Faith, Dying and Survival Under the World Trade Center

By Tom Barns Jr

While Randy Santos was belting out his very manly version of New York, New York during the Guest Services and Front Office get-together, the videoke showed the Manhattan skyline with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center still very much standing upright. The videoke must have been dated. I remember my visit to New York in late 1978 when I went up to the roof deck at the top of one of the 110 storey towers of the World Trade Center at high speed of less than 2 minutes with ears popping like in a jet plane.

It called to mind the recent film by Oliver Stone, World Trade Center, which showed the collapse of the twin towers when Port Authority policemen responded to the call to rescue people who were trapped in the two buildings hit by passenger planes hijacked by terrorists. It was September 11, 2001 and the world has never been the same.

The film tells the true story of two of those cops: Police Officer John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) who led the rescue and Rookie Will Jemeno (Michael Pena), one of a few in their team who volunteered to join him. They went directly to the Concourse at the lowest floor below the World Trade Center where the commuter train going to and from New Jersey stops to pick up passengers. There is a mall of shops and restaurants inside. So at that time between 9 and 10 a.m., there were a lot of people around. Whenever I take a train there to go to Jersey City to visit a cousin, I used to visit the book shops there and take coffee and a croissant-like glazed pastry filled with cream cheese called horn from a Greek coffee shop. It’s sad to know that they are no longer there.

After getting some firefighting gear from a storeroom in the concourse, they were about to go up the stairs when the whole building collapsed. McLoughlin directed his crew to the elevator shaft as it was the strongest part of the building. After dust settled down, McLoughlin and Jemeno found themselves under the rubble pinned down by concrete slabs. The others did not survive except one who was still standing but who later, unfortunately, was killed when another tremor brought down some still standing structures pinning down the two cops some more but still alive and unable to move.

Director Oliver Stone, known for his controversial films like Platoon, JFK and Nixon, dwells more on the human drama of the survival of these two cops and surprisingly creates an inspiring true story of courage, dying, survival and faith. John McLoughlin is pinned on a lower level than Will Jemeno but they are able to communicate giving each other encouraging words. Both knows that if they are not rescued soon, they will soon be dead. Meanwhile, their families at first are not sure if they should worry or not as they do not know if their men had gone to the rescue inside the collapsing Twin Towers. But as they later learn that their loved ones had indeed gone inside, their anxiety turns to fear that they may have lost them. Specially poignant is the wife of Will who is pregnant. Will’s family is Italian-American while John is Irish-American and you can see how close they are as the families pull together encouraging each other and praying.

Unknown to their loved ones, John and Will try to stay alive. Will tells John that he feels sleepy but John tells him to keep awake because if he sleeps, he would die. Another tremor sends more debris on them and they cry out with John reciting the Our Father out loud but they are still alive. Will says he is very thirsty and then feels drops of water trickling down on him from an overhanging steel bar. He reaches with one loose arm for the bar to twang it so the water could trickle more on him. He soon succumbs to sleepiness and becomes unconscious. But in his unconsciousness, he sees a vision: Jesus Christ comes to him with His Sacred Heart exposed on His breast and in his hand a plastic bottle of water which he offers him. Will suddenly wakes up and somehow, he feels renewed and hopeful. He tells John that he has seen Jesus. He remembers his pregnant wife and how they argued on what to name their expected daughter. He wants to name her Olivia but she wants another name.

In the meantime, a former marine had seen the collapse of the World Trade Center on TV and felt compelled to go there to help rescue survivors. He goes first to his church where he prays and asks the blessing of his pastor. At Ground Zero, as the site of the collapsed towers was later known, he goes through the ruins with a flashlight without fear of falling through the unstable ruins. He attracts the attention of other rescue workers who join him. Under the rubble, Will again dreams of Jesus. Then right in the middle of the pile of ruins, they hear Willy’s twanging of the steel bar and try to find the source. Soon enough, they shout to him and he responds. It takes them a while to dig him out and when they got to him he tells them where John is. But one of his legs is pinned down by a block of concrete and will take some time to lift it. Will knows John is more seriously injured and has to be taken out soon. He offers to have his leg cut off but the rescuers tells him John can wait a while. So they manage to extricate him out with legs intact after some time. He is soon taken out with shouts of encouragement from the rescue workers who tells him: We love you, Will! Hang in there. It is when someone is dying or in danger of dying that that he needs assurance that he is loved like an affirmation of his life’s worth. I have experienced this with some friends and loved ones whom I was with while they were sick knowing they are about to die. They clasp your hand and look you in the eye trying to find assurance there that you care for them and that it is worth hanging on. You could only clasp their hands back and show you really care practically willing them to hang on and live.

John was finally rescued later. They were just two of 20 people who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers. John and Will were number 18 and 19. They were two among the last ones who were rescued under the rubble. They were later reunited with their families, who till then did not know each other, at the hospital. Will’s wife tells him she will name their daughter Olivia as he had wanted. And John has a tearful reunion with his wife admitting they had somehow lost communicating with each other mainly because of the nature of his work. Two years later, both men are released from the hospital to a waiting family celebrating their release. Will’s daughter is a little girl now whom he calls Olivia.

Whenever I see pictures of the Twin Towers, I feel sad that such a grand structure could be blown away in what seems just an instant. Nothing on earth is really that indestructable. And all those people who perished and the few who survived remind us of the fragility of life. 9/11 was really a wake up call to the world from the Almighty.

Exactly two years before to the day on September 11, 1999, a group of Marian devotees from the Philippines organized a Marian fluvial procession at the East River starting from Battery Park under the shadows of the Twin Towers. It was the idea of TV producer Baby Nebrida who with the help of Marian devotees, like June Keithley, Tony and Chona Montinola, Mercy Tuazon and Lydia Sison, thought of honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary on her birthday on September 8, 1999 with a fluvial procession of her various images from around the world, including from the Philippines, through the East River in New York to pass by the United Nations Building to pray for world peace before the closing of the second millennium. Besides images of Our Lady from Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe in Mexico, Amsterdam and from other shrines around the world, there were revered images from the Philippines including Nuestra Senora del Santisimo Rosario de La Naval, Our Lady of Manaoag, Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage of Antipolo, Our Lady of Penafrancia and others. It took some time to gather them in New York aside from the problem of hiring tugboats that would carry them. And the Bishop of New York, the late Cardinal O’Connor, was at first not keen to give his approval but through the intervention of Cardinal Sin, the approval was soon given. But the date had to be moved to September 11 instead of the 8th.

Filipino and American Marian devotees gathered at Battery Park to send off the beautifully decorated tugboats bearing the images of Mary. Heading the flotilla was the tugboat carrying the miraculous picture of Our Lady of All Nations from Amsterdam with Fr. Gerry Orbos on board as her escort. They passed through the different sections of Manhattan until they reached the United Nations Building where Fr. Orbos blessed the building and recited a consecration of all nations to God through Our Lady of All Nations. The procession then turned back towards Battery Park where a mass, recitation of the rosary and some talks were held. It was all televised back in the Philippines. Later after 9/11, CNN even showed a footage.

One of those present was Irish visionary, Christina Gallagher. While talking to an American Catholic judge, she spread a hand over the Manhattan skyline and pointing to the Twin Towers said: “If America does not go back to God, all of these will be destroyed!” That prophecy was fulfilled exactly two years later. And destruction, both man-made and from nature, continues to happen not only in America but all over the world. What more does America and the world need to convince them to turn back to God? Our Lady has constantly warned mankind since Fatima early in the 20th century that unless people repent, the world will experience the wrath of God’s justice as His cup of mercy has since overflowed. It is only Our Lady that has been staying the Hand of Justice of her Son. But in the end she says, her Immaculate Heart will triumph (As God said to the serpent in Genesis: “She (the woman) will crush your head.”) signaling the return of her Son as He promised to establish a new heaven and a new earth from what remains of the world as we now know it.

Let us, therefore, heed Our Lady’s warnings and pray this prayer she taught us as Our Lady of All Nations:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father,
Send now Your Spirit over the earth.
Let the Holy Spirit live in the hearts of All Nations
That they may be preserved from degeneration, disasters, and war.
May the Lady of All Nations, who once was Mary, be our Advocate.

“Who once was Mary” means that although she is the same Mary, she has been exalted by the Father, as she proclaims in her Magnificat, when she became the mother of His Son and because of Him, she is now the Lady of All Nations being the Mother of those “who keep the commandments of God and bear witness to Jesus” (Revelations 12:17). The name Mary in Hebrew is translated in Latin as Domina or Lady.

2 Responses to “Faith, Dying and Survival Under the World Trade Center”

  1. Sheila Nicolas Says:

    Thanks Mr Barns for sharing this article which I chanced upon googling for the Montinola couple and Our Lady of All Nations. I would like to offer my photo exhibit EEN MOOIE BELOVEN in praise & thanksgiving to God in honor of Our Lady of All Nations which I was able to visit in Amsterdam.

    God bless!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    What a beautiful article and comment on the The Lady of All Nations and the once standing Twin Towers as well as the 2 cops for their story . I was there from 8 am to 10 pm.

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