From a dawn of beauty to disaster

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

Wilmington News Journal editor Tom Barr recently asked citizens to write about 9/11. This past week, as I started typing, I realized I had written these words before. I pulled up an old file and found this column. These words were written several years ago, but after rereading it, I realized … this it.

This is the first time I’ve submitted a column for republication, but the facts haven’t changed. Twenty years ago, the day dawned with a clear, bright-blue sky that demanded we slow down and appreciate the beauty of the day. It quickly changed. For me, it started just before 9 a.m.

Charlie Gibson was the anchor on “Good Morning America.” Just before I shut off the TV and left for work, Charlie interrupted the regular GMA programming to announce that an airplane had reportedly flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. At that time, it was being reported as a possible accident.

At work, as I walked past the radiology waiting room, all eyes were turned to the television. The news video showed a gaping hole in the side of the North Tower. It was too big of a hole to be a small aircraft. Reports were coming in that a passenger jet might be missing. There were rumors of a hijacking.

I went upstairs and poured my first cup of coffee. My office was next to cardiac rehabilitation. I always started my day with a cup of coffee and a visit to the patients in cardiac rehab.

Every morning, patients would walk, talk, and watch television together as their hearts were monitored by nurses and volunteers.

That morning was different. The treadmills were quiet. The only sound coming from cardiac rehab was the sound of TV news reports. I stood with them to learn the latest news from New York.

As we watched, talked, and tried to guess what was going on, a plane flew into the South Tower. The impact of the passenger airline hitting the skyscraper was followed by an enormous explosion, flames, and debris.

Almost every one of us said at the same time, “Oh, my God.”

It wasn’t said as an oath, it was said as a prayer. It was obvious to all of us that we were under attack.

There were distant, out-of-focus video images of people falling from the towers. Reports came in that people were jumping to their deaths rather than dying in the smoke and flames.

It was a scene from the depths of hell.

Like most Americans, we were glued to the TV set when the third aircraft was flown into the Pentagon. We worried when we heard that a hijacked aircraft was somewhere over Ohio. Then we were told that it had turned and was heading for Washington.

A short time later, we heard that the plane crashed near the small town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

As America watched, one after the other, the towers fell. Like most Americans, we were angry.

That evening, Debbie and I sat together at home as news reporters transmitted video and audio from the pile of debris that had once been the twin towers. The debris pile, with its massive, twisted girders was illuminated by large, bright, emergency lights. Searchers were shown climbing through the smoking remains.

Debbie asked, “What is that beeping noise?” I had been watching and listening, but it hadn’t registered in my mind as to what the sound was. From the scene, we could hear hundreds of high-pitched beeping sounds.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Each beeping sound was coming from a PASS alert system.

Whenever a firefighter enters a building, they carry a PASS alert system as part of their gear — PASS stands for “Personal Alert Safety System.” If the firefighter becomes trapped or unconscious and doesn’t move for about 30 seconds, the PASS alert will start emitting an audible, high-pitched beeping tone.

We were hearing the sound of hundreds of PASS alert tones coming from the pile of debris. Each tone represented a fallen firefighter — a firefighter who would never move again: 343 firefighters were buried in that pile of debris; 71 police officers responded to the scene and never returned. A total of nearly 3,000 people died that day; passengers, rescuers, military, but mostly they were civilians.

The first victim to be counted, the first person to be taken to the make-shift morgue, was a quiet man-of-the-cloth. A priest by the name of Father Mychal Judge will always be known as victim #0001.

Mychal Judge had been the chaplain of the Fire Department of New York City since 1992. He loved working with the firefighters of New York. He was quickly accepted as one of them.

That morning, as usual, he was monitoring his FDNY fire radio. When the dispatchers first called for police and fire personnel to respond to the World Trade Center, Father Judge grabbed his gear and responded. Whenever he responded to an emergency, he would pray in route. He prayed on 9/11 as he hurried to the scene.

Shortly after he arrived, he was asked by Mayor Giuliani to pray for the entire city. Father Judge continued praying. Soon, he was praying over the bodies of people who had fallen or jumped from the tower. People who saw him that morning remember him praying nonstop.

He was in the lobby of the North Tower, where the command post had been established. Judge was overheard praying loudly, “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”

He was still praying at 9:59 a.m. when the South Tower collapsed. Debris from the South Tower crashed into the lobby of the North Tower.

Father Mychal Judge was killed when heavy debris crashed into the lobby striking him in the head. He died almost immediately of blunt force trauma.

The day before he died, Father Judge told firefighters at the opening of a new fire station, “Isn’t God wonderful?! Isn’t He good to you, to each one of you, and to me? Turn to God each day – put your faith, your trust, your hope, and your life in His hands. He’ll take care of you.”

On the day he died, as always, his faith was in the Lord.

At his funeral, one of the speakers stated that Father Judge would have wanted to die first. That way he would be there to assist his many friends and the thousands of other men and women who died that day and were scared as they transitioned from their life on earth to a new life, a life everlasting.

Father Mychal Judge died as he lived – serving others.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist