Published August 31, 2011
NEW YORK – Cardinal Edward Egan was eating breakfast when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani called to say there was a tragedy and the churchman was needed. A police car would soon be outside the chancery to take the leader of New York's Roman Catholics downtown.
Egan didn't know exactly what had happened in lower Manhattan that morning as he and his priest-secretary hurtled through the city. He couldn't decipher the crackle of the police radio and didn't have access to news. Giuliani first said he was sending Egan to provide support at a makeshift morgue on the city piers, then redirected the cardinal to St. Vincent's Hospital, so he could tend the injured.
Within 90 minutes, Egan would be standing in the doorway of St. Vincent's looking south to Wall Street as the World Trade Center crumbled. He would spend the next several days anointing the dead, distributing rosaries to workers as they searched, mostly in vain, for survivors, and presiding over funerals, sometimes three a day.
"For about five or six years, monsignor and I wouldn't talk to anybody about it," said Egan, referring to his priest-secretary, Monsignor Gregory Mustaciuolo, who was with him in the days following the attacks. "It was too much of a horror."
Ten years later, the 79-year-old cardinal, now retired as archbishop of New York, revisited the attacks in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Egan had been appointed New York archbishop the year before 9/11. He succeeded the late Cardinal John O'Connor, a stand-out personality even in a city full of them, who became the most forceful Catholic voice in the national debates of his era.
Egan had worked as an auxiliary bishop under O'Connor, then as bishop in nearby Bridgeport, Conn. But his tenure as archbishop would be decidedly different. An often stern, 6-foot-4 Latin scholar who was fluent in several languages, he had to focus on internal church issues, taking on the unpopular task of fixing the financial problems his beloved predecessor left behind.
Still, the cardinal cared deeply about the civic and ceremonial duties that came with the job, the highest-profile religious position in the city.
Decades earlier, while serving under Chicago Cardinal John Cody, he recalled a moment during the 1968 riots there when he rode in a car with Cody and Mayor Richard J. Daley through the city's West Side as it burned. Daley and Cody were crying.
"I saw it (9/11), and thought, 'This has now happened to me,'" Egan said. .
When the cardinal arrived that morning at St. Vincent's, he donned hospital scrubs, then along with the nuns, he waited.
He noticed that an intern nearby was trembling and asked what was wrong. The physician said his father worked on the 102nd floor of the north tower, so the cardinal suggested the two go into a side room and talk. The young man declined. "He said, 'I am a doctor. The injured are coming. This is my place,'" Egan recalled. A couple of months later, Egan would recount this story to Pope John Paul II, who would send a check to the young physician to help cover his medical school costs.
The cardinal next remembers giant dust clouds appearing. People were running by, screaming, trying to stay ahead of the debris. At first, no one in St. Vincent's knew the source of the mess. The police commander who was with Egan handed him a gas mask.
"I wore that gas mask for days," Egan said. "When I would get home at night, I would have the rubber marks stuck on me. And I know that in some of the pictures of me in the cathedral, I had those marks."
The rest of that day was a blur. A woman was brought in who was burned head to toe, beyond recognition. Egan performed the anointing of the sick — the sacrament better known as last rites. A Fire Department chaplain and one of Egan's priests, Monsignor Marc Filacchione, arrived with a head injury. (He would survive.)
At one point, Egan emerged from St. Vincent's, where a crowd had gathered outside the emergency room, and asked New Yorkers to pray with him.
By the time Egan had returned to St. Patrick's Cathedral to lead the evening Mass, the 2,500 seats were full and the crowd spilled onto Fifth Avenue, a scene that would be repeated several times in the coming days. The historic midtown church became a center for the city's mourning — though rites and ceremonies connected with the attacks mobilized congregants and clergy in all of New York's faiths.
Early the next day, Egan would start the pattern that would define his week. He would put on his boots, black suit and Roman collar, prepare his gas mask and grab as many rosaries as he could to distribute to grieving New Yorkers. With Mustaciuolo and a police escort, he spent the days walking ground zero and lower Manhattan.
"What I was asked to do was keep walking everywhere. Keep praying," Egan said. "In this walking around, I can't tell you what day or anything because everything is all mixed in your mind."
He remembers one moment unzipping the top of a body bag and reaching in to anoint the deceased, when his priest-secretary shouted for the cardinal to look where a rescue team was digging. "Out of the ground comes a man all covered in white, white dust," Egan said. "Like someone rising from the dead. All the people who could see started shouting and clapping."
Firefighters would stop him and thank him for being there. (The New York Fire Department has a strong Catholic heritage, especially Irish Catholic, that was made clear as the names and stories of the 9/11victims became known.) He felt he didn't deserve their gratitude, since they had lost so much and were working so hard. Workers had set up planks over puddles around the recovery site. But Egan, who has some leg weakness from having polio as a child, found the planks impossible to navigate, especially through the clouded lens of a gas mask, so he gave up and started walking through the water instead. No one at the site knew what, if any, health risks they faced, he said. Each day he came home, went to the basement of his residence behind St. Patrick's, and threw out his clothes just in case.
"What was in the air, you could feel it in your hands, were pieces of sand made out of stone, steel or glass," Egan said. "It's not as though it happened and it began to subside. The second and third day, I can tell you, it was the same swirling around mess that it was in the beginning."
Some nights he traveled to Staten Island or one of the other outer-boroughs, and lead ecumenical prayer on the steps of parishes in communities that had suffered large number of losses. At St. Patrick's, he led services for victims, and for the city's firefighters, police and EMS workers, and from the pulpit, called the recovery site "ground hero." When President George W. Bush visited the World Trade Center site for the first time, he climbed atop a rubble pile and shouted down to Egan, "Say the prayer cardinal." There was so much noise, Egan worried that no one would hear him.
"So I just aimed my voice into the sky and shouted my prayer," Egan said.
Mostly, he led funerals. There were services for firefighters — their wives sitting in the front pew, some clutching children, another pregnant — and for workers at Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial firm that lost more than 650 employees in the attacks. Like most clergy with his experience, Egan had memorized the funeral liturgy long ago, but by the time he reached the third funeral of the day, he was so exhausted he had to read from the prayer book.
Egan was the target of criticism when he left the grieving city for a Vatican synod, a monthlong international meeting of bishops convened by the pope. Egan, who was to work as an aide to John Paul in leading the meeting, said he asked repeatedly for permission to stay in New York, but the pope said Egan was needed in Rome. The cardinal now calls that time, when his loyalty to the city was questioned, "the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life."
"I feel that whatever grace I gained by going through that, I said to the Lord, use for anybody who was hurt in this tragedy," Egan said.
But he remembers that time as bringing out the best in New York. He was stunned by the generosity of those from all backgrounds in support of the charity work the archdiocese coordinated after the attacks. Wherever he went people of different religions would ask for his blessing and a word of consolation about what the city had suffered.
He especially remembers one encounter in St. Patrick's. He was running through the aisles to reach his next appointment, when he saw former Mayor Ed Koch sitting in a pew crying. Koch, who is Jewish, had heard that a Fire Department chaplain he knew had been killed, so the former mayor came to the cathedral to light a candle for him and say a prayer. But Koch's information had been wrong. Egan told him the chaplain had survived.
"Here was a Jewish former mayor crying over a monsignor after having lit a candle in St. Patrick's Cathedral," Egan said. "Where but New York?"