By Arthur Cola
School had just started three weeks prior to that September 11, 2001 morning. I had taken the 8th grade class of St. Anastasia School in Waukegan, IL to St. Mary of the Lake University/Seminary in Mundelein, IL so that I might conduct a Confirmation preparation retreat with them. The grounds of the seminary university where spectacular that morning as the yellow school bus offered a contrast to the greens of the trees lining the drive with just a hint of the fall changes which would come soon to the Midwest. In the distance the tall steeple of the Chapel rose as if to touch heaven itself. Designed in Colonial and Georgian architecture one might have thought they entered a time warp into the early days of our nation’s development. The gleaming white steeple and Columns supporting the portico over the entrance against the red brick of the building created in this former History teacher a view expecting to see Ben Franklin or George Washington walking down the chapel steps. But it was the cordial retreat center coordinator who stood waiting for us. She was gracious and welcoming as the students, as they do so often, poured out of the bus filled with enthusiasm and wonder. None of them had ever seen St. Mary of the Lake and to them it was a step into the history of their faith tradition.
No one thought that sunny morning, ten years ago, would turn into one filled with the horror of dust clouds and smoke blocking out the sun across New York City from what was about to take place at the World Trade Center Towers, nor at a peaceful field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania which was about to be plowed with the force of a jet plane’s fuselage grinding into its fertile soil, and certainly not of the crumbling wall of the imposing symbol of strength for our nation’s might, the Pentagon Building.
Thus with laughter and chatter we followed our leader into the center so that she might conduct her orientation. Having been shown the rooms available to us and where the Necessities where located (to use Ben Franklin’s term) and most importantly where the meals would be served, we passed by a TV set which had the local news being featured. I immediately informed the class that there would be no TV watching for this was a retreat to put them into touch with their spirituality. Of course that would require more explanation and so I want at it. Large sheets of paper were given to each group of five I created from the more than 30 students involved. On them they were to draw symbols or write words which they identified with their faith experience. In these days of I Pads, Droids, Kindles and so forth one might think I was teaching back in Colonial times. None the less they went to their task with fervor. As they did so under the direction of the teachers and parent chaperones, I was summoned by the Director of the Center. She alerted me to the News Bulletin just coming across the TV screen.
In what seemed like seconds images of a plane flying into the World Trade Tower exploded onto the screen. This was followed by reports that America may be under attack. The President was to be flown out of Florida away from Washington, D.C. as another report came across that the Pentagon was under attack. Panic broke out amongst the staff standing behind us when another bulletin was issued that Chicago might be attacked by these as yet unknown forces who had hijacked planes to conduct the attacks.
As the students unaware of any of these announcements continued their assignment, I directed that all parents should be contacted assuring them that their children were safe and that in my opinion, should Chicago be attacked, being in the country, so to speak, would be a safer place to be. I asked that they come to the Chapel where I would take the students to meet them. Then came the difficult part for me, that was to explain the events which were happening as I spoke.
It was amazing to witness as I began to communicate what was being reported just how mature and though apprehensive my students took the news. On the one hand, we wanted to keep the views of the attacks from them but did allow a time for them to see the reports coming in. Many felt that they needed to realize that what was happening was not a show but real. The United States may very well be under attack for the first time since December 7, 1941, a time they hardly understood and only from their History books. Thus with the limited knowledge we had at that point we took the students to a inner area of the center with no windows as one might do during a tornado alert. I conducted the retreat as planned integrating into it an expanded time for prayer and reflection, answering questions about what type of people would do such horrible things, calming fears that each time we heard a plane that it might use the University buildings as a target, and keeping everyone aware of the latest bulletins.
After what seemed an eternity, there was silence in the skies, all planes had been grounded. Air Force One landed with President George W. Bush safely. A brave group of passengers on United Flight 93 stormed the terrorists bound for Washington D.C. and crashed the plane in that fertile field in Pennsylvania. One outer portion of the Pentagon sustained significant damage but not complete penetration of its walls. The Towers however were infernos and crashed with thousands of people still in them and many New York Fire Fighters and Police Officers trying to save them perishing with them. Finally it was apparent that no other attacks were taking place. I felt that it was safe to take the students to the Chapel where their parents would be arriving.
The reunion of the shakened parents with their children was quite an emotional scene and for 8th graders, who thought themselves quite “cool” welcomed. As for this husband and father of five, I finally got a call through to my wife and was assured of everyone’s well being.
When all had gathered, I was to conduct a prayer service for those who were killed in the Towers, Pentagon and Shankesville plane crash, those who survived the horror, our nation’s leaders and a prayer that out of the ashes a new call for peace and understanding might rise.
The sun was beginning to set and an orange glow illuminated the Chapel façade. My assistant and music teacher began to play the hymn, “How Great Thou Art” as votive candles were given to each student and parent. We processed into the Chapel singing softly, the candles glowing in remembrance of all who were lost and all who were suffering from the horror of that September 11, 2001 sunny morning. Rather than going into the pews I gathered everyone around the Altar within the sanctuary. There, with candles held with a bit of trembling gave thanks that we were safely gathered to mourn for our fellow citizens who perished, for those who bravely sought to rescue them, administer aide and comfort all those who survived the attacks, those who protected us in this time of uncertainty and for God’s grace to sustain us and strengthen us as we moved out into a world quite different than it was when we entered those peaceful grounds filled with majestic trees stretching their branches out as if to shield those below, brilliantly blooming flowers stimulating our senses, expansive lawns peacefully carpeting the soil and a calmly flowing stream that morning.
On this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think that most of us have a memory to share. Questions like: Where were you? What happened to you? How did you hear about what took place? are being asked across our land, I’m sure. They certainly are the ones that came to mind for me as I walked on a bright August 24th day through the 9/11 Exhibit in New York, watched as they constructed the new tower, now half way to its 104 floors, and visited St. Paul’s Chapel which survived destruction when the Twin Towers crashed down onto the streets and buildings of New York City a decade ago.
This is my story and one which I hope I may never have to write about again. And yet mine, like yours, should be shared lest we forget our history, our heritage, our faith, the need for understanding and tolerance, and the strength of our values for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as “One Nation under God.”
(Arthur Cola is a veteran educator of 35 years. He is an author of three novels: The Stone Cutter Genius, The Shamrock Crown (Legend of Excalibur) and Papa and the Leprechaun King. He has written screenplays based on his books and also wrote a Children’s Christmas themed story of Papa and the Gingerbread Man. Become his friend on Facebook, follow him on Twitter. Join his tours of Ireland, Britain or Italy based on his books: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com. Blog site:www.arthurcolalegednarytales.wordpress.com. Web site: http://www.arthurcolalegendarytales.com ).