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Heroic New York priests vividly recall Sept. 11 attacks

Marianne Medlin - Wed, Sep 7th 2011

Sept 17, 2001: FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams work to clear rubble and search for survivors at the WTC. Credit: Andrea Booher-FEMA News Photo

“It was hard to see much because of the smoke and debris. We wore face masks,” he recalled, “but the stench was overwhelming, especially the burning bodies.”

.- Father George Rutler remembers the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack as surreal. “The whole scene looked liked a black and white movie, with all the color drained out – that made it even harder to grasp that the shocking events were real and not an illusion.”

“Everything was covered with a white powder and everyone looked like ghosts.”

Fr. Rutler, current pastor of Church of our Savior in New York City, was living at St. Agnes Parish near Grand Central Station during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He told CNA that he remembers the details of that day 10 years ago “very well – as though they happened yesterday.” 

“One of the airplanes flew over my rectory and I wondered why such a large plane was flying so low. It never occurred to me that it was aiming for the World Trade Center,” he said.

“There was an element of disbelief in watching the towers collapse.”

And the “surreal nature of this was compounded by the remarkably beautiful sunlight and bright blue sky over the rest of Manhattan,” he added.

“But then the acrid smoke spread and the terrible smell lingered for days and even weeks all over the city.” 

After the planes hit the Twin Towers that morning, the priest immediately ran to secure holy oils from St. Peter's Church near the scene, which was filled with dust and had been evacuated. 

“I then helped firemen with the body of a priest who had been killed – brought the body into the church,” Fr. Rutler said. “That was the first official casualty.” 

He then remembered spending “quite a lot of time” giving absolution to firemen going in to save victims and even joined a fireman in trying to get into a smaller nearby building that had erupted in flames.

“It did strike me as of spiritual import that in that whole black and white scene, the only color was the red of blood – the sign of life and death at the same time.”

“At one point I think I was in shock,” he recalled, “because I was taken to a medical center set up in St. Andrew's church near the City Hall.”

“I knew hundreds were either killed or escaped from the buildings,” Fr. Rutler added, “and countless spouses and children and relatives.”

In the following weeks, he became exhausted from conducting funerals.

Fr. Gerald Murray of St. Vincent De Paul Church remembers going to the roof of his rectory in Chelsea when he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

“It was quite dramatic,” he recalled, momentarily stunned by what he saw that morning 10 years ago.

His next move, however, was surprising.

Rather than follow the natural instinct to run away from danger, he grabbed his bike and rode in the direction of the inflamed towers “so that I could be of use as a priest giving last rites,” he told CNA.

As he rode his bike down 7th Ave., he came across the now-closed St. Vincent's Hospital where doctors and nurses where already out on the sidewalk with stretchers and gurneys waiting to receive the injured.

Having served as a Navy Reserve chaplain, Fr. Murray explained that he was taught that the “chaplain doesn't go to the battle line, he goes where they bring the wounded – the aid station.”

“Immediately I saw the priest at St. Vincent's and I said 'could you use some help?' and he said 'yes' so I stayed at St. Vincent's the whole morning and gave absolution to people who were being wheeled in.”

He was later joined by former archbishop of New York Cardinal Edward Egan and a diocesan priest who was the chaplain of the Port Authority police who was covered in soot from being downtown.

Fr. Murray said he remembers the sudden screams that went up from those around him at the hospital as they helplessly looked on from a distance when the Twin Towers began collapsing.

Later in the day, “I went back to my parish to say Mass, and that was one of the most dramatic feelings,” he said. “Saying Mass knowing that we'd been hit by this evil.”

In the following months, Fr. Murray spent substantial amounts of time at Ground Zero.

“When the firemen would recover any remains there would be a priest there to bless the remains before they were brought to an ambulance to be taken to the medical examiner.”

“When I was there, in fact, they recovered the remains of a fireman so we said some prayers and accompanied the remains to the ambulance,” he recalled. “So that was very fulfilling to be able to do that.”

Both priests remember being moved at how the local community mobilized immediately after the tragedy hit.

“The city really snapped into action,” Fr. Murray said, noting that then-mayor Rudy Guliani came by that morning to St. Vincent's Hospital. He also remembered “a lot of people milling around St. Vincent's.”

“It was very inspiring – people lined up to give blood and it was very moving.”

Fr. Rutler agreed, saying there “was a  most remarkable display of cooperation. New Yorkers are at their best in crisis.”

“My parish is on 23rd street,” Fr. Murray noted, “which is a main crosstown route for any transport but it became the route for any ambulances that recovered remains.”

“I remember distinctly saying Mass and hearing the sirens and watching the ambulances go by on more than one occasion and knowing that they were taking a victim of the attack to the medical examiner.”

“It was a vivid reminder of the evil that we had suffered and sharing the cross of Christ.” 

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