‘There was no getting away from it’
The notion that an airplane might crash into the World Trade Center was something Rabbi Ronald Kaplan had considered a full year before Sept. 11, 2001.
As a chaplain at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, in 2000 during training he underwent for counseling victims of an airliner crash, a prescient scenario was given.
“One of the examples was what would happen if the Twin Towers were hit,” he told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 29 phone interview.
The course was cosponsored by the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and the American Red Cross.
“They wanted a group of chaplains to be ready to be dispatched throughout the country in the event of an air disaster,” he said.
The next year, in August, Kaplan became the religious leader at Temple Beth Am in Parsippany. When the 9/11 attacks happened, he had just begun to get acquainted with his congregants. But he had already developed a relationship with Joyce Marlin, the Parsippany resident who was the congregation’s president and chaired the search committee that hired him.
Their bonding would grow more intense in the days ahead.
At the time, Marlin worked in the American Express Towers, the high-rise office building directly across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center.
She has vivid memories of that day. “We looked up and instantly we saw the building crunched in from where the airplane hit, blacking across the front and flames shooting from the other side,” she told NJJN in a Sept. 1 interview. “A young woman started screaming, ‘It’s going to fall on us,’ because it looked like it was going to break off. We had no clue it was anything other than an accident. We said, ‘We’re out of here.’ So we all just left.”
Marlin managed to get on a boat carrying people fleeing Manhattan across the Hudson River. From the ferry, she watched the first tower fall. Upon arriving in Jersey, she took a train to Millburn, checked in with her daughter in Short Hills, and then called her rabbi.
“When I spoke with her that afternoon she was home safe, but she was very traumatized,” said Kaplan.
Nevertheless, the two and others at Beth Am mobilized quickly, working with then Parsippany Mayor Mimi Letts to organize an interfaith community solidarity service at the synagogue on Sept. 12.
“We had no idea who would come,” Kaplan said. “But the event drew some 100 Catholics, Protestants, and Hindus to mourn alongside the Jews at the temple,” said the rabbi.
Every Wednesday for the next two months, Kaplan met with bereaved families at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City at an area set up by the Red Cross. Then they would accompany them by ferry to Ground Zero.
Kaplan said he and the mourners “stood on a platform right there. We didn’t stay long, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, in silence. The only sound made by me was the benediction I would say at the end of every day,” he recalled. “I will never forget the interactions with these families — fathers, mothers, siblings, children, and spouses.”
The memories still haunt Marlin. “The most difficult part was the first year, because it was on television every day, and there was no getting away from it. After the first anniversary it was a little easier. It wasn’t a constant reminder,” she told NJJN.
Ten years later, Kaplan said, living through those events was “both emotional and experiential — because I was there, because I could feel the heat still rising from the debris and the fires still raging and the visceral impact of hearing them ring an alarm every time they would find a body or body parts. The alarms told people to stop. Teams would rush to it and recover them gently and compassionately.”
The experience, he said, left him “overcome and stunned and overwhelmed. Who can imagine such human-created destruction through the worst evil man could contemplate? And yet these families wanted to see it, wanted to actualize their losses. That had a tremendous impact on me. But I didn’t preach about it,” he said. “I didn’t think I could find words that were adequate.”
Marlin lost several associates who worked in Trade Center, and even as she mourns them, she is still concerned with those who lived through the attack.
“I want people to understand what the impact really is for those of us who got out safely,” she said. “It was like our world changed. From that moment on I knew anything could happen.”