20 years later, people reflect on how 9/11 shaped their faith

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A boy in New York City stands at a display of names of 9/11 victims at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum Aug. 15, 2021. CNS photo/Jeenah Moon, Reuters

When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, it set in motion a series of events that led to the deaths of almost 3,000 people that day. More people died from injuries and exposure in the ensuing years.

The attacks in New York, on the Pentagon in Virginia and on United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, caused a cataclysm of fear and grief, followed by a period of national unity. But for many whose lives were directly touched, they also marked a moment when God came near.

‘No one can take my memories’

Mary Jane LaVache had dropped her mother, Maria LaVache, a receptionist at Marsh & McLennan, off at the express bus stop earlier that morning before returning to their Brooklyn home to get ready for work herself.

Maria LaVache
Maria LaVache

It was a beautiful day, and LaVache was a consultant with a flexible schedule. Maybe she could meet her mother for lunch, she thought. LaVache liked to pick her mother up from her desk on the 99th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, where her mother greeted the company’s international representatives when they came to New York for meetings. She also was popular with the young IT staff members who worked on the same floor.

“She was like a den mother,” LaVache said. “I’d pick her up for lunch and there’d be all these young workers congregated around her desk.”

Then a friend called with the news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. That was the beginning of a disorienting time when the family relied on its faith community at St. Ephrem Parish. LaVache, now 56, has been a parishioner there since she was 10 months old.

Maria LaVache was one of nine St. Ephrem parishioners killed at the World Trade Center. One was a firefighter; the others — including three young men, all friends, who had graduated from high school only a few months before and had gotten jobs together at a financial company — worked in the buildings.

“It really sent a shockwave through the community,” LaVache said. “After the dust settled, so to speak, we needed for ourselves and for the public at-large to remember and honor these people and make a statement about how our faith played a vital role getting us through this.”

A sculpture of Jesus embracing the twin towers
A sculpture of Jesus embracing the twin towers of New York’s former World Trade Center is seen outside St. Ephrem Church in the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

LaVache worked with parishioners to create the Garden of Hope, a memorial with trees dedicated to the victims and a life-size statue of Jesus the Good Shepherd holding the Twin Towers in his hands. A piece of steel from the World Trade Center is at the base.

“What a beautiful and comforting thought, that he went out to gather up his sheep,” LaVache said. “For those who were scared or lost, he gathered them up and took them all to a safe pasture.”

Now when LaVache thinks of her mother, she thinks of the way she was just before she died, celebrating her 60th birthday with her husband and two daughters.

“I was very blessed to have a very good, close relationship to her,” LaVache said. “I need to laugh and cry in equal doses. It keeps me balanced. I’ll cry, and I’ll miss having her here for her support and camaraderie, and I’ll laugh because of her sense of humor. … No matter what, no one can take my memories. They’re tucked away safely in my heart.”

‘Life could go on’

Jeanette LaFond Menechino also worked for Marsh & McLennan on the 94th floor of the North Tower.

Her sister, Anita LaFond Korsonsky, said Menechino was a talented painter, but she worked in the insurance industry, and by the time she was 49 in 2001, she was a vice president of her company.

Jeanette LaFond Menechino
Jeanette LaFond Menechino

“She loved living in Brooklyn, and she loved Manhattan, and she loved working at the World Trade Center, because it was such an iconic place,” Korsonsky said.

Korsonsky didn’t think anything of it when Menechino didn’t answer her phone that morning. Korsonsky had called from her own office to check in before the sisters’ workdays really got going, but there could have been any number or reasons why Menechino was away from her desk.

Then a coworker told Korsonsky a plane had hit the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, word came of the second plane.

“Then we started seeing pictures,” Korsonsky said. “I knew exactly where my sister’s offices were, and there was this big hole. Shortly thereafter, the towers collapsed.”

A colleague drove Korsonsky home, and she found herself wandering from room to room, trying to process everything.

“I remember coming into one of the bedrooms in my home, about 4 p.m.,” Korsonsky said, “looking out the window at the sky, looking up and saying to God, ‘Where is she?’ I didn’t know who else to go to at that point. I said, ‘I’m pleading with you. Can you give me an idea?’ The feeling I had then was that, ‘You don’t have to worry. She was on the 94th floor of that building, so close to heaven, and I reached down, I took her in my hands, and I took her up to heaven where we have our ultimate life when we leave this earth, and she is next to me and she is safe.'”

From that moment, Korsonsky said, she stopped worrying about her sister.

“I felt, ‘I don’t need to look for her, I don’t need to wait for a phone call,'” she said. “‘She is safe. Now what I need to do is put my life back together and deal with my mom and my dad.’ … I wasn’t necessarily asking for him to bring her back to me. I just wanted to know that she was safe, and she is. I know that she is safe and I will see her again one day.”

Since then, Korsonsky said, she pays more attention to God’s creation.

“I think I became more aware of the magnificent things that God did when he made the world, things like the changes of the seasons,” she said. “The way the world functions. … It continues. Even if something really terrible happens to you, the world goes on. And that’s the beautiful thing. The world goes on. I realized that my life could go on.”

Christ is the way out

Deacon Jim Tighe of St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana, wondered if he was a modern Job when he learned that his youngest brother, Stephen Edward Tighe, was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Deacon Tighe and his wife, Pat, had lost their two daughters in a car crash only a couple of years earlier. On 9/11, Tighe learned of the attacks on his way to meetings in downtown Fort Wayne for his job selling radio ad time. When he got to the hotel where the meetings were, he saw the images on television.

“I found a quiet corner and called my sister on the cellphone,” he said. “I asked, ‘Where’s Stephen?’ and I just knew.'”

Stephen Tighe
Stephen Tighe

Stephen Tighe worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the North Tower.

Deacon Tighe recalls that he found a quiet corner to sit down, and one of his account reps found him. He asked his colleague to call Mary Pohlman, the pastoral associate at St. Jude who had accompanied the Tighes in their grief after their daughters died.

“She came and … sat with me, and I said, ‘I have to tell my wife,'” Deacon Tighe said, and Pohlman accompanied him to his wife’s workplace.

“We knew our faith could carry us through it, because we’d been down that road,” he said. “There came a point after our daughters’ death when we realized that Christ alone was our way through this. Everything else didn’t mean anything. That’s the whole essence of Eucharist. The presence of Christ in our lives is our way out.”

That doesn’t take away the grief. Deacon Tighe said he broke down the next month when he caught sight of lower Manhattan without the towers from across the river in New Jersey. He was driving home to Rockville Centre on Long Island for his brother’s memorial service.

The Cathedral of St. Agnes in Rockville Center hosted 40 or 50 memorial services, “like they were on a conveyor belt,” he said, and everyone knew someone who was killed.

“What was really difficult is you have the whole country grieving with you, because it’s very difficult to say, ‘Give me some downtime,'” Deacon Tighe said. “You’re one of the guys now. Your brother was killed by terrorists.”

People wanted to help, he said, but all they could really do was pray.

“I talk to people about the presence of Christ in our everyday life,” he said. “That was what got us through. The more you trust in Christ, the more he gives you everything and gives you what you need. … Eventually, after all of this, I was called to the diaconate, and was ordained 10 years ago. Christ keeps calling us. Sometimes I ask, ‘Are you crazy?’ Sometimes that’s how I know it’s God calling me.”

‘Jesus is with you’

Father Stephen McGraw, ordained June 9, 2001, has long had an interest in divine providence. He wrote a paper about it in the seminary, and the paragraphs that deal with divine providence in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are among his favorites.

Father Stephen McGraw
Father Stephen McGraw

So, he said, it must have been divine providence that had him driving past the Pentagon at 9:46 a.m. on 9/11, running late for a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I was celebrating a Mass for the children at St. Anthony of Padua School,” said Father McGraw, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. “When it was over, I hopped in my car and headed for the cemetery, and I didn’t have the radio on, so I had no idea what was happening.”

When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, Father McGraw first thought it was an accident.

The cause of the crash didn’t matter; what mattered was that people needed help. After passing the aftermath of a road accident weeks earlier and not stopping to see if the person being loaded into an ambulance needed him, Father McGraw had firmly resolved that if he ever came across another serious accident, he would stop.

He left his car in the left lane of the highway, grabbed his purple stole and oil for anointing the sick, and climbed onto the Pentagon lawn.

“There were continuing little smaller pops or explosions from the building itself,” McGraw said. “I don’t even recall seeing people coming across, but the next thing I was aware of, there were some wounded people who had made their way across the lawn, and medics were there attending to them.

“My sense that arose of what was most needful for them was to be assured of Jesus’ presence. I was saying, ‘Jesus is with you. Jesus is with you.’ More than once, there was an affirmative response.”

He recalls two people he ministered to, both of whom suffered burns.

A woman asked him to tell her parents she loved them. She died after being airlifted to the hospital, and it was years later that Father McGraw learned her identity; when he did, he wrote to them.

“There was also a gentleman, Juan Cruz; he had been burned on the front side of him, so he was lying on his back. The medics were in on either side of him, so I stayed by his head,” Father McGraw said.

Cruz asked Father McGraw his name, and he identified himself as a Catholic priest. When Cruz said he was Catholic, Father McGraw anointed him.

When the two met years later, Father McGraw said, Cruz didn’t remember him.

“All he remembered was that someone was praying, and he thought it was maybe his mother or his guardian angel,” Father McGraw said. “And maybe they were there, too.”

The wounded were taken to hospitals within the first half an hour, Father McGraw said, but he was at the Pentagon for more than seven hours, waiting in the courtyard with family members of people who had not been found by the end of the day.

For the past four years, Father McGraw has ministered at a mission parish in the Dominican Republic staffed by the Diocese of Arlington. He believes that is where God wants him to be now, just as God wanted him at the Pentagon.

“I was meant to be there,” he said. “God wanted a priest to be there, as a sign of God’s presence and his closeness, and through his providence, I was there.”

Prayer in the rubble

Then-New York Police Sgt. Tom Wilson closed the Manhattan end of the Williamsburg Bridge to car traffic on 9/11, making way for pedestrians streaming off the island.

Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson

“I spent 16 hours there that day,” said Wilson, now retired.

He didn’t really go home for a month, he said, pushing his oldest son’s first birthday party to well after the actual date.

Wilson was born and raised Catholic and raised his five children Catholic, too, but he doesn’t remember praying much that day. What he remembers is watching the skies, looking for the next attack.

“I was in the military, and I served overseas,” Wilson said. “And this felt like we were at war.”

Sept. 12, 2001, was his first day on-site at Ground Zero, he said.

“You think you’re going to rescue people, but there was no one to rescue,” he said.

It was in the weeks and months after, when Wilson sifted through debris at “the pile,” as the site at Ground Zero became known, or at Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where the debris was taken, that he began to pray.

“You were given a metal rake and a section, you sifted through it, or you had a sifter at the landfill and you sifted through debris on a conveyor belt,” he said.

He was looking for remains — small things like a tooth or identifiable artifacts like rings, but pretty much everything was reduced to powder.

“Except for paper,” he said. “There was a lot of paper.”

Those sifting the remains were given five-gallon buckets to hold anything they found, and Wilson would turn his over and sit on it between loads of debris because it was always empty.

“I never found anything,” he said. “I would sit on that bucket while they placed more debris on my grid area. Then I would genuflect or pray. The Catholic belief is something that I strongly believe in. I fell back on it, and it supported me.”

Wilson now volunteers with the FealGood Foundation, which advocates for first responders who have faced health repercussions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

That’s what his children see, he said, not the work he did in 2001 and early 2002.

“I don’t really tell them about that,” he said. “My children have seen me go down to Washington, D.C., or up to Albany (to testify in legislative hearings). That’s what they know.”

‘God didn’t do that’

Then-New York Police Detective Rafael Orozco first saw the burning World Trade Center not on television but from a car wash in Brooklyn.

Rafael Orozco
Rafael Orozco

He and his partner were assigned to election detail that day, and they were getting their vehicle washed before getting started. They saw one tower on fire, and as they prepared to head back to help, they saw the plane hit the second tower.

“Most people were being ushered out (of lower Manhattan) by emergency people,” said Orozco, who was raised Catholic and is now Protestant. “They were trying to get as many people out of the area as they could. There was no time for fear; there was time for action. My group was trying to get toward what would be known as ‘the pile.’

“I said a small prayer before we left the command, because I already knew there was a great possibility that we might not return. I always pray. Most cops, whether they admit it or not, they pray. … I would say, ‘Lord, you are my shield, I’m your champion.”

Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, standing with laborers and emergency workers in Oct. 5, 2001, blesses a 17-foot-tall cross formed by steel beams that was recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York. CNS photo/Kathy Willens, Reuters

Orozco, who retired in 2003, developed breathing problems, gastroesophageal reflux disease and immune response problems, among other health issues, after spending almost five months at the World Trade Center site. But he believes God protected him.

“God didn’t do that,” he said of the attacks. “A lot of people blame God for everything that’s negative but never give him credit for all those things that are positive. A lot more people could have been killed. On that particular day, there were a lot of people who were intent on doing something very bad, and it was going to happen.

“As for God’s protection, his guidance, his strength, his courage — when you witness what we witnessed, you need a lot of courage. Nothing was going to stop us from doing what we were supposed to do. We were there to help, not hide. God has been by my side since the day I was born, I’ve believed it since I was a little boy. After that incident, my faith became deeper. I know a lot of people, they became angry, but I don’t because everything happens for a reason, even if I don’t understand it. I may never understand it in my lifetime.”

Sacrificing for the good of others

Michael O’Connell had been a New York City firefighter for about three months on 9/11.

Michael O'Connell
Michael O’Connell

He had joined the police department at 22 and switched to the fire department three years later. At the time, he was young and not really prepared for what had happened, he said.

“Not that I would do anything differently now,” said O’Connell, who retired from the department in 2007 after developing sarcoidosis.

O’Connell was home when the planes struck. He headed to his firehouse in Queens, then rode into Manhattan on a bus with other first responders.

“Coming down the West Side Highway, we were told there were multiple planes hijacked,” he said. “We knew kind of what the job was going to entail. We were going into Manhattan where 200 stories of office buildings had come tumbling down. … The majority of it was digging and searching and seeing if we could get anybody home to their families. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful.”

After the initial response, firefighters were assigned to work 24 hours on in their firehouses and 24 hours off.

“Your 24 off, no fireman went home,” he said. “We went back down to lower Manhattan to search. Even though I wasn’t married and had no children, I had family: two brothers, parents. I was thinking, ‘What would I want in if I was in that circumstance?'”

The fire department lost 343 members that day, including six members of O’Connell’s academy class.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and we are tested time and time again,” he said. “Now being a father of three children and married for over 15 years, I know we are tested. What is the long-term effect, how are we going to battle back?”

O’Connell said the tattoos on his arms are all things that are significant to him. His wife and kids are there, and Jesus on the cross, and a poem about giving more than you receive.

“It’s basically a sacrifice theme, making sure we sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, like Jesus did,” he said. “If I give more than I take, teach more that I am taught, love more than I am loved — if I do that, I think it’s going to pay off significantly. This is the way we should live our lives, and we’ll be in a better environment. You would hope that 9/11 will not happen again, and there will be less racism, less hate, less violence.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.