(OSV News) – On a September morning 22 years ago, now-Deacon Paul Carris of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, settled into his cubicle in a New York skyscraper – the iconic World Trade Center 1, also known as the North Tower.
Six weeks earlier, the civil engineer – a 46-year-old layman at the time and a self-described “compartmentalized” Catholic, whose faith was neatly segmented from other areas of his life – had left his private consulting work to rejoin the staff of his former employer, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
If skies were clear, the 70,000 tourists and employees on site each day at the North Tower and its sister South Tower could see 45 miles in every direction from the top floors. The vista was no less stunning down on the 71st floor, where Deacon Carris had a window view.
“I hadn’t even opened all my boxes yet,” Deacon Carris told OSV News Sept. 7. “And I was in a new department. So I really, I knew maybe one or two people, but most of the people were all new to me.”
Yet on that cool, picture-perfect morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was moments away from several life-changing meetings – with a fellow North Tower worker, with God and with himself.
“I’d just gotten off the phone with my manager, and I heard a huge, loud roar and then (an) impact to the building,” he said.
At 8:46 a.m, American Airlines Flight 11, which had been hijacked by five terrorists from the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaida, crashed into floors 93 through 99 of the North Tower. The 76 passengers and 11 crew members on board were killed instantly, along with hundreds in the building. Above the 91st floor, hundreds remained trapped.
Minutes later, another five hijackers from al-Qaida drove United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower, immediately killing 51 passengers, nine crew members and an undetermined number of building occupants. Another 50 to more than 200 of those in both towers are believed to have jumped to their deaths after the impacts.
Horror gripped the nation as the coordinated attack continued to unfold: Al-Qaida hijackers slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon and then a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, which was initially headed to Washington, plunged into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers thwarted the hijackers.
In total, the four attacks spanning some 77 minutes would kill 2,977 people that day. They would not be the only victims of those Sept. 11 attacks. More than 4,600 first responders and survivors have since died from cancers and other ailments incurred by toxic dust, fumes and fibers from the debris; thousands more continue to suffer.
Deacon Carris told OSV News it “literally took three or four days after the event” to process the sequence of events that led to his escape from the North Tower.
“The building … tilted so far that it almost felt like it was going to keep going over,” he said. “And then it just rocked back and forth into place.”
As flaming debris cascaded across the windows, Deacon Carris and his co-workers began to evacuate.
But one middle-aged floormate lagged behind: Judith Toppin, who suffered from a number of health issues – a compromised heart that required a defibrillator, poor lungs and swollen legs.
“Three or four people were standing around her trying to figure out what to do, because she was a very heavy woman; she was probably over 300 pounds,” Deacon Carris said.
He strode over to her and simply said, “Stay calm, and get up. We are going to walk out of this building together.”
Strangely, the exodus through the stairwells was for the most part “incredibly calm,” and “everybody was so cooperative with each other,” said Deacon Carris.
During the laborious journey, punctuated by brief rests and pauses to allow others to pass, with the smell of jet fuel choking the air, “my focus was totally on getting her down a step at a time,” said Deacon Carris, admitting that he “hadn’t even thought about praying,” since he was intent on “making sure she got down without falling.”
But “at some point … (Judith) started praying Psalm 23 out loud,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’d better start praying to God myself.’”
At one point, Toppin’s defibrillator “went off and lifted her an inch” off the steps, said Deacon Carris.
About 30 floors from the exit, they felt another impact as the South Tower was struck. For the final 10 floors, Judith’s limbs had become “kind of numb” from exhaustion,” said Deacon Carris.
The pair were among the last to make it out from the building, which collapsed at 10:28 a.m. after burning for 102 minutes.
For Deacon Carris, though, the real battle for survival began once he’d reached the ground.
A written reflection by Toppin, who became a dear friend and likened him to an angel in her tribute, “made me dig deep and realize … I’m anything but a perfect person,” said Deacon Carris.
“Anger and rage issues” after the Sept. 11 attacks led him to seek therapy, he said. “It wasn’t about 9/11, so much as (Judith) had described this person whom I did not recognize. … Part of what contributed to the anger is I realized something was missing in my life and I had no idea what it was.”
The answer came during a Cursillo retreat he attended.
“I realized that what was missing was a really true relationship with God,” he said. “I’d been a Catholic all my life, but it was the first time I actually understood what a relationship with God was about.”
Soon “this hunger took over me for learning and study,” said Deacon Carris, who sought to assuage it by entering a three-year faith formation program offered by the Archdiocese of Newark.
Later, he found himself volunteering to help local women religious build a food pantry for a large Guatemalan community in Fairview, New Jersey.
“That volunteering effort sort of got my focus on getting out of my comfort zone and doing service,” he said.
Other new doors began to open in his life: a transfer to a different department at the Port Authority that enabled him to avoid a layoff, work in Newark – and apply to the archdiocese’s permanent diaconate program, to which he was accepted in May 2007.
Ordained in May 2011, Deacon Carris – now assigned to Corpus Christi Parish in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey – said 9/11 gave him “a rock of a foundation, knowing that God is here.”
“I have no questions about the reality of God and the reality of God in everybody’s life,” he said. “But unfortunately, we sometimes have to go through tragedy to wake us up to open that door. If there’s a theme to my preaching, it’s ‘get out of your comfort zone, and you’ll find the Holy Spirit.’”