In every generation, there are a finite number of stories that authenticate, define the generation. In every event of significance, every catastrophe, every jubilation, there are a certain number of stories, thirty six, thirty, one, ten thousand, thirty six stories that define the catastrophe.
The defining story for me of 9/11 is the story of the fire fighters of New York City, and a particular account of those fire fighters given by a Board member of the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Vena Drennan (sp?). Her husband Capt. John Drennan was killed on the job in 1994.
She was interviewed by Noah Adams on All Things Considered, this is what I heard listening to it on the radio:
Mrs. Drennan: We went down to the firehouse which is below Fourteenth Street. I went to the wake of one of the firefighters. They have a sense of optimism. They had decided to pray to my husband who they feel still watches over them. And they said, Capt. Drennan — show us where the eleven [missing] members are. And one young one said, I knew just where to put my shovel. Ladder Five is so comforted that they were able to find five of their own and return their bodies to their families and honor their deaths in a proper and magnificent funeral.
ATC: Mrs. Drennan are you saying that those on the scene believed that the spirit of your late husband helped them to find those who were fallen?
Mrs. Drennan: Yes, you lose your religion after a large crisis but you sure get a spirituality about it.
ATC: There’s a photograph of something you don’t often see in the magazines in the recent US News and World Report, of firemen carrying a dead man, the Reverend Mychal Judge fire department chaplain you know him, sixty eight years old,
Mrs. Drennan: He was one of my best friends. . .
ATC: As you know he was administering last rites and was killed by falling debris.
Then she told the story of Mychal Judge and how he had comforted her after the death of her husband, and how he had remembered her on her anniversary every year thereafter.
Mrs. Drennan: When he prayed, it was the most blessed thing,
you felt that his prayers were a direct hotline to God.
ATC: He was a Franciscan priest.
Mrs. Drennan: Mychal was administering last rites to a firefighter that had just been hit by a body of a woman. People were falling out of those towers so they wouldn’t burn. In the midst of this here he is kneeling and giving last rites. The firefighters when they realized he had perished they carried him up to St. Peters church and they laid out his body on the altar and they put his rosaries in his hand and they pinned on his fire department badge and they prayed over him. Later that night they wouldn’t let his body go to the morgue. They brought him to their firehouse and they laid him in the back room and the friars across the street of St. Francis of Assisi came and they lit candles and said a vigil.
He was beloved by every firefighter in the city and the fire department will grieve many many years for the loss of his beautiful life.
That is the defining story for me, a story of such piety and beauty that I know we are going to be all right. There were many such stories, this is the one for me. There are a number of stories that define an event, and one of them, one of those stories, may be the one that saves us, this is the story that is saving me.
How will the world be saved? Not by this, not by that, but through hope and poetry, beauty and piety, story.