Human resilience offers us all hope

Second Reading
Human resilience offers us all hope

Fr Kevin Hegarty

The end of ‘the noughties’ produced a plethora of media reviews of the last decade. All agreed that the central event which shaped the world political landscape was the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001.
There are historical events that are so momentous that people always remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news. 9/11 is one of them.
I remember it well. Mary Robinson, who was then the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, and her husband Nick, had invited me to join them on a boat trip to the Inishkea islands, off the Mullet Peninsula.
Having explored the south island, we went to the north island to examine the early Celtic Christian crucifixion slab there. The pristine peace of the afternoon was shattered by a mobile phone call informing us that the Twin Towers had been attacked.
Silently, we sailed quickly back to Blacksod. In Vincent and Doreen Sweeney’s home, we watched the horrific drama unfold on television. It seemed like a horror movie. But this was not a movie - it was the horror.
In a recent contribution to the Irish Independent, Mrs Robinson called it “the most devastating and lowest point” of the decade. It shaped, she said, “much of what happened during the following years; this varied from the sheer negativity of the war to the powerful positivity of people’s ability to care for each other.”
Nearly 3,000 people perished in the Twin Towers atrocity, leaving permanent and acute absences in the lives of their families. Many hundreds were severely injured.
How do people cope with grief and mutilation when the media circus turns its attention elsewhere? Amidst the pain there are inspiring stories of survival.
Take the story of Harry Waizer, a tax attorney with Cantor Fitzgerald, whose office was on the 104th floor of the Twin Towers. Married to Karen, they have three children. His Jewish parents had fled Eastern Europe during the Nazi reign of terror. Now ensconced in the security of suburban America, he had no idea that a new political horror was to engulf him.
He will never forget the morning of 9/11. He was on the elevator to his office when he heard the boom. The elevator burst into flames and began to plummet.
Already he had burns on his arms and legs, when a fireball hit him full in the face. He inhaled burning fuel.
When the elevator stopped he ran to the fire stairs. Here he was rescued by a fire fighter who brought him by ambulance to the hospital. He heard a doctor say that “we are going to have to incubate you.” That’s all he remembers for close to two months.
After ten weeks his family were allowed to visit. He looked forward to the meeting but also dreaded it because of his appearance.
He thought he looked like Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in the film ‘the Hunchback of Notre Dame’. His whole face was blackened and it had grotesque scabs all over it. Twenty-five per cent of his body had suffered burning.
He need not have feared. His wife and children hugged him closely. Little by little he has put his life together again. Through intense physiotherapy he has regained mobility in his hands. He endured seven surgeries. By 2004 he was back at work in a part-time capacity. Ali Abbas is another on whom the hand of history had fallen heavily during the last decade. Now 18 years old, a native of Iraq, his parents were small farmers living near Baghdad. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, they kept their heads down and got on with life as best they could.
This uneasy existence was totally shattered in 2004 when the US invaded Iraq as part of its response to the Twin Towers attack. Ali’s home was bombed. He was the only member of his family to survive.
Brought to Baghdad hospital by a brave friend, the doctors told him they would have to remove his arms as they were so badly injured.
He was transferred to Kuwait for further treatment. Here some journalists reported his story. It caught the attention of the Llimbless Association in England who offered him the opportunity of rehabilitation.
Now he can uses his feet to eat, paint and write. He can even manipulate the TV remote control with them. A fitness fanatic, he goes to the gym three times a week and plays soccer with his local team, Chelsea community FC.
There you have it. Two stirring stories of human resilience that offer us courage for our new journey in 2010.