What I saw in the afternoon

by Brian Keaney

I sometime wonder what would have happened if someone else had been there at that moment.  In a city of celebrities – and countless more sycophants who tripped over each other just for the chance to fawn over them – I’m sure I was in a distinct minority of people who would have recognized a man who very recently was elevated to the height of his game.

I was taking the name of yet another volunteer on my clipboard and telling them it was likely to be a couple of hours before I called for them.  Like the hundreds before them they accepted the news happily and went off to find a corner in which they could sit and wait.  There wasn’t much they, or anyone else in the country, could do.

Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a crowd moving towards the door.  I threw out my free hand to block their progress, called out “whoah” as if addressing a horse, and only then did I look up to see what was going on.  There was a short old man in a black suit leading the pack.  His collar tipped off that he was a member of the clergy, and the horde of television cameras chasing him indicated immediately that he was a man of some importance.

Once I got a look at his face I immediately apologized to his eminence and made no hindrance to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, the newest member of Holy Roman Church to receive a red hat and the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and allowed him and his media entourage to pass.

Cardinal McCarrick, like the hundreds of others whose name were on my list, was at the Washington Hospital Center to give blood that Tuesday afternoon.  Just a few miles away the Pentagon was still in flames, New Yorkers were covered in soot, and Americans everywhere where in disbelief.  Much of the nation, and indeed the world, was glued to their TVs, and I can’t blame them.  For a while after I returned back to my dorm from class, so was I.

It wasn’t long before I decided I couldn’t stay in my dorm any longer.  I had a friend write my social security number on the insides of my arms – because, really, who knew what was going to happen at that point – and started walking.  I couldn’t get a cab to stop for me, and though I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going I knew there was a hospital somewhere down the street.  A couple miles later I found it and told the woman at the front desk that I was there to help however they needed me.

I wasn’t sure what I could do, and neither were they at first.  While I was having my picture taken to get an ID badge someone had the idea to put me at the blood donor center.  It’s there that I spent the rest of the day.  At first the number of people coming in to donate was nothing more than what I see on a standard Saturday at my local Red Cross, but before long it was a deluge.

When the line got to be about four or five hours long (and likely longer, as I was really just guessing) I started taking telephone numbers and telling people to go home.  I’m sure they were never called, and I can’t imagine the hospital even had enough room to store all the blood they took while I was there.  I don’t know what happened to it all, but I hope not too much of it went to waste.

The media has been awash in remembrances and tributes this week, and rightly so.  For countless individuals it was the most traumatic day of their lives.  A childhood friend of my dad’s was in the Pentagon when the plane crashed, and listening to his story was something else.  It has touched the lives of all of us, no matter how far removed we may have been from New York, D.C., or Pennslyvania.

For me, however, I count myself as one of the lucky ones.  I didn’t spend the day watching the endless repeats on TV.  I was really too busy to even listen to the rumors of a car bomb at the State Department or anything else floating around the masses of people waiting to hear me call their names.

Of course I’ve seen the footage countless times since then, but ten years ago today I wasn’t focused on evil.  I was too busy trying to make sense of hundreds of people from all walks of life who were gladly waiting hours to give, to serve, to save a life.  I didn’t have time for those who wanted to take, to destroy, or to kill.  I saw those from Capital Hill stitting next to those from Shaw.  The uber-conservative Catholic from my own university chatting with the ultra-liberal lesbian from the campus down the street.  The rabbi leading the gentiles – and likely some atheists – in prayer.

On September 11, 2001, I saw the best of humanity.  Never Forget can and was used a trite slogan used to justify actions taken that I disagree with strongly.  But as someone who read the numbers on the bottom of the low flying fighter jets’ wings as they flew overhead in the days that followed, I don’t want to remember what happened in the morning.  I will never forget what I saw in the afternoon.