September 3, 2021

‘We were no longer strangers, we were all children of God who came together’

Sept. 11, 2001: A time of terror, faith, heartbreak—and the unity we once knew in the United States

(Editor’s note: Readers of The Criterion have shared their thoughts and memories of Sept. 11, 2001, creating an emotional perspective of how that tragic day in American history touched their lives and their faith then—and continues to influence their lives and faith today.)

Rick Pohlman working at the site of ground zero in New York City after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Submitted photo)

Rick Pohlman working at the site of ground zero in New York City after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Judy Davis-Fuller screamed in horror on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

By the end of that emotionally overwhelming day, the feeling of devastation was still there from watching terrorists deliberately crash two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. But that terror was also touched by a solidarity, a strength and a single purpose that bonded strangers in a way that Davis-Fuller will never forget, and that still guides her life.

(Related: See more of our coverage of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks)

A member of St. Michael Parish in Greenfield, Davis-Fuller was enjoying being part of a family reunion on a Georgia beach on that tragic morning.

“I had turned on the TV to watch the news while preparing breakfast and shortly heard the news about the first plane hitting one of the towers,” she recalls. “I must have screamed because suddenly, everyone else was in the kitchen and dining room area watching with me in disbelief and horror.

“Cameras were now trained on the smoke billowing out of the first tower. We could see people actually jumping to their death to escape the fire from the jet fuel.

Then we again watched in horror as a second plane intentionally flew into the second tower. We were so stunned that at first no one could say anything except, ‘Oh, dear God!’ ”

During the course of the day, terrorists also hijacked and crashed another plane into the Pentagon. Then another plane—Flight 93—crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania. That plane had also been taken over by terrorists and was believed to be headed toward the White House or the U.S. Capitol until passengers joined together to stop that plan.

Overwhelmed by the news, Davis-Fuller and other family members retreated to the beach, trying to make sense of “what was happening in our country.”

“Evidently there were many more who had the same idea,” she recalls. “Perfect strangers gathered together on the beach to share thoughts, share comfort. We were no longer strangers, we were all children of God who came together to discuss the event and to pray together.

“I was already a believer, but that horrendous event strengthened my belief even more when strangers gathered together to pray for a single cause—to pray for those who lost their lives that day and to pray for those firefighters and other first responders who were frantically working, putting their own lives on the line, to save those who were buried in the rubble when the towers both fell.”

Twenty years later, one special thought is forever etched in her mind.

“The United States of America was forever changed on that day,” she says. “People from all walks of life, all religions, all races and nationalities came together as one under God’s protection.

“I no longer take anything for granted. I thank God every morning for getting me safely through the night, for all the blessings he has given me, and for giving me a new day to try to become a better Christian.”

‘Christ was present’

The heartbreak and reverence still fill Rick Pohlman as the retired Indianapolis firefighter shares his memories of rushing to New York City to try to rescue people from the buried rubble of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

He still remembers the adrenaline of traveling through the night of Sept. 11, 2001, as a member of the Indiana Task Force 1.

He still recalls the haunting, gut-churning feeling of seeing “the pile” for the first time—and how he said a prayer and made an examination of conscience as he tried to make his way through 16 acres of collapsed concrete, including the “widow makers,” the name given to the debris hanging from surrounding buildings that posed extreme hazards to everyone working the pile.

He also remembers the emotion of passing the Catholic church where New York firefighters took the body of Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain of the Fire Department of New York who initially prayed over dead bodies in the streets on the morning of 9/11 before rushing to provide aid and prayers to people in the North Tower. There, he and others were killed by falling debris from the South Tower.

And Pohlman will never forget the impact that all those scenes and experiences have had on his Catholic faith then and still now.

“Frequently while responding to difficult situations, you would acknowledge to yourself that what you were about to experience could end badly,” says Pohlman, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis. “Usually, that would invoke a short prayer and perhaps an act of contrition or examination of conscience.”

He turned to his faith often at “ground zero.”

“The rubble pile was [more than] five stories tall with massive spires still standing,” he recalls. “Fires would erupt without warning from the flammable liquids in vehicles parked in the below-ground garages. On one search operation, we had a squad in a void area when one of these fires erupted. Luckily, we only sustained minor casualties with a few second-degree burns. Again, a gut check and a few prayers of thanksgiving.”

There were also the moments of thanks that Pohlman and the other rescue-and-recovery workers received.

“Each day approaching the pile, we were greeted by people lining the streets cheering us on and thanking us for our assistance,” he says. “Early on, there was still hope of finding survivors. Later in the week, it became less likely, and efforts were shifted to respectful recovery of those who perished.”

A feeling of heartbreak and reverence set in during those efforts. In the midst of that time, the power of the Eucharist and the presence of Christ touched Pohlman deeply in a moment he never expected. 

“On Sunday, Sept. 16, I was working the pile. I had lost track of the days at that point until I saw a priest at the edge of the pile just across from Fire Station 10. The priest was distributing Communion to the workers. I was brought to tears as I received the Eucharist from this priest.

“I cannot convey the range of thoughts and emotions of receiving the Eucharist in the midst of such utter devastation. Somehow, Christ was present in the midst of all of that, through the efforts of a priest who saw the need to minister to those working the pile. This was even more poignant remembering Father Mychal, who had given his life ministering to others in the middle of the chaos.”

A time of death—and life

In many ways, the story of Sept. 11, 2001, can be framed in terms of the nearly 3,000 Americans who died in the terrorist attacks.

They were husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and friends.

And the impact of their deaths on the people they loved and the people who loved them was devastating—and has continued in different emotional ways in the 20 years since then.

In the midst of the heartbreak of that tragedy—and the fear and uncertainty that gripped the United States at that time—Christa Bunch’s main focus was on life. She was five months pregnant with her and her husband’s first child.

As Bunch watched the news coverage of the planes flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the former airline flight attendant knew the crashes were intentional. She and her husband Eric—an airline mechanic—knew enough about flying to know when planes were “being off pattern versus flying into a building.”

As she continued to watch the news coverage in the following days, she hoped for miracles, that lives could be rescued from the rubble that entombed so many, never sensing that her own child would soon be struggling to live.

Two months later, on Nov. 14, Bunch went to visit her doctor for her monthly checkup when it was determined she was already going into labor at just 26 weeks of being pregnant. Her doctor immediately sent Bunch across the street to a hospital. There, for the next two weeks, every effort was made to get the labor to stop.

“It was successful at first and then, like the flip of a switch, I went into unstoppable labor,” recalls Bunch, a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis.

She was rushed into an operating room for an emergency cesarean section that led to the delivery of Maxwell Warner Bunch, their 2-pound, 12-ounce, 15-inch-long son.

“He was bruised from head to toe because he was still so far up inside me,” she recalls. “It took everything to get him out.”

As Max remained in the hospital into December, his life once again hung in the balance.

“We received a call late one night that Max had stopped breathing, and they needed to send him to Riley Children’s Hospital for further evaluation,” his mother says.

Max pulled through again and finally came home to his parents on January 18, 2002, three weeks before his actual due date of Feb. 12.

“With only minor setbacks over the first couple of years, Max has turned into a healthy, thriving, 6-foot, 2-inch,

20-year-old young man,” says Bunch about her son who recently began his college education at Ball State University.

“I could never reason in my head why any of it happened the way it did, but the one thing I knew is that God had him in his protective hands from day one and has never let him go.

“On 9/11, almost 3,000 lost their lives. I often think of Max as being God’s way to carry on the life of one person lost on 9/11.”

‘We became more aware of our need for each other’

The sinking feeling hit James Welter in waves.

It came first as he watched the tragedy of 9/11 unfold on a small television and saw the heartbreak of lives lost and families devastated as “powerful symbols of our culture crumbled before our eyes.”

The second wave struck Welter as the U.S. government ordered that “all airplanes are to land immediately, and all flights are canceled.”

“My wife was overseas, maybe even in the air on the way home,” recalls Welter, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis. “I raced home to check her itinerary in a frantic attempt to determine her location.

“In one of those grace-filled moments, the phone rang five minutes after I arrived at the house: My wife Helen was safe, but she was stranded in Rome and did not know when she would be able to return. For another eight agonizing days, I struggled to get airline information and waited for her e-mails.

“I was not alone in my fear and anxiety. People came to church in great numbers in the days and weeks following the attack, as we all experienced a new closeness with family and friends. We became more aware of our need for each other. We recognized our dependence on God. And we came to terms with our own mortality and saw the fragility of life.”

At the time, Welter was about a year into an online, faith-sharing ministry that he had started at St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis—sending his reflections of faith by e-mail.

“In my daily reflections, I reminded folks that none of those final phone calls from the towers and from Flight 93 were to check on the stock market or to see if a business deal got closed. They were about the important things in life—they were about relationships.”

Welter shared one of his reflections from that time. It included this thought:

“Our illusions of security and safety are shattered, our innocence gone. We know now that our lives are not our own. We do not possess life. It comes through us, but it is not from us.

“Under the ashes, there is no race. Under the ashes, there are no differences. Under the ashes, we see life as the gift that it truly is.

“Under the ashes, we are one.”

Keeping the faith

The day began for Alexander Fay with a quick walk across the street from his family’s home to his eighth-grade classroom at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Indianapolis.

Later that morning, he and his classmates were taking the I-Step exam when the news started to spread through the school about the terrorist attacks.

Suddenly, Sept. 11, 2001—a day he remembers as being “clear, mild and non-humid”—also became a day he has never forgotten because of the impact it has continued to have on his faith.

“I have so many memories of 9/11 and the days and weeks that followed,” Fay says. “So much can be said of President [George W.] Bush and our nation’s rallying response to the attacks. I truly miss that one, united America. However, for me, so much more can be said with how our faith community responded.”

He remembers how then-pastor Father Jeffrey Godecker invited the students into the parish church and “provided words of comfort and strength.” And he recalls the priest having the same impact on parishioners in a Mass that evening.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but 20 years later I recognize that my Catholic faith is always there and like a rock,” Fay says. “Whenever I am fueled with anger or emotion, or whenever I consider political issues and form an opinion, my faith keeps me in check, and I always consider what the Church teaches. It is a balancing mechanism for me.

“On that day and the months that followed, while I was upset and became stronger in patriotism, my faith kept me balanced. I didn’t know at the time how it would help me in the future.”

Now, he does.

“Today, when I consider issues such as immigration, abortion, poverty and health care, for example, the Catholic faith keeps me in check with my opinions and beliefs. Sometimes it is a gut punch, but it is with tough love, and I am reminded that these are not political issues.

“Sept. 11 taught me not only to turn to faith during times of tragedy and sadness, but to keep the faith during all times.”

‘We were turning to God’

When Jeff Ferland played “America, the Beautiful” on this past July 4 at St. Christopher Church in Indianapolis, his tears flowed.

In fact, Ferland says that he has cried every time he has played that song in the past 20 years, because it takes him back to some unforgettable moments on Sept. 11, 2001.

That was the day he rushed to phone his sister, who flew at least four times a week from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey for her job. Hearing her voice and her decision to delay her trip that morning, he sighed with relief before focusing again on helping to calm the children in his music classes at St. Monica School in Indianapolis.

Then at Ferland’s lunch period that day, the parish’s pastor at the time—Msgr. Paul Koetter—told him he wanted to share a Mass for everyone touched by the tragedy, and he asked Ferland to play the music.

“It was during that Mass that the truth hit me hard,” Ferland recalls. “The church was packed—like Christmas or Easter—but there was no friendly banter that would usually precede the Mass. We were all in what seemed like a coma, and we were turning to God, the Father, to ease our pain.

“We wanted some kind of answer for this terrible terrorist attack, and we were relying on our faith to help us find those answers. The fact that we were able to join together, and that we could do so in the presence of our Creator, brought some comfort.”

Choosing “America, the Beautiful” for the closing hymn, Ferland was stunned by what he heard after he announced the song and played the introduction.

“It was within the first few words that my voice was joined by what seemed to be thousands of angels,” he notes. “I am sure that the roof of the church was lifted up! We were all joined in music, praising God. I thank God all the time for his gift to me of music, and that I had been able to bring as much calmness in that time of violent events as my music could.

“God has changed a lot of things in our lives since that day, but I always know that I can turn to God to restore that calmness.

“To this day, I tear up whenever I play or sing ‘America, the Beautiful,’ remembering that Mass.”

(Readers of The Criterion shared an overwhelming number of responses to our request for their thoughts and memories of how 9/11 has had an impact on their lives and faith, then and now. While space concerns limited us from including all our readers’ contributions, we appreciate every one—and we appreciate all of our readers.)


See more of our coverage of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

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