A couple leaped from the South Tower, hand in hand. They reached for each
other and their hands met and they jumped. So many people saw this as a scar
burned onto our brains. But a man reached for a woman's hand and she reached
for his hand, and they jumped out the window holding hands. I try to whisper
prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the
screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her
hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. It
is the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most
graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and
tragedy. It is what makes me believe that we are not fools to believe in God,
to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds
that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what
we were, to believe against evil evidenced hourly that love is why we are
. . . .
Catholic priest and professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New
... Just to see the inevitable scene again and again of that plane. And was it
because they showed it again and again? No, no, because I felt it the first
time. Namely, there is no closure. This doesn't say to me, move on. It says,
stay. Stay and look. Stare into this black hole. Don't go away because this is
going to change you. And I knew it from the very first moment; this was not the
same. This was death in all its nakedness. Death. ...
The first thing I saw was horror. The horror in the faces of the people outside
the building, looking. I didn't see the buildings the first time, when I turned
on the television set; it was the faces. I saw their faces disfigured by
horror, by terror. And then I saw what was happening. I saw the explosion, the
fire, the smoke. The people jumping, jumping from windows ... unbelievable. ...
And how many times have I been up there? The mere idea, jumping, and hanging
from the window. How is it possible to fear what lies inside more than the
horror outside? This is incomprehensible. ...
As I looked at that scene of horror, the people jumping, the people running
away, the building falling, the flames, the explosions, was I consoled in some
way by my faith that I was here seeing the passage to another kind of life? No,
no, a thousand times, no. I didn't even think of it. ... I was dominated,
seized by the event, that's all. No interpretation. No consolation. Just the
reality. Later, later, the question emerges and faith comes in. But not at that
moment, no. ...
To me, that image [of the man and woman holding hands as they jumped] is an
inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of
that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about. The image confronts us
with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate
hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and death? Or is
it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines
in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power
greater than death itself? Which of the two? It's a choice. It's the choice of
. . . .
Photographer who has documented the cleanup and recovery efforts at Ground
Zero. (See an exhibition of his photographs
The first impression for me was the wild chaos of the fall. The complex, jumbled, steely, wiry, cabley, metallic mess of it, and knowing that in that
unbelievable, extraordinary pile there were at that time, we thought, 4,000,
5,000 people. There was no sense of escape. You looked at that pile and just to
witness it, to stand up against it, this looming five-, six-story tangled mass
was something that no one has ever seen. It was modern disaster. ... The
mangled quality of it puts one inside the fall. You can see your own soft,
vulnerable, fleshy self twisting down in the dark and the screeching horrifying
noise of it, and the compressing, mangling quality of it. It's evoked for me by
looking at that.
In some way, the city has kept that back from everybody by ... not letting the
public into the site. We only have our imagination or a few pictures that are
more or less aerial photographs looking down into the site from a building
above, and it looks like a messed-up parking lot. But to be there at ground
level and witnessing this torrent of metal and to see the sharpness -- I think
that's what it is, to see the sharpness of everything and to think about that
sharpness against yourself -- it's blades and knives and swords and scythes,
and it's horrific. You can't go anywhere without catching yourself feeling
you're in the building. ...
I saw one of the last sections of the three-story module that was what the
World Trade Center was built out of. Welders were working to take it apart so
they could truck it away. I was standing right next to it and I could feel the
dimension of one of the windows, how narrow it was, really not more than
two-and-a-half feet, narrower than a door. As they stood it up to put it in the
truck I looked at it, and the first thing I thought was, "Oh, people stepped
out of that slit into space." ...
One of the most impossible and memorable images of that day was people leaping
out of the windows, being forced out by the fire behind them, driving them,
herding them out the windows. ... The picture I always see is of those two
people holding hands, going together. You think about, they had 2,000 degrees on this side and fresh air on that side. What choice was there? Where
would you turn? That they had to do that and take their last bit of courage and
hold someone's hand and go with it was a nightmare. ... To see that image of
two people, coworkers, strangers, I had no idea -- but that not knowing made it
all the more poignant -- reaching out for somebody's hand to take the last
step, that you would end your life in the hands of a stranger, plummeting
thousands of feet to your death seeking a moment of comfort, is something that
will never leave my memory. ...
I think that the World Trade Center site has achieved more than this notion of
a cemetery, a graveyard. It's become hallowed ground because the people who
have attended to the cleanup -- and I mean the firemen and the police and the
rescue workers and the crane operators and the bulldozer drivers and everyone
down there -- are so sensitive to the issues of this catastrophe, to the family
issues, to the death of the individuals, to trying to find some remnant that
could bring some peace to a family member. They do this in such a devoted,
disciplined way. ... Every day they show up. And they're on their hands and
knees. ... Their salvaging is the salvation that's inherent in the site. ...
I understood recently that this is the American spirituality. ... This is our
national religion in a way, that we care about the individual, unlike those
guys that sent those planes. ... Life was meaningless to them. ... So I think
the site's hallowed quality is built up out of this kind of group
understanding. This is what our culture celebrates. Faced with an enormous
disaster like this, this is how we behave, and there isn't a false note to it.
I was down there at a moment that they were finding a larger number of remains.
... When I arrived, there were probably 150 men lined up in two ranks, going
all the way down a hill into the site. Coming up in between the ranks were six
firemen carrying a little orange plastic, like a sled draped with a flag, in
which were the remains of one or more, I don't know how many people. But as
they came up this hill, every single person along the hill took off their
helmet and put it over their heart, saluted, did this traditional American
gesture of respect for the dead. There was no one to do it for -- there was no
press, it wasn't a public demonstration. It was for the dead, and it was for
the workers and the firemen who coexist down there and who've made a life down
there. And they did it over and over again. ...
You see the look on their faces, the red light of the ambulance blinking and
you see these guys in the stress of having to bring yet another body, countless
numbers -- who knows how many each person has brought up? But that weighs on
them. It's a reminder, because they have to put that remains on that sled, they
have to handle that, and some of the remains are beyond words. ...
If you go to a cathedral every single day and sit inside that space, with
its smells and its tones and its experience of place, you would know something
about what emotions are embedded in that space. This 16-acre plot is an
enormous open-air cathedral, and if you go into it every day, you will be
changed. It's a visitation. It's knowledge.
home + introduction + questions of faith and doubt + our religions, our neighbors, our selves + interviews
discussion + producer's notes + poll: spiritual aftershocks? + video
photo © reuters newmedia inc./corbis
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation