Remembering 9/11 With Author Damon DiMarco and Father Jim Martin SJ
Twenty-two years ago today, the world changed. Not just New Jersey, or the New York metropolitan area, but the entire world, with the 9/11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged part of the Pentagon and included a plane crashing in a Pennsylvania field.
In all, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives that morning, leaving us all feeling angry, scared, lost.
Damon DiMarco has authored a number of books including Tower Stories, An Oral History of 9/11 in which he sat down with survivors of that horrific day and recorded their stories.
Father Jim Martin is a Jesuit priest who is an editor-at-large for the Jesuit magazine America and is also a New York Times Best Selling author.
They joined Jim Monaghan today on the WDHA Morning Jolt to talk about the events of 9/11/2001.
JIM MONAGHAN – I have two guests with me this morning – Damon DiMarco, who is the author of Tower Stories – An Oral History of 9/11, and Father Jim Martin. Damon, Father Martin good morning and welcome, and thank you for joining us this morning.
DAMON DIMARCO – Thanks.
JM – Damon, let me start with you. How did you go about choosing who you wanted to speak with regarding this book?
DD – It’s interesting, Jim. I didn’t really choose. They chose me. The first person I interviewed was a policeman who worked on my block, and he had been down at the pile, and so I saw him coming back from there. He walked past my apartment covered in dust. And that’s approximately the moment that I said, somebody ought to be interviewing these people and writing this down so that we could have a record of it. And after I interviewed him, he said, “Well, if you think I did something unusual, if you think that what I told you was worthy, you should talk to my firefighter friend.” And the firefighter led me to a paramedic, and the paramedic led me to a volunteer, and the volunteer led me to a survivor and the survivor…and it just went on and on like that. For 18 months. After 9/11, I probably interviewed I know it was over 100 people. They’re not all in the book, but eventually I interviewed over 100 people from all walks of life. Really.
JM – As you were talking with these people, what was the overwhelming thought going on in your head?
DD – The most prevalent thought was that, my God, these people are all looking out for each other. They’re all helping each other. They’re all in service to each other. It’s the way we got through it, and it brought out the best in human nature. I was amazed by that. I’m still amazed by that. It’s been 22 years, and the thing that I take away from it is, my God, look at what we can do. Look at what we can do. And it doesn’t always take a tragedy, by the way. It just takes a little, I don’t know, like a little courage or something, I don’t know, to see each other as human beings.
JM – Father Martin, I know you went down to Ground Zero that day. Tell us, our listeners, about your experiences.
FM – Yeah, so on September 13, two days after the attacks, I was at Chelsea Piers over on the West Side, which was like a triage center, and I ran into a police officer who was in a cruiser and said, do you want to go down there? And I said, sure. And he said, get in. And I got in the car and you remember, you could barely even drive down past 14th Street. So we drove all the way up to the site, right up to the site, over rubble and ash and stuff. And he opened the door and said, good luck. And so I was standing there in front of this, what everybody has seen this kind of almost like something from a movie. And I thought, well, I don’t know what I can do. Someone asked me if I could work at the morgue and I said I didn’t think I could do that. So I spent the next couple of days and weeks ministering to the rescue workers, to the firefighters, police officers, EMTs, nurses, doctors, and just trying to help them accompany them. So that was my ministry down there, along with a lot of other Jesuit priests and brothers and all sorts of other people that came. So it was ministering to those who were doing the ministry.
JM – What was it like saying mass at that site?
FM – Well, I guess it was that Sunday we realized there was no way to kind of organize a Mass and we just sort of set it up on a card table and people started coming. I think the most impressive thing for me as a Catholic was how people just instinctively started to come. There were so many firefighters, Hispanics and Irish-Americans. Right. And so I used to say that was the biggest parish in New York at the time because there were so many Catholics down there, so it was really just powerful. And at one point, someone put a spray painted sign up next to the altar and you know there were directional signs everywhere, like eyewash station this way, food this way. And someone obviously heard me saying, “The body of Christ…the body of Christ,” which is what you say when you give out communion. And they put a big sign next to the Mass, next to the altar with an arrow that said “the body of Christ,” which I thought was really powerful because this is the body of Christ and theology kind of all of us gathered together, but also the body of Christ kind of broken open. So it was really powerful. I mean, that was a literal sign to me.
JM – On this 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we’re speaking this morning with Damon DiMarco. He’s the author of Tower Stories – An Oral History of 9/11, and Father Jim Martin here at 105.5 WDHA. Damon, you said at one point in the book, “I am struck by the choices so called ordinary people make when confronting perhaps the most harrowing trial of their lives.” And that’s a theme that comes out again and again and again in every conversation that you had with these “ordinary people” who were anything but ordinary on that day and the subsequent days that followed.
DM – That’s correct. Yeah, I mean, you said it best, Jim. You said the word “choices.” And I’m not as theologically gifted as Reverend Martin is, but the way I see life is that we’re all given choices at every moment to connect with each other rather than to separate with each other, to be thankful rather than cast blame, to contribute rather than take to look inward rather than outward. It just kept going on and on and on. And these people who it was a privilege to interview them, they kept choosing each other. They kept choosing not themselves. These were people who ran inside the building while other people were running out. These are people who drove clear across the country to help people that they never even met before. These were common strangers on the New York City subway system who would see somebody crying and hold them and rock them like they were children. It brought out the best in us, because for a brief moment, we remembered we’re all just humans here, and we’re all just trying to get by. And that’s a powerful thing that I reflect on daily and certainly on a day like today.
JM – And Father, that came out in one of the comments you made in the book. “How do we get them, (meaning us people) to choose good things over bad things?” How do we do that?
FM – Yeah, that is a great question, the question of how do we get people to do the good. I think people have been struggling with that for a long time. One of the things is to remind people that it’s not just for you, right? The good is not just for you, it’s for the common good. But I think it’s the question of good and evil. And people do have a choice, as Damien was saying. But I go back to the scriptures, in the Old Testament, God says choose, you know, choose life over death. And so it is a choice. And I think also just you’re happier when you live a more, you know, a selfless life, a more other directed life. So even from a self interest standpoint, you’re happier.
DD – You know, Father Martin has a new book out. It’s called Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle. And it’s about the story of Lazarus, which is the story of rebirth, when Jesus calls to Lazarus and says, you can get up, live. And I think that resonates exactly with what he just said.
FM – Yeah, Lazarus has to make a choice, has to say yes to that.
DD – And, you know, it doesn’t even have to be from a Christian perspective. I think that that just as a story perspective is something that everybody can take away from.
JM – Damon, one of the people in the book, and I saw this through a number of different people, and you see it all the time on social media. Glenn Guzi, and I hope I’m pronouncing his last name correctly, he said, “I see a country that’s forgotten how to pull together.” And I’m not sure if I agree with that, because you think of anytime there’s something major that happens in this country. Father Martin, I know you’re an Eagles fan. I’m a Patriots fan. I’m sure we were rooting for different teams last night, but we drop all of that, all of those insignificant things. What baseball team do you root for? What party? This presidential candidate, that presidential candidate. I think in times where we’re faced with a major crisis, all of that seems to go away. Sometimes it’s hard to get through social media on that, but I think that’s still with us. I really do.
DD – Which part, Jim? I’m not sure.
JM – The part that we can come together, that we’re not as divided as social media makes us look like.
DD – I’m not even sure if it’s social media to blame. I just think that we’re human beings. We’re fallible, we’re mortal, we have all these problems, and so we just need a little unfortunately, it seems like we need a little kick in the pants every once in a while. But you’re pointing out that we just need a little courage, I think, and I agree with that completely. And we can all find it by just remembering that love is the answer. I hate to sound like the 70s pop song, but that’s pretty much at the end of the day, that’s what’s remembered. The acts of love and kindness and service are the things that people will sing songs about and write books about and tell stories about until human beings have left this universe. So that’s what we should be focused on, and it’s not that hard to do. Just make it a little daily meditation with your morning coffee.
JM – Father, before I let you go, I’m really simplifying things here, but to me, the message of Christ is, we’re only here for a short amount of time…we need to take care of each other. How do we do that? How does that message get through? How did we get it so distorted?
FM – Well, as Damon was saying, we’re all human beings, and so sin enters into it and our own failings. But the message is always out there for us to grasp and for us to respond to. I think, you know, for the believer, it’s also you remember that the message is coming from God. So it’s not just a kind of feel good message. It’s not just something that’s psychologically healthy. It’s an invitation from God to the individual. So I think it’s responding to that call and remembering that the relationship is really, in the end, the important thing.
JM – Author Damon DiMarco, the book is called Tower Stories – An Oral History of 9/11. Thank you so much. Father Jim Martin, thank you for joining us this morning here on WDHA. Pleasure.
DD – Thanks for having us, Jim.