Seaford, N.Y., is one of Long Island’s oldest towns about 20 miles outside of lower Manhattan and home to many police and firefighters in New York City.
St. William the Abbot is the Catholic church in the working-class parish where on Sept. 11, 2001, then-Father William E. Koenig had been pastor for about a year.
“I had a funeral that morning,” Bishop Koenig said in an interview late last month. “I had gone out for a little exercise, so I was coming back from a run.”
At 8:48 a.m., the news station his car radio was tuned to reported smoke coming from the World Trade Center.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh. There’s a fire there? What about the people above the fire?’”
The current bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington was a new pastor in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., when the horror of Sept. 11 unfolded. He said a prayer upon hearing the radio report before making it back to the rectory where he learned that a plane had hit the tower. The scheduled funeral went on as planned. By the time he returned from church, both towers had come down.
“It just kept getting worse and worse,” Bishop Koenig said.
His thoughts raced between the firefighters and police and all the people who were among the chaos. No one knew the extent of the devastation, but the priest and those in his parish knew this incident would have an impact on people at St. William, not to mention the 600 kids who were in session that day at the parish school. How many of them had family members in lower Manhattan? How many would suffer direct loss?
“We decided, along with the diocesan schools office, that we would not tell the children what happened, because our concern was that if the kids knew what happened and their parents were in the city, perhaps they wouldn’t even know where there parents were. We wanted them to hear about it from their parents, but would anyone even know where they’d be?”
Communication was a challenge that day and some parents wanted to take their children home. Upon review with parish officials, they agreed with the plan to leave the kids in school in understanding that there would be much trauma throughout the day.
“The principal said ‘Look, trust us. If kids are being taken out of school, what about the kids whose parents can’t get here? It will be awful for them.’ The parents, to their great credit, said OK,” the bishop said.
In addition to the terror in New York, killed were those aboard hijacked planes that struck the Pentagon in Washington and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. People in the Pentagon also perished.
Later that afternoon, the parish in Seaford began getting calls about first responders who could not be located. One woman knew that her firefighter son had responded to the disaster. He had told her so in a phone call earlier in the day. Now, she couldn’t get through to him.
“It was just overwhelming,” the bishop said.
By the dinner hour, people instinctively showed up at church. Father Koenig decided to have Mass.
“This is the most important thing we can do — to pray,” he said.
As time passed, it was learned 12 parish members were killed in the attack. Mostly firefighters, some policemen. Then it was time for funerals. Full honors for the first responders.
“It went on for like a year or so. The mayor, hundreds of firemen, hundreds of police with full brass and flyovers. It was very somber. Then there would be remains found, and we would have another funeral for that person. The families are incredible people of faith.”
Former U.S. Rep. Peter King, a resident of Seaford, Army veteran and member of the parish, was very supportive of victims and their families, the bishop said. The congressman helped organize a 9/11 memorial every year at the local high school.
“He was a real stalwart of support for those people.”
The real heroes were the first responders and people who helped each other in the face of great tragedy, the bishop said. A new level of respect arose for police and firefighters. He recalled riding in a fire truck and seeing young children stop to see what was rolling past. The youngsters stood and saluted without being prompted.
Post-Sept. 11, the United States invaded Afghanistan, where 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and fellow terrorists were provided refuge. The nearly 20-year war for the U.S. in Afghanistan ended late last month, but not before a terrorist blast that killed 13 U.S. service men and women and dozens of Afghans in August.
Many of the troops killed last month were infants and toddlers on Sept. 11, 2001.
“They have desire to serve the country,” Bishop Koenig said. “I experienced that in Seaford. Kids in high school decided they wanted to join the service. Twenty years later, there is still that same sense of desire to serve.”
Bishop Koenig knows there was justified anger at what happened Sept. 11. “But you want to help people not be consumed by the anger. As the saying goes, when you’re angry at someone, you’re letting them live rent-free in your head.”
Aside from parishioners, classmates of Bishop Koenig were killed in Lower Manhattan that day. The bishop also recalled Father Mychal Judge, a New York priest who was chaplain to the firefighters. He was killed on Sept. 11, and one photograph showed firefighters carrying him from the devastation.
“He really was so dedicated to them,” the bishop said.
The bishop said there are lessons from the devastation that should be remembered.
“We need to pray for us as a nation,” he said.
“One of the things that struck me at that time is how we all came together. People came to church. There was a real sense of unity with one another, a real sense of looking to God, and knowing that we’re vulnerable, that we’re in need of God. And that’s what I would really say as I think back on that. Those were experiences that should help us see that we can get distracted by little things. Whereas, this kind of made us say ‘Little things are little things.’
“We need one another, as friends, as countrymen, as people of faith.”