Why me? It is the very question that haunted me after I escaped from Tower 1 of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.
Why did God allow me to narrowly escape and return to my family? I knew that my colleagues loved their spouses and children as much as I loved mine. But so many of them never had the chance to see them again. When I returned home after the surreal terror of 9/11, embracing my wife and children and thanking God for my life were the only things that mattered to me. But why was I granted such a blessing beyond measure while so many others lost their loved ones?
I do not recall many of the details of my ride on the Long Island railroad to Manhattan that morning. I loved my job as a money market broker with Garban Intercapital, Brokerage Firm, so likely I thought of what I was going to do at work that day. Often, I prayed a rosary for my family. Roxane and I had married in 1989. We had three children, Nicholas was 9, Brianna, 5, and the baby, Samantha, would be 1 in December. Although there had been an ebb and flow to my religious practice, once I experienced the all-encompassing love of fatherhood, God became my all. Fatherhood was the core of my being now and I became painfully aware that my infinite love for my family was not enough. I could never love my children enough to fully protect them physically and spiritually. I had to do my best and then trust God for the rest.
As I stepped off the train and headed for the subway that Tuesday morning, I was greeted by a perfect fall morning. The air was crisp enough to put a jaunt in everyone’s step as we headed to our destinations under a clear blue sky. I took the elevator up to the 25th floor, headed to the trading desk and quickly got on the phone with a customer amid the din of a busy trading floor. Then, just before 9 a.m., a deafening explosion and some sort of impact rocked the building. I literally fell out of my chair. The building swayed like a reed but then righted itself. Outside, glass and paper showered down from above. Screams pierced the air as horrified faces looked around trying to make sense out of what had just happened. My best guess was that maybe the restaurant at the top had experienced an explosion or perhaps a small helicopter had crashed into the building.
Within seconds, terrified people began evacuating. I stayed and answered the phone, explaining to another customer that something bad had just happened and we did not know what it was yet. Then, thirty seconds after the first impact, there was a second explosion. Later, I learned that after the first plane hit, jet fuel had spilled down the elevator shaft and ignited. A ball of fire careened down the shaft and exploded when it impacted the lobby. Again, the building shook. An old friend and colleague, Marie, shouted like a drill sergeant ordering everyone to get out. My boss, Nick, was the last to leave the trading desk, following right behind me.
At that point, everyone quickly began filing out. My body had stiffened but I felt no panic. That all changed when I tried to get onto the stairwell and discovered it was packed like sardines with people. I could not even get on it. Ceiling tiles were cracking and displacing, and smoke drifted into the hallways.
For the first time, it registered that I might not get out alive. “Dear God,” I pleaded. “Please let me see my family again.” I frantically looked around. The elevators were not working. There was no way out. My eyes met a colleague, Oscar, who called to me.
“I know another way out,” he told us and another guy we worked with. We gratefully followed him to a stairwell across from the men’s room. It was much smaller and narrower. I had always thought it was the door to a closet. Although this stairwell was filling up, we could still get in. Relief filled me as we headed down the stairs, trusting that we would soon get out. There was even some lighthearted banter among people as we hurried down. But when I arrived at the 16th floor, the second tower was hit. No one had any idea what was going on, but we felt the impact and inhaled the smell of jet fuel. Now, it was clear that whatever was happening was no accident.
My only thoughts were prayers to God, pleading to see my family again. Yet, panic clouded my head, making prayer difficult. “I’m sorry, God,” I said in frustration, struggling unsuccessfully to pray a coherent sentence. My being longed for two things, to get home in the embrace of my family and get to church in the embrace of God. I knew He was with me, but I could not mentally verbalize anything. Yet, I knew God felt my feelings and that was all I could manage. I thought of an aunt and uncle both of who had recently died. Somehow, I felt their presence and I pleaded for their help.
When I reached the twelfth floor, a voice echoed up the stairwell, commanding us to leave. It was the fire department. My survival instincts refused to consider such an option. There's no way I’m getting off, I thought, fearing I’d never get back on. It’s the only way out. No one was willing to budge. The firemen were forced to squeeze their way past us. I flattened myself onto the railing and watched the seemingly fearless lieutenant mount the steps. Behind him were a dozen young men in fire suits and helmets, carrying axes and a fire hose. Their eyes revealed something terrible but we knew not what. We absorbed their fear and the stairwell went silent. After they passed, my heart raced to a dizzying pulse. “Please God, let me get home,” I begged. In my my mind, I saw my wife and children and felt their embrace. I desperately pleaded with God to get me home to them.
A woman just behind us struggled to help a man in his 60's down the stairs. He was asthmatic and the smoke that was descending had rendered him almost helpless. Another colleague, Bruce, and I each took an arm and helped him down. Water from the sprinkler system made the stairway slick, so each step to survival had to be carefully measured. But we were almost there. Finally, the door to the mezzanine level of the lobby opened like a river releasing a flood of people. The chandeliers overhead rattled and the surrounding window glass lay around us in shards. A police officer who saw us helping the older man, took over. He warned us not look around; to just get out. But it was impossible to avoid seeing the pockets of fire and charred body parts strewn about.
My mind could not process what my eyes took in. The police directed the survivors away from the building. We had to wait for a police officer, across an open-air breezeway from the North Tower to 6 World Trade Center, to call us over. He was looking up to make sure we were clear of falling debris and falling bodies. From 6 World Trade Center we went to a pedestrian highway overpass. When I got to the over pass there was a thunderous roar. People screamed. I thought to myself, “My God, not again.” But it was the sound of US fighter jets that had made it to the Center. Then there were crashing sounds. I looked over to my building, and saw someone go crashing through the overhang. People were jumping. The police kept directing us away. We crossed the street to the World Financial Center, and proceeded to the promenade on the Hudson River. Once there, I finally stopped and looked up at the towers. I could see where the impact was on Tower 1. Smoke billowed out of both towers which now glowed red with flames. People below that impact zone were waving handkerchiefs and jumping. I saw people holding hands with others and jumping. One guy who was engulfed in flames when he jumped out the window, went down in a stream of smoke. It was incomprehensible.
I was still with my boss and three colleagues as we were directed to keep moving. We were about 200 yards from the Tower 1, directly west. My boss lived in Jersey, so he told us all to get on the ferry so we could all go to his house. Two ferry's pulled in at that moment so we got right on. The boats filled to capacity within minutes. As the Ferry pulled out, I could not take my eyes off what was happening. My boss turned his back, unable to watch. Within a few minutes into the trip, Tower 2 went down. Dust and debris filled the air. Lower Manhattan completely disappeared from view.
Like stricken war refugees, people were exhausted and numb, many of them crying. Our group quietly got off the ferry together and boarded the train to Nick’s home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. My first instinct was to reach Roxane, but the cell towers were beyond capacity with calls. She’s afraid I am dead, I thought. Dear God, I prayed, please comfort Roxane. Help me get through to her.
Two hours after after we boarded the ferry, I sat with my coworkers at my bosses house. It was a beautiful day in a quiet neighborhood, as if the unimaginable nightmare we had just escaped from had never even happened. I was finally able to get through to Roxane on my cell phone. “Honey, I’m okay,” I cried. “I’m at Nick’s’s house.” The relief of finally connecting with her opened a floodgate of emotions, Words escaped me. Roxane too could not speak. For many minutes, we sobbed together on the phone. Many of our friends and relatives were at our house with her. I longed to get home, but I was so grateful that we finally made contact.
Transportation to and from the city was blocked, so it would not be until the next day that I found a way home. A cousin who was returning from business in Chicago came through to get me. When the car pulled up in front of my house Wednesday late morning, again my emotions flowed. Roxane and the kids came running out to meet me along with my mother and mother-in-law and other relatives. “Daddy,” my kids screamed and jumped into my arms. Hearing them say “Daddy” was the sweetest sound I had ever heard. Roxane and I sobbed as we embraced. I was overcome with gratefulness to God and sheer joy at being reunited with my loved ones. I saw every aspect of my life as a priceless treasure that I had been privileged enough to return to.
I felt physically weak and mentally exhausted but my spirit soared in the embrace of my family. I spent the day surrounded by people, crying and sharing my story. The next day, Thursday, I wanted to take Nicholas to his school, St. Agnes, and then attend morning Mass.
“Bye Dad,” Nicholas said, giving me a hug. But when he pulled away and saw tears streaming down my cheeks, he became concerned. “Are you okay, Dad?” he asked.
“Yes,” I insisted. “I’m just so happy.” I kissed and hugged my precious son again and told him I would see him after school.
I got back in the car and drove to the church entrance. But as I walked to the church door, all my strength drained from me. I literally needed to support myself on each pew as I pulled myself up to the front of church. Then, I collapsed in the front pew and cried harder than I have ever cried in my life. All my emotions--fear, joy, thankfulness, love....everything--poured forth. And guilt. I had been blessed beyond measure to be reunited with my family, but what about all the others? There were fifty members of my neighborhood community that never returned. At that point, I did not know the numbers, but I had no doubt that those that did not make it out had loved their family as deeply as I loved mine. Someone from behind me rubbed my back as it shook and heaved between sobs. They never said a word but their touch consoled me.
Tears flowed continuously throughout mass. Thankfully, the priest always brought communion to those sitting in the front pew. I would not have had the strength to get up. After people received Holy Communion, they all made contact with me by patting my shoulder or back or squeezing my hand. I did not know who they were, but I appreciated their desire to comfort me.
After Mass, Monsignor Caldwell who performed the service came over and talked with me. Through tears, I admitted that although I had never wanted anything more in my life than to survive, now I struggled with the question, “Why me?”
“What makes me so special?” I asked. “So many of my friends and colleagues died that day. They had young kids just like me. Why didn’t they survive and I did?”
Monsignor Caldwell patted my arm. “That is something you do not need to know,” he said quietly. “God has plans for you. It's not meant for you to figure out.” I knew Monsignor was right. His words brought comfort but my grief for the others was still tinged with guilt.
A couple days later, our company set up temporary operations in another office space. Everyone was invited to return as they felt able. For the next few days, I stayed home with Roxane, playing and reading to the kids and helping them with their homework. Physically, I still felt weak as if I had just had the flu. But by the following Wednesday, I went back to work. For weeks, the work seemed meaningless but the camaraderie was intense. We would go out for long, therapeutic lunches and share our stories and emotions with one another. I still could not completely shake the guilt, but it was reassuring to be with other friends who had survived also.
Life gradually became routine again, although it was never the same. Then, a year-and-a-half later, in April of 2003, Roxane was diagnosed with a brain tumor on her left optic nerve. An MRI revealed it was benign. On May 5, she went in for what was expected to be a routine operation, as far a brain surgery goes. The surgery lasted 10 hours; three hours longer than expected, but her recovery looked good. By the following day, however, fluid began to build up on the brain and her condition became critical. The situation worsened so that we did not know if she would live or die. It was necessary to put her in a medically controlled state of unconsciousness while doctors worked furiously to control the swelling. I again prayed for survival; this time for Roxane’s.
On the day of the surgery, a priest had come to visit at the hospital. I shared my story with him and confessed that I still carried guilt that I had survived while so many others did not. “Don’t you see,” he said to me. “Who would take care of Roxane and the kids if you were not here? Your family needs you,” he said. “God still has work for you to do.”
As I stepped in and took over for my family, acceptance and understanding grew in me. Previously, I had mentally understood the reality of God’s will, but now I was experiencing it on a deeper level. I was here, because God still had a purpose for me in this world. It does not not mean that those who died are not missed terribly, but it is God’s call. There is always pain and loss beyond our choosing. I do not need to feel guilty for still being with my family. I am a husband and a father, here at God’s bidding to love and serve those in my life.
Since 9/11, my desire to serve others has increased tenfold beginning with my family. God still wants me here for that purpose. It is not for me to question, but only to meld my will to his and bask in the blessings he gives me.
Roxane eventually made a full recovery. Our trials have been our triumphs. Life’s joys have been magnified since our brushes with death. As for me, not a day goes by that I don’t think of 9/11 to one extent or another. I would never had chosen to go through it, but I have grown because of it. My thankfulness runs much deeper. I see also that it has brought out the best in people. Especially immediately following the tragedy, love and caring were outpouring. In a city where people rarely acknowledge one another, passersby made eye contact and greeted one another. Churches filled and people wanted to reach out and help others in need. When Roxane needed to be taken care of for awhile, our community rallied around us with meals, cleaning, and a multitude of other help. Our children have witnessed the response of adults. They have learned that comforting others also brings comfort to yourself.
When I recently brought Nicholas to volunteer at a soup kitchen for his confirmation volunteer hours, we both loved it. I believed in helping others before, but its different now. Those of us who experience 9/11 live life on a deeper level than we did before. We understand that love is what matters most. And that, is a blessing.
This story first appeared in Amazing Grace for Fathers.
Michael and his family live in Rockville Centre, NY. He is happily married to Roxane. They have 3 beautiful children. He loves taking the kids for bike rides and long walks with their black lab, Sonny.