As Archbishop of New York on Sept. 11, 2001, Cardinal Egan was doing what millions of other New Yorkers were doing when the first plane struck the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. He was going over the day’s schedule at breakfast with his vicar general, Auxiliary Bishop Patrick J. Sheridan, and his priest-secretary, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, when a phone call from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani changed everything.
“Tell the cardinal that I have a police car outside his door right now,” the mayor said to Msgr. Mustaciuolo. “I want him to go to Chelsea Piers. We have been attacked.”
That began a day that stretched into weeks and then months as the cardinal responded to the disaster—ministering to the injured and anointing the dead at St. Vincent’s Hospital and at Ground Zero itself, chairing committees and planning a center for victims’ families at the New School and an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium, and offering Masses at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the immediate aftermath and funerals there and around the archdiocese for months.
“I said, ‘I’m not a policeman, I’m not a fireman, I’m not an emergency worker. I know what a priest does, and so that’s what I’m going to do here.’ And so I did that. I prayed with all of those people,” the cardinal said.
Cardinal Egan, now 79 and retired as archbishop (although he remains active as archbishop emeritus), has not talked much about his 9/11 experiences over the years, and he acknowledges that things moved so fast that the memories are a blur.
But with the 10th anniversary approaching the cardinal agreed to give interviews, including this one to CNY, reflecting on his role as head of the archdiocese and the role that was played by the Church.
Here is his story, from the time he got into the police car and headed downtown, in his own words:
“The reason the mayor wanted us to go to Chelsea Piers was that it was his understanding there would be a morgue over there…In the police car the mayor called back and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I want the cardinal to go to St. Vincent’s because we’re going to have more injured than dead.’
“So I went to St. Vincent’s. With me was Msgr. Mustaciuolo. We had no idea what we were getting into.”
Wearing scrubs and standing outside St. Vincent’s to await the injured, the cardinal had a clear view of the World Trade Center.
“We watched the first tower come down. About a half hour later the second tower came down. With all the shouting and everything, what I remember above all else, is that all of a sudden dust and soot seemed to be coming from above and below. And the dust and soot was grainy. We later found out that some of it was crushed stone, some of it was steel and some of it was glass… people were breathing all of this in. And slowly the sun got partially blocked out. It was utter confusion.”
Chief Allan Hoehl, chief of patrol of the Borough of Manhattan South, was with the team at St. Vincent’s and gave the cardinal a gas mask.
“I wore it throughout the whole horror… I always had it on. When I would come home at night you could see where the rubber had been on my face. Chief Hoehl would say, I do not know how many times, ‘I do not want you to take that off,’ and I didn’t.
“I came home that afternoon because I was going to celebrate Mass at the cathedral…in the evening. We expected 400-500 people…(but) there were thousands in the cathedral and out in the street…I had two other Masses at the cathedral (on Sept. 16 and 17). One of them was the one where I said, ‘Let’s not call it Ground Zero, from now on it’s Ground Hero.’ ”
For the first three or four days, the cardinal and Msgr. Mustaciuolo reported to St. Vincent’s, the nuns supplied coffee and tea, and they had set up a room for the cardinal.
“Then we pretty much did what we were told. The police officers were wonderful. The firefighters were wonderful. The emergency workers and everyone else was wonderful. People could not have been finer.
“No sooner did we arrive at St. Vincent’s than in comes on a bed on wheels a woman completely burned from head to toe. You wouldn’t be able to know who she was. I absolved and anointed her, and in comes and Msgr. (Marc) Filaccione (now pastor of Our Lady of Victory, Manhattan) on one of these moveable beds. He had been knocked down and was unconscious for a while.”
Later in the week, the cardinal and Msgr. Mustaciuolo went all around the Ground Zero site itself, as the rescue and recovery efforts began in earnest.
“I remember one time they pulled up a big plastic bag with a body in it. Somebody opened the bag…and I anointed this person on the forehead, and was crouched down to do that. And while I was down, monsignor shouted at me, ‘Get up, get up! Look, cardinal, look!’ And through the cloud that engulfed us we saw a man, covered with white dust, coming up out of the ground. The workers were all digging as he came up, and everybody began to clap. And finally after we got done clapping somebody shouted, ‘Back to work!’ And everybody went right back to whatever we were doing.”
President Bush visited the site on Sept. 14 and addressed the rescue and recovery workers with a bullhorn from atop a pile of rubble. As he was being lifted up, he shouted a request to Cardinal Egan to say the opening prayer.
“I shouted my prayer as loud as I could, not sure how many would hear it. Afterwards the President said in more or less these words: ‘Oh, if we always prayed with that kind of intensity.’ ”
There were interruptions during those first days, when the cardinal was called back to the cathedral or to planning meetings for the Yankee Stadium service and the counseling center at the New School in Greenwich Village.
“We (had) card tables with chairs, and at every table a psychiatrist or a psychologist and a social worker, and we would have the families come in…Many of them were going to hospitals all over the tri-state area with pictures of their loved ones asking if anyone had seen them. Outside, the people lined up for blocks, many of them with the pictures. And here were priests, walking along talking with them as they were getting ready to take their place at one of the tables. And (the counselors) stayed at it and just did it beautifully. One of them said to me, ‘This collaboration with those young priests was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’ve been counseling people for many years but I’ve never done it this way—counseling people who had spoken to men of God about faith before they came in to see me, and I found myself part of a team. I will always be grateful for this opportunity.’ ”
Within days after 9/11, the mayor appointed Cardinal Egan chairman of a committee to plan an interfaith prayer service at Yankee Stadium. The service was held Sept. 23 and featured Oprah Winfrey as master of ceremonies and musical performances by Placido Domingo, Marc Anthony and others, along with statements and prayers from political and religious leaders.
“We had a very effective committee…and we were able to put together a wonderful event. It was a much needed encouragement, and I thought it was an example of New York at its best.”
As October approached, Cardinal Egan knew that he had to go to Rome for a Synod of Bishops that Pope John Paul II had appointed him to lead in February 2001 when he became a cardinal. When he arrived in Rome, he was told that he could return to New York after delivering the opening address for the Synod. This, however, was changed. Thus, the Cardinal flew back to New York for a day to celebrate a Mass on October 11, a month after the World Trade Center tragedy; and as the synod was winding down, he was permitted to return home a few days before it ended.
“Back here in New York, critical editorials were being written about my absence. There was nothing I could do but accept the cross…When Pope Benedict XVI came and we had that very beautiful ceremony at Ground Zero during his visit to New York in 2008, I felt that to a great extent we had finally put closure to the tragedy of September 11th.”
The Cardinal spoke at length and with deep feeling about the heroic men and women whose courage and generosity he witnessed on 9/11 and during the weeks that followed.
“The tragedy of the World Trade Center was an horrendous experience for New York and the nation. All the same, I have often thought back on it with feelings of immense pride in the political leadership of our city and state and especially in the immense courage of our police officers, firefighters and emergency workers. These men and women put themselves in danger day after day and asked only to help those in need. The example of self-sacrifice was almost overpowering. All whom I saw at Ground Zero during the first four or five days were heroes in every sense of that word—men and women of extraordinary courage and incredible generosity. They were, and always will be, an inspiration for me, an inspiration that I shall never forget. Even though for years I preferred not to talk about 9/11, I prayed about it over and over. My prayers were for the victims and their loved ones, of course, but also for those who taught New York and the nation lessons of deep-down goodness and genuine virtue, lessons that must never be forgotten.
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