Even for believers, what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, seemed unbelievable. On that day of snowing dirt, a little chapel survived the hell that leveled skyscrapers of concrete and steel.
On that terrible day terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, I was standing outside St. Paul’s Chapel, one block from Ground Zero. A dozen modern buildings toppled all around, but St. Paul’s — pieced together with brick and timber — stood without so much as a broken window.
The Rev. Daniel Matthews, rector of the parish of Trinity Church, walked with me through the church’s graveyard, which was covered in ash. The dust of the dead had settled in the chapel cemetery.
Matthews stopped to dust off a headstone. “You know what everyone in the neighborhood is calling St. Paul’s, don’t you? The Little Chapel That Stood.” He looked up and smiled.
“The most astounding thing for me was not the soot and the dust, but the paper,” he continued. “There must have been 10 million pieces. Everybody’s desk wound up flying out the window.”
Some 460,000 tons of debris from the Twin Towers alone had landed nearby — enough concrete to build a 5-foot sidewalk from New York to Washington, D.C. Enough steel to build 20 Eiffel Towers. Sixteen acres of rubble, some of it nine stories deep.
Matthews figured St. Paul’s Chapel was spared to shelter those who were not spared. “It is a symbol of where we have been and where we are going and what we have to do in the future.”
The little church is the oldest in Manhattan. It opened in 1766, a decade before the Declaration of Independence. Most every president has prayed here, beginning with George Washington; he came to St. Paul’s after this country’s first inauguration. Guess what Kathy Fallon was doing in the president’s pew the day I showed up?
“I’m sitting where George Washington and his family used to gather for church, fixing feet.” Fallon said with a smile. She was running a foot clinic.
“It’s appropriate to be in a church,” another volunteer put in with a grin, “because, in a way, we’re saving soles.”
St. Paul’s was a place where Ground Zero workers could rest; get a foot or back rub, a quick meal, and a kind word. “It’s like a M.A.S.H. unit for the soul,” Matthews said. “These volunteers did a great job.”
A thousand of them served 12-hour shifts. They came from all over. On 9/11, foot doctor Fallon drove two and a half hours from her home in Armonk, N.Y. En route, she realized she would miss a celebration: Her husband, Jim, would have to blow out the 42 candles on his birthday cake without her.
Then she had another realization: “Oh my God, my baby is four months today!” The day the towers came crashing down and she rushed to Ground Zero.
“I need to be here,” Fallon insisted. “When my son, James Edward, grows up, he’ll understand what happened on Sept. 11. I think he’ll appreciate that his mom was down here, trying to help out.”
‘They lost; we won’
We all tell our kids, “I’ll be right back.” After 9/11, some children didn’t believe that. Victoria Alonso’s mother, Janet, went to work at the World Trade Center that morning and never returned. Her dad was left to care for a 2-year-old daughter and a baby boy with Down syndrome.
“If I was to tell you I did this by myself, I’d be a liar; I’d be a flat-out liar,” Robert said. “I got my mom, my aunt, my pop to help.”
But he never returned to work at the pizza place he owned in Stony Point, New York. His family substituted for him. “I owe it to my children to be around,” Robert explained. “If I buried my grief in work, my kids would lose both their parents.”
He no longer put off anything that brought them joy. “If we’re lying on the floor and all of a sudden Victoria says, ‘Daddy, I want to go to the park,’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to the park.’ That’s what I’m thinking, but I say, ‘Let’s go. We’re going to the park.’ ”
Robert shouted “Hang on, guys!” as the kids squealed with laughter. They were riding in a grocery cart, careening across the lot toward dad’s big SUV. “Why should I deprive my children from going shopping?” Robert said. “I see all the other mothers going shopping with their kids. Why can’t I do it?”
He raced alongside the grocery cart, jumped on its rear axle and pushed with a powerful leg. The children exploded with laughter again. “When my kids smile, the terrorists lose,” Robert said with a grin. “The people who killed Janet wanted to destroy our happy lives. They lost. We won.”
Since 9/11 Robert has taught his children to treat every moment like an unopened gift. “I don’t want to be the rain cloud in my family,” he said. “I want to give my kids the incentive to do things and go forward.”
He coached Victoria's softball team to the New York State championship the year she turned 12. “We all went out and bought rounds of Lipitor,” Robert chuckled.
And toasted his son Robby, too. The 10-year-old learned to walk and read before most kids with Down syndrome because his dad played with him every day.
Robert waited a long time for his family. He and Janet tried to conceive a child for 10 years, then gave up. Two months later, she was pregnant. They considered it a victory, so they named their daughter Victoria.
These days, when Victoria looks in the mirror, she sees her mother. “She was special to me,” Victoria said, even though she can barely remember her mom. “I love her.” She paused. Her eyes welled with tears. “People need to know that.”
The two are much alike. Victoria is an honor student; Janet studied nights and weekends for years and graduated from college in her late 30s. She worked as an email manager on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center. On the day of the attacks, she had just gone back to her job at Marsh & McLennan after staying home to take care of her second baby, Robby.
Janet’s body was found seven months after 9/11, on her son’s first birthday. “God works in funny ways,” Robert sighed. “Hearing the knock on the door and the news that Janet’s body had been recovered from Ground Zero, that was the most difficult. It really knocked me out. It was like September 11 all over again.”
I visited the Alonsos on the first Mother’s Day after 9/11. Robert scooped up his kids and carried them out on the deck in back. “Come on,” he said, “let’s say hello to mommy in the stars.” It was his 13th wedding anniversary.
As Victoria neared her 13th birthday, I asked her, “If your mom were sitting here today, what would you ask her?"
Victoria stared across her backyard in thought, then turned to me. “I’d ask her, ‘What would she want to do with me today?’ ”
Good times keep bad memories at bay. The Alonsos spent that 9/11 in the park, near a memorial that their neighbors built to Janet and all the other parents from their New York City suburb who went to work that day but never came home.
Robby wandered to a wall filled with names as his father and sister played catch nearby. “Right here,” he said, pointing to Janet Alonso’s name etched in marble. “This was my mommy.”
The little boy leaned over and scraped his fingers back and forth across his mother’s name. His father watched, then rubbed his own hands together, as if he could scour away painful thoughts.
Robby drew his fingers to his mouth, kissed them and gently pressed them on his mother’s name. “Mama,” he whispered.
We all think about 9/11 once a year. The Alonsos live it every day.
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