Maryknoller Recalls First Response on 9/11

by Father Raymond Nobiletti, M.M.

Maryknoll Father Raymond Nobiletti (left) and others covered in dust and debris are told to run from the area following the collapse of the south tower of the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001, in New York. The priest was among the first on the scene ministering to victims of the attacks. The reflections of priests on how they responded to the events of that fateful day are collected in a new booklet published by the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A longer interview with Father Nobiletti will appear during September on Maryknoll’s Voices of Our World radio program, that will be posted at http://www.voicesofourworld.org/

The television showed a second plane crashing into the South Tower. The cacophony of screams, confusion and horror radiating from the television and the parish staff, and the subsequent roar of people pouring out into the street changed everything. I was not going down to an accident, but into the eye of an attack on the City of New York.  How could this happen in New York City?

Running south past the federal court buildings and prison, I was battered by the shoulders and flaying arms of the thousands of people evacuating downtown Manhattan… running and tripping on their way north or east across the Brooklyn Bridge.  All of them had the same look of horror on their faces. When and where would the next airplane strike?

One short block from the epicenter of the disaster, the smoke, confusion, falling steel and debris made this area an obstacle course.  I did not stop, hesitate or turn but walked into the center of the triage area of those ministering to the burned, bruised and disoriented being taken out of the burning North Tower. The Millennium Hotel staff was in the forefront of this service. God was present in the compassion shown by all those outside the main hotel entrance.  These were the people of New York at their best.

Just as I put my stole around my neck, a woman being escorted out of the building called “Father.” Her arms were seriously burned.  “Please, call my daughter and tell her that I am alive” she said. She was the first of several victims who dictated phone numbers to me. There was no phone service. It was much later in the day that I realized that the people who collapsed into my arms before completing their request left me with patches of burnt flesh on my clothing.

One woman was brought out on a stretcher so severely burned that only part of her face was visible through the bandages. Not expecting her to survive, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with her, as her eyes moved in response.  The Word of God became a visible and moving presence for her on that street.

Though we were ministering to the injured from the North Tower, our triage was closest to the South  Tower. At 9:50 a.m. a loud, cracking sound came from that tower.  It was collapsing.  The top 20 floors were tilting toward and falling on top of us while the lower 90 floors were folding like an accordion into the foundation of the building.  I was able to run several yards across Fulton St. to clutch the iron fence around St. Paul’s Church yard. Three other persons behind me with the same idea were only able to grasp one of my legs before we were plunged into the darkness of the falling debris. We remained in the dark struggling to breathe and listening to screams for help.

When we saw light again, there was devastation all around us. The emergency vehicles and equipment were destroyed. And like us, everything was covered with a gray-brown ash.  We stumbled through the area looking for survivors.  A police officer emerged from the rubble. He screamed orders to leave immediately as the North Tower might also come down. I was walking toward Broadway when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.  The impact was enough for the air pressure at my back to push me several yards out into Broadway. That police officer saved my life.

The horror of what was happening didn’t allow me to think about myself or realize that I was covered with ash and dripping blood from my nose. Ambulances stopped and offered to take me to the hospital but I refused, believing that there were many more seriously injured who needed an ambulance.

I slowly made my way back to Chinatown amidst the confusion. Passing the famous broad stone steps of the federal and county courthouses in Foley Square, I was recognized by court officers who attend the noon Mass at Transfiguration. They ran up the steps and returned with a water cooler tank and poured the water over me to remove the mysterious ash material. The grey-brown matter did not move, but became a concrete-like crust that covered me from head to toe.

These court officers and the police officer who screamed us off the triage site were instruments of God’s grace. More and more people, both uniformed and not uniformed, began to appear to help those in need in this still very chaotic and confusing situation. They were focused on the needs of others.

Brooklyn-born Father Nobiletti, M.M., is pastor of Transfiguration  Church, Manhattan.