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9/11 Story

by Rev. Dick Leonard,

from his book Wet Cement, published in 2017.

I have two possible routes to go from my apartment to the church, a distance of about four miles. Normally I walk a block to Amsterdam Ave., take the bus to 79th St., and transfer to a bus that delivers me right to the church. An alternate route involves taking the bus in front of my apartment, transferring to a northbound bus on Madison Ave. and walking the last two blocks to the church.

On the morning of 9/11, for no particular reason, I chose the latter "less-taken" road, ending with the two-block walk.

It was a beautiful September morning around 8:15 as I walked along 79th St. When I came to Park Avenue a block from the church, the light turned against me. There was nothing to do but stand on the curb and watch the stream of cars heading down Park Ave. toward the mid-town office area.

I glanced in the direction of the oncoming cars and was surprised to see an airplane in the distance. One frequently sees airplanes over Manhattan. But this one caught my attention immediately. It was pointed exactly in our direction flying directly over Park Ave. It was neither noticeably low nor high in the sky. The oddity was its direction. It was using Park Ave. as the guide for its flight path, in contrast to other planes, which are impervious to street patterns below.

By the time the light changed my eyes were riveted on the approaching plane. Where was it coming from? Certainly not from LaGuardia, which also lay to the north of us, but whose flight patterns were well known to me. Where was it headed? Not to Newark or JFK, whose planes avoid Manhattan.

I walked into Park Ave.'s center island. The plane was definitely lower in the sky now. Like an arrow it was proceeding down Park Ave. It was going to pass directly over me.

A minute later I was looking straight up as it passed overhead, much lower than I had ever seen a plane away from an airport. It gleamed in the sun. No markings were visible on its undercarriage. I thought to myself, "Is there anything more awesome than a commercial airplane framed against a perfectly blue sky? But where is it going?"

I turned around and watched its southward journey, still adhering to the corridor over Park Ave. Then it began to bank to the right, pointed toward Newark but obviously not in a normal pattern. I was mystified.

The light changed again. A few minutes later I was at the church. I had already put the plane out of my mind, thinking about the wedding I would be performing later that morning. I was greeted with "Did you hear what has happened?" Soon we were all in Forrest's office watching on TV as the North Tower of the World Trade Center burned fiercely from the impact of the plane I had just stood under.

With the rest of the country we stayed fixed to our TV screen. The South Tower was now also in flames from the second plane, coming from another direction. One could hardly imagine what was happening at the scene of the disasters. I began to picture what probably had been going on inside American Airlines Flight 11 while I was looking up at it and admiring its beautiful form in the morning sun.

I was at the church to perform the wedding of a Japanese couple at 11 AM. They, their parents, and the wedding party were due to arrive at 10:30. But surely there would be no wedding under the circumstances. I didn't bother to look into the church to see if it was ready for a wedding. We watched in horror as the South Tower collapsed.

At 10:30 I was told that limos had pulled up in front of the church. Obviously somebody expected there would be a wedding. I grabbed my robe and quickly checked the condition of the sanctuary.

In the Ware Room I greeted the wedding guests. Through their interpreter I realized they knew that a disaster had hit New York City just hours before their ceremony. Everyone was present except for the groom's father. In the excitement he had somehow gotten separated from the rest of the family. I said that I was sorry that on what was to be the happiest day in the lives of the young couple, New York was undergoing the saddest day in its history. They nodded that they understood. With that, the missing father appeared, to everyone's relief.

The wedding went off as planned, with a few changes in the prayer to express everyone's concern. Then we exited the big doors on Lexington Ave. to the waiting limos.

The scene on Lexington Ave. was completely unexpected. Hundreds of people were walking north, some clearly in shock, to get as far as they could from the mayhem they had witnessed or learned about from others. At the moment, many of them happened to be passing our church as the wedding ended. One young woman stopped within a few feet of me and said into her cell phone, "I don't believe it! With all this happening, they're having a wedding at All Souls Church."

I had to say something. I tapped her on her shoulder and said, "Just so you know, these people came 7,000 miles to be married here today and we decided the only thing to do was to go ahead with the wedding." The young woman thought a moment. "I wasn't being judgmental--I just thought it was odd that both things were happening at the same time." I readily agreed, "Yes, it certainly is very odd."

That morning the firehouse a half block from our apartment lost all eleven of its members when the towers fell, the only firehouse in the city to lose its entire complement. 2,996 lives were lost, including 343 firemen, 23 policemen, and 658 employees of one company alone, the firm of Cantor Fitzgerald.

I hastened home to be with Polly and reassure our many relatives that I had not happened to be near the World Trade Towers at the time of the attack. The next several days I spent at an armory where relatives of victims were trying to make identifications.

For a week the rubble that had once been the beautiful World Trade Center burned, sending an unmistakable odor of death as far north as our apartment, while rescue workers toiled around the clock to save whoever and whatever could be saved.

The co-pilot of Flight 11 turned out to be a classmate of my nephew's wife in Massachusetts. We calculate that he was already dead when his plane passed over my head. All Souls strangely did not lose a single member in the disaster, and held memorial services for thousands of mourners. One All Souls member opened a Sunday service by noting that normally by 8 AM he would have been in his office on a high floor of one of the towers, but he was on a business trip that day.

And the couple that I married on 9/11?

In January 2017, for the 16th year in a row, I received a New Year's card from them thanking me for doing their wedding on September 11, 2001.

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