SHOCK. ANGER. DISBELIEF. Twenty years later, New York and New Jersey Knights of Columbus can vividly recall their emotions as they watched the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Tom Connolly, the general agent for western Nassau County at the time, also remembers a sense of helplessness and frustration.
“I think a part of all of us was like, ‘We’ve got to do something, but we don’t know what to do,’” he said.
It didn’t take long, however, for local Knights to spring into action. Councils began making meals for emergency personnel. Members who had retired from the police or fire department donned uniforms again to volunteer. Chaplains celebrated Mass and offered counsel for the workers at ground zero.
Meanwhile, on the day after the attacks, then-Supreme Knight Carl Anderson and the K of C Board of Directors established the $1 million Knights of Columbus Heroes Fund to provide emergency assistance to the families of fallen first responders. It was the agents’ job to identify those families and bring them a check for $3,000 to help with immediate needs — the first financial help that many of the families received.
“The supreme knight realized that the widows and family members wouldn’t be receiving money right away,” explained Phil Fredericks, then general agent for Bergen and Hudson counties and now a past grand knight of Our Lady Queen of Peace Council 3426 in Maywood, N.J.
Paperwork and red tape would delay insurance funds and other compensation from the city, and in the meantime, families would have bills to pay and groceries to buy.
“That money was very important, whatever they decided to do with it,” recalled John Scherer, the general agent for Brooklyn in 2001 and a member of Christ the King-Father Anthony J. Foley Council 11163 in Commack, N.Y. “City workers, they live check to check. You miss a check, you don’t pay your mortgage.”
Recipients of the Heroes Fund aid did not have to be families of Knights, or even Catholic. Agents visited and called fire houses and police stations throughout the area to track down the names and badge numbers of first responders who had died. Supreme Council employees worked into the night, cutting checks and overnighting them to agents to deliver.
“It was imperative to get them out as soon as possible ,” noted Scherer. “Not a week from now, not five days from now, not three days from now.”
The visits to the families’ homes were not easy. Families were grateful for the help, but raw and reeling from grief.
Connolly remembers one visit he made to a young widow in Valley Stream on Long Island in which he noticed a coat hanging from a dining chair.
“She looked at me and said, ‘That’s where he put his coat the morning he walked out, and I can’t move it,’” Connolly recalled. “Needless to say, my heart was breaking for her. I can still see her face.”
Richard Malek, a general agent who delivered more than a dozen checks, particularly remembers the children.
“To be a fireman or a policeman in New York City, that’s a young man’s job — so they all had young families,” said Malek, a member of Monroe (N.Y.) Council 2079. “I cried in my car a couple of times coming home after seeing some of these families, and seeing the little kids running around.”
Scherer’s first delivery was to a widow, home alone with a baby. “She had a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer, questions about what happens now financially,” he said. “That check made a big dierence; she got a lot of relief from it. She said, ‘This is just what we need right now.’”
Between September 2001 and July 2002, the Order’s field force delivered 419 checks to the families of firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel.
As wrenching as the work was, Tom Connolly is grateful for the experience, which prepared him in some ways for his ministry as a permanent deacon. Deacon Connolly is now a member and associate chaplain of Msgr. Walsh-St. Raymond’s Council 7220 in East Rockaway, N.Y.
“We had the opportunity, in the midst of all this horror, to bring a little bit of light, a little bit of help to other people ,” he said. “The Knights gave us that opportunity during this horrible time in our history to be present for those in need.”
CECILIA HADLEY is senior editor of Columbia.
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