at capacity. At every turn, she found “humanity, kindness and caring… As I watched with friends the firefighters in New York pull those living souls from the rubble of the towers, our spirits soared.”
On a normal weekend, Fiesta said, she would work a college football game. She thought it would have been good last weekend for people “to sit together, sing the National Anthem with pride, and watch a game that is all-American.” It’s also true that it’s all-American to raise high a flag and say a prayer and reach out to those whom we love. It would be nice, too, to drop what Father Mike called the baggage of hate.
Firefighters found the priest dead. They carried him away from the rubble to nearby St. Peter’s Church. There, they prayed for the man who had prayed for so many of them. Then, they carried him from the church and they carried him through the streets and they carried him to the 31st Street firehouse and they carried him to the friary.