By Msgr. Robert J. Romano
It’s been 20 years since the worst attack on our country. I lost many people I knew and loved — a godson, a Cathedral College classmate, several young men who were altar boys from my days at St. Anselm, brother priest and chaplain Father Mychal Judge, 23 members of New York’s Finest, and thousands of poor innocent people in New York City, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Some people say Sept. 11, 2001, is a part of history. Textbooks in our schools relegate it to one paragraph or maybe a page.
For me and my fellow Baby Boomers, it is our “Day of Infamy.” Never before was our country attacked as it was that fateful day. I’m sure that like me, we can say exactly what we were doing and where we were that terrible morning.
I was preparing for a funeral at St Bernadette when I heard on the radio that a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I immediately turned on the TV to see the fire raging, and I knew it was a large plane. That day was so clear, there was no way a plane could have accidentally crashed into the building. I went over to the church to celebrate the funeral Mass. During the Mass, the funeral directors were coming in and out of the church, something they never do. At the end of Mass, they told me the second building was hit and that both towers of the mighty World Trade Center had collapsed into ruins. They also told me about the Pentagon attack and the crash in Pennsylvania.
I immediately ran to my room and changed from my priestly garb into my NYPD uniform. A radio car had been dispatched to the rectory to take me into Manhattan. My driver asked, should we take the Tunnel or Bridge? I opted for the Brooklyn Bridge since I didn’t know what damage we would find on the other end of the tunnel. As we drove along the Gowanus Canal, we could see the plumes of smoke, dust, and ashes.
We traveled over the Brooklyn Bridge, seeing off-duty police officers and firefighters run into Manhattan and thousands of panicked civilians on the other side of the bridge run to the safety of Brooklyn. I immediately went to the temporary seat of city government, a firehouse on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. I reported directly to Mayor Giuliani and then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerick to see what they needed me to do. They gave me a car and driver
and told me to check the hospitals. I visited St. Vincent’s Hospital. The doctors and nurses were waiting for the injured; none were there. We then headed to the East Side to Bellevue Hospital; there we found a cop who had cut his hand. He said, “Father, go back to ground zero,” which later became the name for that horrible site of destruction. He said, “They need you there.”
When I arrived, I was met by my classmate and FDNY Chaplain Father John Delendick. He filled me in on the death of Father Judge and on the many others who were missing and presumed dead. We gave each other support with a simple hug and went about blessing the dead and searching for the living.
After that, I left for One Police Plaza, where a Family Center was set up. Due to the fact that there was no electricity or radio and telephone service, many families came to the center in hopes that they would be reunited with their loved ones. During the night, some police officers came to the center, to the joy of their loved ones. Their reunions were loud and emotional. I couldn’t help but wonder how their joy played on those families who waited and waited for their loved ones to appear. For 23 families, it didn’t happen. But in the true spirit of the “Family of the NYPD,” every time a family was united we all stood with tears in our eyes and gave a standing ovation and said, “Thank God!”
During the next eight months we, the chaplains, celebrated morning Mass for the families and brought Holy Communion to the men and women who worked at the operations centers in One Police Plaza and the pier on West 54th Street. Every Sunday and Holy Day, I celebrated a Mass for the families and those who worked at ground zero. The Masses were brief so that those ending or beginning tours of duty could attend. There were no collections, and I used to say, “Give me twenty minutes, and I’ll give you faith.” When we began on the first Sunday after 9/11, there were 17 police officers. On that somber day in May 2002 when the last piece of metal was removed from the site, I celebrated Mass outside on the corner of Greenwich and Murray Streets with almost a thousand people.
Twenty years have come and gone. It’s so hard to believe. From that day of chaos, wonderful things have happened. The families that we ministered to have now ministered to us by sharing their lives and love. Like the spring, new life has appeared from the ashes. The children who lost a parent have asked us to celebrate their marriages and baptize their children. The spouses have become involved with helping other families who have suffered a great loss. “Family” — that’s what it’s all about — the Family of Blood and the Family of Blue have joined together.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have an ending. Sept. 11, 2001, was not a one-day event; it has been a 20-year event, and it will continue to raise its ugly head for many more years.
Since that clear brisk morning when we lost 3,000 souls, 9/11 continues to take from us. No one knows the magnitude of the deaths of those who came to rescue and recover. Hundreds of police officers, firefighters, ironworkers, and civilians who worked among the remains of the World Trade Center, along with residents of lower Manhattan, have been taken from us by a silent killer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the deterioration of those suffering with 9/11-related diseases. To those who say Sept. 11 is a part of history and that it’s over, I say the tragedy is still alive and well. Sad to say, as a Police Department chaplain, I find myself spending the bulk of my time attending the wakes and funerals of those who still succumb to the dreaded COVID virus. And it will continue.
Some say, “Where was God that day?” He was there in the fact that almost 20,000 were saved on Sept. 11 by the men and women who ran into the buildings, not away from them. We cannot afford to forget those we lost. The Jewish people say, “Never forget the tragedy of the Holocaust.” Like them, we cannot forget the losses of that terrible day of 20 years ago because it continues. To the naysayers and people with their personal agendas, I say, “Open your eyes.” Realize that heroes do exist and are still dying.
In both parishes I have had the honor to serve as pastor (St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Guadalupe), I directed that on Sundays we sing “God Bless America” after Mass. Not so much as a patriotic song but as a prayerful hymn for those we lost and continue to lose, asking that Almighty God will protect and preserve our beloved country from any other attacks.
Eternal rest grant to all who have perished. Grant healing to the suffering and consolation to their families. And, as always, may God Bless the United States of America!
Msgr. Romano is the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Brooklyn, and the Assistant Chief Chaplain of the New York City Police Department.