Retired Army colonel John Mahony was present as a Blue Cross/Blue Shield representative at one of the World Trade Centers on 9/11, when terrorists hit the buildings.
He tells his story at St. Mark's Lutheran Church today, as well as to the Huntsville Times reporter Kay Campbell.
As he fought to stay on his feet on the nineteenth floor of the North Tower, he remembered the earthquake in California, but said his Army training told him it was a bomb.
“The building jerked hard, throwing everyone off balance,” remembers Mahony, who now lives in Huntsville, in the account he has written of surviving the 9/11 attacks.
“My support was gone, and I had to catch my balance to remain on my feet.”
Once he gathered his bearings, he directed his co-workers to a nearby stairway and checked to see if there were others needing assistance to get out of the building. As he head down the stairwell, all he saw was dust and smoke, as well as dead bodies falling from down the shaft.
He said that at this point, and what he considers the worst day of his life, his habit of saying the Lord’s Prayer kicked in and gave him comfort as he and others attempted to get out of the building.
“As I stepped into that smoky stairway, the Lord’s Prayer ran through my mind; over and over and over: ‘Thy will be done.’ At first, I could only get through part of the prayer. But after a few floors, prayer relaxed me and I was able to say it completely.”
“For everyone who was having a hard time with hysterics, there were three or four who went out of their way to offer an arm, an encouraging word or a prayer.”
He said that many ask him about the horrors of that day, but for him, “There are thousands of stories from 9/11. Some are stories of pain and survival. Many are stories of heroism. Mine is a story of faith.”
As firefighters going up the stairs passed them, he continued to recite the Lord’s Prayer, something reminded him of the day “when his mother would wrap him up as he’d climb out of a cold swimming pool, and he would be held, safe and warm, in loving arms.”
“As I walked down that stair, somewhere between the 12th floor and the 10th, somewhere between ‘Our Father’ and ‘Thy will be done,’ that same feeling came over me. Suddenly, I was wrapped in warmth, and love, and comfort. In that smoky, wet stairway, in a burning building, surrounded by a thousand frightened people; I felt wonder. I felt God’s peace, and I knew that regardless of the physical outcome, everything would be all right.”
As they entered the rubble-filled lobby, a firefighter directed them out of a side door because people on the floors above the crash jumped out of the building and landed in front of the front doors.
“I moved through the rubble of the lobby vaguely registering impressions of a woman receiving oxygen, a heavyset woman crying as she was carried over the back of a coworker, another who was so badly burned that I could not tell the original color of her skin.”
When he finally made it out of the building, he was reminded of a post-Apocalyptic movie, “At first it didn’t look real. The building seemed to absorb the jet as if it were some macabre magic trick. Then the glass wall rippled and glass and jet fuel exploded outward and spilled down the side of the building.”
He ran a few blocks away and then finally turned to look at the building he left, saw the bodies of the people who chose jump, the plane that crashed into the building and suddenly felt ill.
“The dawning realization that a pilot could abandon those in his care and intentionally fly into a building suddenly hit me. It made me sick.”
“Each new descending body emphasized how terrible the conditions were on the upper floors.”
Then the first tower collapsed, sending a billow of ash out that seemed to embody evil.
“I try not to ascribe human emotion to inanimate things, but the debris cloud seemed malevolent. It roiled with greenish brown smoky shadows deep within the white dust. And it was fast. It was warm, not as hot as a sauna, but close. It itched. Thousands of cement particles whose edges had not yet worn smooth went into my nose, eyes, and ears and down my shirt.”
He continues telling his story with himself trapped on the south side of the building, near Battery Park.
“My prayers continued, but now with a difference. For the most part, I stayed with the Lord’s Prayer, but Jesus seemed so close, that I added specific prayers for those we passed. There was the overwhelming sense of the physical presence of Jesus. He was radiating that sense of love, compassion, and peace that I was feeling.”
Later, he found out that the smoke he inhaled during the six hours it took to get out of the building caused him health problems that would shorten his life, but he also believes that day left him with insights that enrich his life.
“When I walked from those ruined towers, I took two priceless gifts with me. First, I carry God’s peace with me every day. Even if I get distracted, Christ’s love is all around us. It takes just a few lines from a simple prayer for it to wrap itself around me once again.
“Second, I know, with a certainty that my words cannot possibly convey, I know what will happen to me when I die. I will rise from this shell, like a child fresh and clean from a bath, and I will be wrapped in the warmth of His love and His forgiveness and His peace.”