A search for my son on Sept. 11
A father recounts this search through Manhattan to find his son, Flyer Dan Baumbach ’99, alive after the terrorist attacks in September 2001.
My usual routine places me on a 7:02 a.m. train from Long Island to Manhattan, which I catch after morning Mass in my parish. But on Sept. 11, 2001, I had slept late, having arrived home shortly before midnight the night before after speaking at a Connecticut parish. So, on a beautiful, sparkling morning, I boarded the 9:05 train. The train had just left the station when the conductor announced that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I remembered my youngest son, Dan, saying good-bye to me as he left earlier that morning for his office on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center.
Commuters watching from the train windows gasped in horror as the towers became engulfed in flames. Seated on the north side of the train, I could not bring myself to cross the aisle to peer at the emerging tragedy. Never before had my mouth gone totally dry. As I prayed, I began to experience the meaning of Jesus’ words, “I thirst” (John 19:28). There was so much for which I thirsted at that moment.
“There was so much for which I thirsted at that moment.”
At 14th Street I exited rapidly, walking briskly south on Seventh Avenue toward the World Trade Center. I was shocked to see only one tower standing. I leaned over, somehow trying to convince myself that if I bent far enough I would be able to glimpse the other tower. Suddenly, I remembered that Dan had said he worked in the tower with the antenna on top — the North Tower, which was still standing. Despite the raging smoke enveloping the top floors, a rush of hope overcame me. Cell phones were jammed, but from a public telephone I reached my office, located just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I was stunned to hear from my secretary, Naomi, that Dan had called, anxious to know of my whereabouts; ordinarily, I would be at my desk by 8:15 a.m. Later I would learn that Dan had called from the 78th floor.
“My heart told me to continue southward, to find my son.”
My heart told me to continue southward, to find my son. My movement ceased and my eyes froze in one horrifying moment: the collapse of the North Tower. I looked at my watch: It was 10:28 a.m. Where was Dan? Had he escaped? I walked on, observing scores of rescue vehicles heading north toward St. Vincent’s Hospital. I wondered if one of them carried my son. I was overcome by my memories of the goodness Dan had brought to our family and to so many others. I lost track of time, aware only of my burdened heart and the multitude of people around me. Complete strangers supported one another, and some hugged and comforted me as I shared my uncertainty about my son. Several times I tried to call my wife, Elaine, without success. She was keeping vigil with Dan’s girlfriend, Karen, and Karen’s mother.
After some fellow New Yorkers ushered me to the head of the line at a public telephone, I reached my wife. Dan was alive! A friend of Dan’s had finally reached our son shortly after Dan had made his way down the tower, out the doors and through the darkness onto a local street.
Alive! Alive! Alive! I wept as I held the phone. I remember asking Elaine to repeat what she was saying. Tears of pain and joy washed me that day. My thirst was relieved by waters formed in pain and eyes scarred by the tragic loss still continuing to occur before me. To quote Genesis, Joseph “was so overcome with affection for his brother that he was on the verge of tears. He went into a private room and wept there” (43:30).
Elaine had told me that Dan was being treated for a shoulder injury at St. Vincent’s Hospital and was about to be discharged. My walk to St. Vincent’s was deliberate but not frenetic. In the midst of such unspeakable tragedy, our son had survived. It took about a half hour to reach the hospital, which was a sea of activity. Across from the hospital near a corner I repeatedly shouted, “Dan! Dan!” Then, in the midst of a crowd, I heard a familiar voice shout back, “Dad!” We held each other in an embrace that seemed endless in its joy and simultaneous acknowledgment of shock and pain. Life had been changed forever.
“We held each other in an embrace that seemed endless in its joy and simultaneous acknowledgment of shock and pain.”
Our Emmaus walk began. We walked for about three hours, trying to find a train station that would enable us to get home. Dan shared that, unaware of the cause of the impact, he and others on the 80th floor had decided to leave the North Tower soon after their building was hit. Upon reaching the 76th floor, Dan injured his shoulder when he tried to ram a door that would not open. The door resisted, so he and about 30 others from his floor had to go back up in search of an alternate exit. On the way down, he aided others by helping to carry a motorized wheelchair and encouraging people to continue. Dan credits his Boy Scout training with helping him to stay calm and focused, knowing what to do when confronted by fire and how to continue breathing.
It took Dan about an hour to reach the lower canyons of the World Trade Center. At the base of an escalator in a popular bookstore, he heard loud rumbling noises and wondered what might be exploding behind him. Dan started to sprint up the escalator, which was now stopped. As he did so, he heard the shouts of a police officer running toward him to get down. The blast — the collapse of the South Tower — was so great that Dan and the officer landed next to each other, holding on as the powerful force pushed them against the side of the escalator. When the rumbling stopped, the man moved on, surely seeking others in need. Dan instinctively found his way outside, following a flicker of light. People were staggering onto the street. Dan bumped into parked cars as he wandered. Eventually, he entered a nearby post office. When officials permitted people to leave, Dan started to walk north. Suddenly, people began to run by him. He turned and looked as the North Tower, where he had worked, began to crumble. Continuing on, Dan was able to reach Canal Street. Physically spent, he collapsed and was picked up by an ambulance.
“This was the day my son — my son, the man — became my brother.”
As Dan related his experience, I realized that this was the day my son — my son, the man — became my brother. As a father with great love for all three of my sons, I read now with new meaning the First Letter of John: “This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21). The life and death and rising that people experienced in the midst and aftershock of the World Trade Center disaster renders language insufficient for assessing the impact of so great a tragedy. People helped one another naturally, acting as witnesses to the value of life and sharing service unceasingly with those in need. Jesus was and is truly present in this sacred place. Living and dying and rising are not just familiar words for describing briefly what we believe. They are the stuff of our existence; they are firmly planted roots of our growth as disciples of the One who died for all. These realities help us to realize what we do when we turn life’s corners or emerge from situations transformed by our experiences. For me, the tears that surfaced on Sept. 11 now bring me back to the waters of Baptism, that flowing river of new birth. To call Dan “brother” now means claiming with fresh awareness that we are, together, children of God: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are” (1 John 3:1).
As Dan and I now walk the way of Christ together each day, we do so amid experiences still fresh in our minds and still felt in our hearts. In a symbolic sense, the light that summoned Dan from darkness stands in stark contrast to all that keeps us blinded from the presence of Christ in our everyday lives. Each of us can enable the light of Christ to grow brighter. As Paul reminds us, “For all of you are children of the light and children of the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:5).
“My rejoicing is almost muted, quieted by the pain and loss of others who never had a chance to try to ram a door, take a step down or follow a flickering light.”
Sept. 11 was the worst day of our lives and the best day of our lives. Deep gratitude and its accompanying family joy are tempered by the loss of thousands of people and the mourning of countless families. The unspeakable acts of terror in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and New York will forever mark our calendar as a day when so many good and holy children of God perished. So my rejoicing is almost muted, quieted by the pain and loss of others who never had a chance to try to ram a door, take a step down or follow a flickering light. I am blessed with a surviving son who became for me in a new way that day, in the family of God, my brother. With new depths of poignant understanding, I pray these words: “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.”
Gerard F. Baumbach is emeritus faculty in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame and former executive vice president and publisher for William H. Sadlier, Inc.
Dan Baumbach ’99 is a quantitative trader for Jump Trading, LLC. An electrical engineering grad from UD, Dan is on the board of directors of Tuesday’s Children. Originally founded to help those impacted by the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, it has since expanded to provide long-term support to communities, families and individuals around the world impacted by terrorism or the loss of a family member in the military.
This is an edited version of the original article titled “September 11 in Manhattan: Finding My Son Alive,” published in the September 2002 issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. It is reprinted here with permission from St. Anthony Messenger (www.StAnthonyMessenger.org).