Field Notes

On September 11, remembering Father Mike

On September 11, remembering Father Mike
(AP Photo/Mike Segar, Pool)

He grabbed his collar, his firefighter’s hat and coat and headed to the World Trade Center.

He would die there a couple of hours later when debris fell on his head.

“Jesus, please end this right now,” he was reportedly saying. “God please end this!”

Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar, was victim 0001 in an attack that would claim nearly 3,000.

Father Mike was the chaplain for the fire department. He was a willing listener to anyone who needed someone to talk with. I have not met anyone better at keeping his mood at even keel, putting things in perspective.

There is probably no shortage of people, myself included, willing to talk about how he helped keep them centered.

Regardless of the person’s background, regardless of the situation, Father Mike was able to offer the right word; sometimes just a knowing glance that would help you realize the answer on your own.

When Officer Steven McDonald – one of New York’s Finest – was shot and paralyzed while patrolling Central Park, it was Father Mike who showed up at his bedside and convinced McDonald to forgive his shooter.

And he did.

When Firefighter John Drennan was badly burned, Father Mike visited him every day for the 40 days he remained alive and called his widow every day for years after.

If you met him once, he didn't just remember you. If you shared it with him, he also remembered what ailed you.

I was working the assignment desk at NY1 News – the city’s 24/7 television news outlet – that day in September.

It was primary election day. It was gorgeous, a storybook day in which you can’t imagine any place  prettier than New York.

And then it got ugly. And the ugly came in waves that threatened to drown everyone.

One plane. Another plane. Reports from Washington. Pennsylvania. People were jumping from the upper floors. The first building collapsed. Each moment you wanted to think it could not – would not – get worse. And it did.

Much worse.

We had no idea how many were dead but we knew the number would be in the thousands. When the towers were full, there could have been as many as tens of thousands. The fact that it was still early in the morning was the only thing that gave hope, if you could call it that.

And there was advice from Father Mike in my head.

I had first met him after the crash of TWA Flight 800, a crash off of Long Island that killed hundreds. Like he did so many times, he had rushed out there. When I met him, it was in a calmer situation and he talked about the similarities between what we did.

“It’s about providing comfort,” I remember him saying.

He talked about how – for all the stereotypes about the media – our primary role was to explain things, to tell the stories that need to be told, to offer stability. He talked about how in times of crisis, that was essential.

And I thought a lot about those things that day.

I had told every person I had sent to the Trade Center that day to get as close as they could to the scene, to get every lick, every scrap. And then, when the first tower collapsed, we lost contact with everyone.

It would be some 90 minutes before everyone was accounted for. It was a miracle no one was physically hurt.

During that time there were calls from family of staff. Even if I had not heard from their loved one, I assured them all the same – yes, he’s OK . Everyone’s OK.

That’s how we cope when things are bad – we just keep moving forward, staying calm.

When I got a call that afternoon from someone saying that Father Mike, who had rushed into the North Tower with the firefighters to whom he offered comfort, had been carried out on a stretcher, I was not surprised.

Not that he was reckless. He wanted to be where the action was, because that is where people needed him the most.

I often wonder what Father Mike would make of things.

As horrible as the attacks were, I can’t imagine he would have been happy with the wars fought since.

One thing I know that would have brought joy to him is the evolution of gay rights.

Father Mike was a gay man who kept that part of his life private. He had a partner for many years who would talk of having to share Father Mike with God.

And while he knew keeping that secret had consequences – “I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully,” he wrote – he had no regrets.

“I feel no guilt, none whatsoever,” he wrote. “I am at peace finally. This is what You want me do Lord. You, You alone brought me here. I have nothing to hear today. Thank You, thank You, Lord!”

I’m not a particularly religious person, but Father Mike instilled in me a sense of the spiritual.

In my wallet, I carry a card “Mychal’s prayer.”

“Lord, take me where you want me to do; let me meet who you want me to meet; tell me what you want me to say and keep me the hell out of your way.”

Every day in this business there are new triumphs, new tragedies, new stories to be told.

I try to tell as many as I can with a sense of compassion that I hope would make Father Mike proud.