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Priest Remembers Lower Manhattan 15 Years Ago

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Across the country today, ceremonies were held honoring the people lost 15 years ago on September 11, 2001.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) What so proudly we hailed…

SUAREZ: That's the sound of a memorial at ground zero in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Twilight’s last gleaming.

SUAREZ: Family members were among those gathered in Shanksville, Penn., where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field. And just outside of Washington, President Obama spoke at a ceremony at the Pentagon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We remember and we will never forget the nearly 3,000 beautiful lives taken from us so cruelly, including 184 men, women and children here, the youngest just 3 years old. We honor the courage of those who put themselves in harm's way to save people they never knew. We come together in prayer and in gratitude for the strength that has fortified us across these 15 years.

SUAREZ: We're going to spend much of the next hour looking at how that terrible day changed the course of history, and look at some of the lessons we’ve learned over the past 15 years. We'll begin by hearing from a man who saw the events of 9/11 unfold up close and remained at the heart of the recovery efforts at ground zero in the difficult months that followed. The Reverend Dr. Daniel Matthews was the rector of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, just blocks away from the World Trade Center, on the morning of September 11, 2001.

DANIEL MATTHEWS: I was in a meeting, an 8:30 meeting, and suddenly we heard a loud explosion. And the woman running the meeting for the Grants Board of Trinity Wall Street said, my land, that was a great big explosion onto the street as if some sort of a gas main had broken. But it didn't take us long before a door flew open and a man ran down the hall and said a private plane has hit the World Trade Center. We ran down the hall to his office, which is only about a block and a half away from the towers, looked up straight up toward the towers and saw the smoke curling around the building, the north tower. And as we stood there and watched it, we were dumbfounded at what had happened. And we had no idea at all it was an airliner with passengers aboard.

SUAREZ: And you saw the second plane come in?

MATTHEWS: As we were looking up at the tower, a black streak came across our vision out the window, hitting the south tower. And it came in with a whistle, kind of a (imitating whistle). And we thought it was a rocket that had been shot from some other distance. And so not knowing anything about what was going on, somebody in the room screamed war. And one of the women dove down under the table, skinning her face on the floor, as if to protect herself from the war. It was so unreal.

SUAREZ: Just a short time later, the two buildings pancaked. Basically 200 stories of structure came crashing down. What did it do to your place, practically the next-door neighbor?

MATTHEWS: We were hiding in the basement, protecting 140 children in our preschool, not knowing what to do. When the building, the first to fall, the dust - which, of course, was a combination of the sheet rock and the concrete pulverizing - when it fell, we felt our building shake. So as the first building fell, our air conditioning unit sucked in this dust. We didn't know it, but every vent began to blow what looked like to us smoke. So we thought our building was on fire. It wasn't a fire. It was dust. But the dust was so thick and it looked so much like smoke, we had to get out of that building.

SUAREZ: Two historic buildings, New York landmarks - Trinity Church and nearby St. Paul's Chapel, which is part of your complex - were pulled into the chaotic center of one of the country's most trying chapters in its recent history. Did a new role and a new relationship with New York develop in the aftermath of the attacks?

MATTHEWS: We were so devastated. It was impossible to kind of pull ourselves together. Fortunately, a few other people migrated over and began with hot dogs and hamburgers. Eventually, we began to take over and our priests and staff began to serve at St. Paul's. However, St. Paul's was such a magnet that - not just for the people who were working in the recovery - the huge iron fence all the way around the whole block, this fence became the place where people wanted to hang things in memory of someone who had died in the towers or in memory of the idea. So the fence became literally covered - three, four layers of shirts and hats and signs and things that bespoke their deep compassion for what had taken place.

SUAREZ: When you look at it today, how has the city of New York and Lower Manhattan, where Trinity Church is located, changed in 15 years?

MATTHEWS: Well, on that day, as the buildings fell the dust, maybe six, seven inches deep where I - where we were when we ran for our lives, that dust not only fell in New York. That dust fell all over the world. Everyone was covered with the World Trade Center dust. And that dust changed the world. We all have had, for 15 years, a lump in our throat. That lump in the throat has not gone away for us, and we have all handled it in various different ways. Some people have become more faithful in their traditional religious life. Some people have been more fearful, and that turns into a kind of an anxiety that the whole nation feels as a result of 9/11. Some want to help others more than ever before. The spiritual journey has certainly affected everyone in the United States in a particular way relative to their own spiritual hunger and tradition.

SUAREZ: Dr. Matthews, a great pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.

MATTHEWS: Thank you.

SUAREZ: The Reverend Dr. Daniel Matthews is a consulting priest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and was rector of Trinity Church on Wall Street on September 11 and in the months that followed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.