I stepped out of my office and looked down the hallway as Rob walked by very quickly and said, “They’ve just bombed the Pentagon”. He kept walking. That is my first memory of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
A few minutes later, most of the employees at SciQuest were huddled around a television in the break room, watching intently as the story unfolded. I remember seeing the live footage of the plane hitting the second tower. I know it was live, but I just kept thinking, ‘this can’t be real’.
The room was filled with a combination of news commentary and an eerie quiet. There were occasional gasps of disbelief, some comments and questions, but for the most part, I think we were all stunned. Tears appeared for some. I remember walking slowly back to my desk. I sat and tried to think about work, but it was no use. I called my wife, she was okay.
A little later that afternoon, Ann from HR walked around to everyone’s office. In a calm, somber tone she explained that it would be okay if we wanted to go home and be with our family. I left work, feeling numb and unsure what would happen next. Was our nation about to come under a full scale attack? My daughter Anna was three years old.
On the drive home, I kept hearing Don Henley’s, The End of the Innocence playing in my head. Thousands of innocent lives lost. Unbelievable acts of courage. Thousands of more lives changed forever.
In 2003, I had the opportunity to travel to New York for business. I made it a point to extend my stay just a bit longer. I wanted to visit the site of this horrific event and see first hand the remnants of what I watched on TV.
I had also reached out to Brother Rick Curry, founder of the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped and author of the book, The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking. His office was in Soho, not far from ground zero. Brother Curry ran the workshop and partially funded the operation with a bakery up in Maine. After seeing an article on Brother Curry and his bakery in Oprah magazine, I called his office and offered to take him to lunch.
Meeting Brother Curry was a true inspiration in my early journey with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. We spent the afternoon talking about baking, business, his work there and enjoyed lunch at a local Soho favorite. I explained my passion to start our bakery and how ‘our most important ingredient, is love’. “Don’t ever lose that”, said Brother Curry. I like to think that we have not.
We also talked about September 11 and he shared some of his experiences. He spoke about his friend Father Mychal Judge, the first certified fatality in the attack. In a soft voice with damp eyes, he recalled the image of a woman, leaping from the tower, holding her dress down as she fell to her death. “Dignity, even at the moment of certain death”, said Curry. It is an image that I did not see in person, yet it is burned into my memory.
My time with Brother Curry that day was magical and one I’ll always remember. He gave me a signed copy of his book, offered up his blessing, gave me a hug and sent me on my way. I walked from his office to ground zero.
I don’t recall specific expectations regarding what I might see. I felt the same numbness of that day as I walked closer and closer. I knew the cleanup effort would be going on. It was a damp, cloudy day, which in an odd way, seemed appropriate. As I approached the site, I saw adjacent buildings draped in long black fabric. Designed to control falling debris, they looked like mourning cloths. A quiet show of respect paying tribute to those lives lost on this ground.
The hole where the buildings once stood was large. Far deeper than I had imagined, the large dump trucks hauling away debris on the bottom looked like tiny ants crawling along in a slow, intentional pace.
A man who looked as if he lived life on the street, walked down the sidewalk yelling to himself. While I did not make out his words, it seemed okay in a place where the entire range of human emotions has played out over and over again.
I walked around for a few minutes, trying to take everything in and understand how this could be real, just as I did that day in the office at SciQuest. At some point, it was overwhelming. I caught a cab, and returned home safely to my family, grateful for everything around me.
I can’t say that the events of 911 were the single factor that propelled me in my journey with Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. I do believe that I, along with countless other Americans, were changed in a profound way during that time. I did not lose family or close friends, but I was jolted into thinking more deeply about what is important to me.
I’ve since become friends with James Johnson, a New York City police officer who was a first responder on that day. Meeting James and hearing his story has helped me connect with the events of 911 in a more personal way. I can now see some small measure of good, meeting someone who was there, serving others and risking his life in the midst of chaos never before seen in the United States.
And, at least a few times a year, I pull out Brother Curry’s book and bake one of his recipes. This Sunday, I’ll be making a couple of loaves of Brother Bandera’s Italian Bread. I’ll remember our conversation, stories about Father Judge and visiting ground zero.
I don’t know if the families of the men, women and children who lost their lives that day can yet look back and see the good in anything related to the events of that fateful day. I do pray that day will come. But until then, the best I can do is to offer up my promise that I will remember, always.