Encountering grace amid the horrors of 9/11

Remembering a historic day, 20 years later


CLICK HERE to read an article from the Sept. 14, 2001, edition of The Catholic Missourian.

CLICK HERE to read an article about Bishop Emeritus Gaydos's recollections of the day.

CLICK HERE to reach a short reflection from the one-year anniversary.


Sept. 11, 2021 was the 20th anniversary of the day two hijacked airliners were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, another was flown into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and another crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died.

Father Alex Ekka once visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City with his sister and brother-in-law.

They were amazed at how many Indian surnames were among the 2,983 carved in stone around the reflecting pools near where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

“I could have been one of them, but thank God I was not,” said Fr. Ekka, a missionary priest from the Diocese of Jashpur, India, now serving as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Eldon and Our Lady of  Snows Parish in Mary’s Home.

He had spent the summer of 2001 filling-in for priests in New York.

“Normally, on my day off, I would have been out walking, looking up at all those tall buildings,” he noted. “I would have been in the neighborhood.”

He returned to India at summer’s end, arriving home shortly before Sept. 11.

“We were watching TV in the sitting room when the news came on about the Twin Towers,” Fr. Ekka recalled. “And all the priests  that were there said, ‘Luckily, you came back. Otherwise you could have been one of the victims passing by.’”

“I’m grateful to God that I’m not one of the names on that memorial,” he said.

“Out of Your way”

Deacon Raymond Purvis was giving a talk about the Diaconate to adults attending Sixth Grade Vocation Day nine years ago in the Cathedral of St. Joseph.

He shared a prayer first prayed by Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, longtime chaplain of the New York Fire Department, who was the first certified fatality in the attacks: “Lord, take me where You want me to go; let me meet who You want me to meet; tell me what You want me to say, and keep me out of Your way.”

Deacon Anthony Mammoliti, who was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood at the time, listened intently.

“I was there when Father died,” he told the group.

Deacon Mammoliti was just finishing up his night shift as an ambulance medic the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when a radio call went out for all available units to report to the World Trade Center.

“Everyone was rushing to the scene,” he recalled.

He arrived before either of the 110-story skyscrapers, having both been struck and set afire by commercial airliners with full tanks of jet fuel, collapsed.

As a U.S. Army reservist, he had been trained to work in mass-casualty situations.

“The Army teaches you Rule No. 1: Soldiers die; and Rule No. 2: Medics can’t change Rule No. 1,” Deacon Mammoliti noted. “You go in with that mindset, to see who you can treat and who you can comfort as they go from this life to the next. And that’s not easy.”

First responders were rushing up the stairwells, against a torrent of humanity. Flaming debris was falling into the plaza. The noise was deafening.

“Here we were in the midst of this huge, catastrophic event,” the deacon recalled. “And despite all the chaos, this unusual serenity came over me. God was reassuring me that He had given me the talent to help these people, to give them reassurance, and that’s what I was doing.

“Oftentimes, we learn in our faith that something is a mystery. And you take it for what it is. There’s no way of explaining it,” he said.

That’s how he describes how God used those moments of unspeakable horror to beckon him to something greater.

“It was absolutely the turning point in my spiritual life,” he said. “I was a medic. I was treating people left and right. And then I came to realize that God wanted me to do something more. He allowed me to survive this event for a particular reason.”

“Through a dark valley”

At that same time, God also was asking Liza Hernandez Jungmeyer for more than she had been giving Him.

Attending a conference in the hotel next to the Twin Towers, she felt the ground convulse as American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the North Tower.

Within two hours, she was gasping for air and calling on the Lord to save her as two of the most massive structures ever built fell in on themselves.

She is now convinced more than ever that God took hold of her during those harrowing moments and began directing her to proclaim His love, “always, anytime, anywhere.”

“Tragedy befalls us all, whichever side you are in the tragic event, the victim or the perpetrator,” she noted. “God’s love will reach you. Inevitably, only God’s love can heal us all.”

What Mrs. Jungmeyer experienced that dark day helped her affirm the sanctity of all human life, even that of people who have committed atrocious crimes.

“Everyone must be given a chance to change, to let God redeem them,” she said. “I know, because God gave me another chance.”

She grew up in the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Catholic country in Southeast Asia, went to Catholic schools and was very close to God.

But by 2001, she had moved to the United States and became very focused on career advancement. Her relationship with God had begun to suffer.

She didn’t get much sleep the night before the attacks.

“It was eerie,” she recalled. “Looking back, I felt some evil surrounding the area. There was just such a feeling of death.”

After the first of the hijacked planes hit its target, everyone in the hotel ballroom ran into the lobby. They could see debris falling to the street outside the building.

“It looked like snowflakes,” said Mrs. Jungmeyer. “The firefighters got there right away. It seemed like only seconds and they were there, instantaneously.”

They guided everyone out through a side door and told them to walk toward nearby Battery Park.

“So we were standing there in the park, looking up,” she said. “All of a sudden, the second plane hit the second tower. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

After a while, Mrs. Jungmeyer was filled with an impulse to get farther away from the burning towers.

“I had this feeling something else was going to happen,” she said. “I said, ‘Come on, we have to move away from here!’”

Shortly after they started walking, the South Tower collapsed.

“That was the worst moment,” she said. “I thought we were all going to die. One second, it was daylight — beautifully clear. An instant later, it was night.”

The words of Psalm 23 began cascading from her lips: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. For You are at my side; Your rod and staff are there to shield me.”

Another chance

Mrs. Jungmeyer escaped to safety. Later that day, a friend lent her train fair to Philadelphia.

“I had two things with me: my wallet and my Rosary,” she recalled. “Praying the Rosary really comforted me all that time. It helped so much.”

Like thousands of other people who experienced 9/11, her perspective changed. Her priorities began to shift. She went from focusing on success and her career to asking some very difficult questions: “Why am I here?” “Why did God spare me?” “What is the reason for all of this?”

“Something in me began searching for more than what’s in this world,” she said.

She moved to Jefferson City, where she married Steve Jungmeyer in 2004.

She still grieves for all who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, and she prays that God helps them heal the way He has allowed her to heal.

“I’m so thankful for getting another chance,” she said.


“Have mercy”

Father Edward Doyle, now deceased, had served as chaplain on numerous Residents Encounter Christ (REC) weekends in prisons throughout the Jefferson City diocese.

All were powerful manifestations of God’s ardent desire to heal and reconcile, but none was quite like the one held Sept. 14-16, 2001, in the Protective Custody Unity of the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.

Months beforehand, the weekend’s director chose as its theme the song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” in honor of her daughter, a peace activist who had recently died.

It turned out to be perfect for an intentional community crying out for solace and serenity immediately following the events of 9/11.

The Scripture readings, scheduled for that Sunday back in the 1960s, told of God forgiving King David for his sins, and of Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father.

Fr. Doyle preached a homily about the message of Divine Mercy. He showed the men an image of the Risen Christ, radiant in glory, with red and white beams of light streaming from His Most Sacred Heart, which had been pierced with a lance after He died on the cross.

“We are made clean with His Blood and the waters of Baptism,” the priest explained. “It is pleasing for Him to save us and forgive us and to make us agents of His unfathomable mercy.”

Only a few of the prison residents on the weekend were Catholic, but all of them hung on the priest’s every word. It was exactly what they needed to hear.

“Bigger than life”

There have been times when Deacon Mammoliti just broke down and cried.

“It could be something as simple as a certain smell,” he said. “And let me tell you, 20 years later, I can still smell that jet fuel. It’s just one of those things that I can’t let go of.

“And yes, I remember the loss,” he said. “All the emergency workers and the firefighters. And seeing the great solemnity and respect with which they carried Fr. Judge out of the area. That iconic photo you see does not do justice to the reality of that situation. It was bigger than life. It’s something that just stays with you.”

It was Deacon Mammoliti’s faith — “my belief that God had a better purpose for me” — that sustained him through the horror of 9/11 and its aftermath.

“God helped me find serenity amidst the chaos,” he said. “I drew strength from the belief that God doesn’t abandon us. I knew what I had to do, that by physically helping people, I could help them see that hope was not lost.”

The depth and frequency of his prayer increased profoundly from that day forward.

As an Army reservist, he was activated in December 2002 and remained so through July 2015, serving at Fort Dix, New Jersey; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The Church of the Assumption is located just outside the gates of Fort Dix. Deacon Mammoliti and Father Joseph Farrell, the pastor, developed a strong rapport.

Early in 2005, the priest asked the reservist if he’d ever thought about being a deacon.

Deacon Mammoliti was received into diaconate formation and eventually became the Diocese of Trenton’s first active duty soldier to serve as a deacon.

He also received faculties through the Archdiocese of the Military Services, allowing him to serve on U.S. military bases throughout the world, including when he was stations at Fort Leonard Wood from 2012-14.

“Love one another”

Deacon Mammoliti still hears people ask where God was on 9/11.

“Evil does exist, but not because God wants it to exist,” he said. “Evil only exists because God endowed all of us with free will, with the ability to choose — to love or not to love.

“But God never abandons us,” he insisted. “Throughout all of that misery, God was holding us all even closer to Him than at any other moment.”

The loss still looms in many New York neighborhoods, including the one where Deacon Mammoliti now lives.

He’s convinced that 20 years after the fact, there’s no right or wrong way to honor or mourn for those who died.

“The key word is remembrance,” he said. “Their lives still have meaning, and if we cease to remember, we will have really lost something. All of humanity will have lost something.”

Despite all the suffering, terror and loss, he sees 9/11 as a bridge from one part of the Communion of Saints to the other.

“We are Easter people,” he insisted. “We believe in eternal life and in the tremendous bond we share with our loved ones on earth and in heaven.”

He believes 9/11 should be a national holiday — one that focuses on unity, fellowship, respect and love.

“Looking at it from a Catholic, Christian perspective, what unites us is the simple commandment that Jesus gave us all: ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’” he said.

“Imagine if we actually followed that precept!” he stated. “What a wonderful society we would have!”


Restless hearts

Mrs. Jungmeyer said she now sees life as simply the journey to heaven.

“Once, by the grace of God, you realize that, it seems like nothing else is important anymore,” she said. “What did St. Augustine say? ‘We belong to God and we will never rest until we rest in Him.’”

She is convinced that 9/11 allowed God’s love to be manifested both on the victims and the perpetrators.

“Judgement day is the only time that will end all conflict, unless we recognize that we truly are our brother’s keepers then Judgement Day is our only hope,” she said.

“God’s judgement is a form of love,” she added. “It slows down time and allows all to reassess the current state of affairs, and God’s love will eventually will make everything new.”