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A few weeks in September: A Shelter Island priest remembers 9/11

He would take the subway from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church on the West Side of Manhattan down to the World Trade Center. He’d walk just a few blocks north to Trinity Wall Street, which not only included the landmark church, but offices for administration of the American Episcopal Church and organizations.

A pleasant walk, he remembered, passing through the plaza of the massive buildings. Office workers a bit late would be rushing for elevators, along with the hundreds of workers, mostly immigrants, bringing in deliveries of coffee, full breakfasts, bagels, and sweets to the teeming offices stretching straight up for 110 floors.

At his office on the 30th floor of Trinity Wall Street, he had a clear view of the towers looming above him.

On Sept. 11, 22 years ago, Father Charles McCarron, now pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on the Island, was a young priest, studying for an advanced degree at the seminary and working as an administrator at Trinity Wall Street. But that Tuesday — a clear, sparkling day in New York — he had accrued some time off, and decided to take the day, see his doctor on 14th Street for a checkup, and later vote in the New York City primary.

He was just checking in at the reception desk of the doctor’s office when a young woman came running in, saying something about a plane crash at the World Trade Center. People in the office were stunned, Father McCarron said recently.

And the tension and confusion escalated when another person came in saying a second plane had struck the towers.

“I went out, down to 14th Street and looked south,” he remembered, “and saw flames and smoke. Drivers on the street stopped their cars and opened their doors as people gathered around to listen to the car radios, trying to get any news they could. This was, you know, before everyone had cellphones.”

He returned to the seminary for a while, to discuss with superiors and others what to do, and then made his way over to the West Side Highway on the Hudson River, for a better downtown  view.

“Thousands of people were walking north, and when I looked south, all I could see was a rising cloud of smoke,” Father McCarron said. “The buildings were gone.”

He was sent by the church to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, one of several churchmen and women, of all denominations, who were in the emergency room to aid and assist the medical personnel.

“We got masking tapes, and wrote ‘Clergy’ on them and put them on our backs,” he said. “The first person I spoke to was a guy sitting, covered in gray dust, sitting and saying to himself, over and over, ‘I sent them up. I sent them up …’”

The man had been a worker at the reception desk of one of the towers, and when the first fire fighters arrived on the scene, he directed them to the elevators and held the doors open. Father McCarron sat down and tried to comfort him. “He was convinced,” he said, “that he had sent them to their deaths.”

But there were few injured people brought into the emergency room. “Most people — they were just vaporized,” he said. There were at times more families than patients seeking information about loved ones crowding into the hospital.

Father McCarron and others would get names from the physicians and staff at St. Vincent’s and try to relate information to the gathering of traumatized families. “I’d stand on a metal chair and read out the names of people who had been admitted,” he remembered.

The priest then went back the West Side Highway where a temporary morgue for victims of the terrorist attack had been set up. But, again, there was little use for a morgue, he said, since few bodies were recovered from the catastrophe of explosions, massive fires and total collapse of the skyscrapers.

Father McCarron was then assigned, along with other church personnel, to convert St. Paul’s Chapel, part of Trinity Wall Street, into a reception area for first responders to rest and recuperate after working on what was then being called “the pile.”

”The pile’ at Ground Zero, still smoldering days after Sept. 11, 2001. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

“We got shovels, brooms, rags, masks and other equipment and got into the back of a pickup truck and went over to the Chapel,” he said. They found the landmark church engulfed in the signature gray dust and debris. “It covered everything,” he said. After long hours of work, they put mattresses and sleeping bags in the pews of the church, and brought in food.

One searing memory, among many over those first few days, is the many human remains recovered from roof tops in lower Manhattan.

One day in early January 2003, Father McCarron returned to his office, and there he found the place covered in dust from a window left open, along with hundreds of pieces of paper scattered everywhere.

“I moved my desk and found seared, soiled pages,” he said. “I kept one.”

Later that month he was assigned to a parish in Richmond Hills, Queens. Three of the parishioners had been members of the New York City Fire Department, and had perished in the line of duty on Sept. 11. “We had services for them,” he said, and he got to know the families.

Not far from the church was an apartment house where close to 20 airline fight attendants would stay, since it was a short bus ride to Kennedy Airport, and there were services for them.

“People forget about the flight attendants,” Father McCarron said, and mentioned another group often overlooked. “Those people who supplied the Twin Towers with service, the deli and grocery store workers, almost all of them immigrants, who were lost.”

He didn’t return to downtown Manhattan for years. “I couldn’t,” he said.

Years later, for the 2015/16 school year, Chanin Inturam  from Thailand, and Brazil native Rodrigo Barros, arrived for a foreign student exchange program and lived with Father McCarron. “They both wanted to go to the 9/11 memorial,” he said. “Finally, I said, ‘Yes’.”

It was a difficult journey back, but in the end he was glad he had returned, especially with two boys from foreign countries eager to learn about one of the most tragic, and significant, days in American history.

Memories still haunt him, he said. One of many is of his friend, Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar who was the chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, and who died at the Twin Towers.

Father McCarron remembers him for his commitment to his faith and to those he served, and for his humor and gift of friendship. “I had dinner with Mychal just three nights before Sept. 11,” he said. “I miss him.”

The 9/11 memorial at the Center firehouse — an iron girder from Ground Zero. Its only adornment is a brass Fire Department insignia and the number ‘343,’ a reference to the number of firefighters who died that day. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy )