Pillar of Fire

Photo by Irving I. Herzberg (from Brooklyn Public Library Archives)

First thing I remember about that day is what I was thinking right before the boy fell from the sky. I’d seen a woman walking outside St. Augustine’s as school started, carrying a loaf of semolina bread. I wanted to be tucked under her arm the way that bread was tucked under her arm. Daydreaming in study hall wasn’t unusual for me. I’d moved back to Brooklyn from Providence and had only been teaching at St. Augustine’s for about eighteen months. I found the boys mostly pleasant. I remember Richie Costo most of all from that day. One of the worst students in the grade. He had these pinched ears and liked to eat paper. He’d made a joke of it, like look how much paper I can eat, and he’d crumple another piece up and act as if he were having a bowel movement and then hold the paper up as if it had exited him in one miraculous ball. I shouldn’t have laughed the first time; Richie never stopped. He was in the process of chewing up some paper when we the first big noises boomed. I’d never heard anything like it. Richie spit out the paper in his palm. I went over to the window. A huge passenger jet was low outside, wings perpendicular to the ground, filling the narrow street, buzzing rooftops. Such noise!

Other boys saw what was happening. Under your desks, I said. The plane clipped a garage and then the nose went screaming into the Pillar of Fire Church on Sterling Place. The tail crashed on Seventh Avenue, just missing the back of our school. Sound was everywhere. Sirens and whir. Explosions. The ground boiled. The building quaked as if being swallowed. High flames curtained at window level less than a hundred yards away. Outside was smoke. Richie and the other boys started crying. Under your desks, I said again. They scrambled under their desks finally, pressing their heads between their knees. I looked around at the boys, all of them shivering like mangy stray dogs. I kept a pigeon pen on the roof of my mother’s house — I’d just built it a month before — and I found myself thinking about it as the minutes passed. I longed for those early fall days when I would go up to the pen in short-sleeves and let the pigeons out in formation, waving my black flag. In winter, I made it there less often, to feed them maybe, after eating macaroni with my mother, letting them come and go as they pleased. I wanted to be with my pigeons instead of my students, I remember. I wondered about my mother. Her house was nearby in Boerum Hill, but what if this was not an isolated incident? What if this was the beginning of something much bigger?

The students came out from under their desks, dusted themselves off, and sat back down. I pulled the shades, blocking out the chaos in the street below. We were on the third floor, and we could hear a mess of sirens, men shouting, swooshing flames, and the hard spray of hoses. Is this war, Brother Jude? Richie Costo said. No, I said. Matt Mullen, in the back, raised his hand. My grandma lives right around the corner from Pillar of Fire, Matt said. I’m sure your grandmother is fine, I said. Nicky Breslin stood up and said, It’s the Russians! I went over to him. It’s not the Russians, I said. Nicky slumped down in his desk. I’m sorry, Brother, he said.

The stance of St. Augustine’s that day was to pretend that nothing had happened, that an aircraft had not crashed a block away, that if this had happened an hour later hundreds of students from St. Augustine’s, on lunch hour, would not have been wiped out in a streak of fire and spinning metal. I knew, just from what I had seen before closing the shades, that the Pillar of Fire Church had been destroyed. Which meant that Mr. Calvin Loney, its caretaker, eighty and kind, had likely died inside, dusting statues, alone in an empty stairwell, collecting money from poor boxes, doing one of the many things he did daily. Others were probably dead on the ground. People working and people walking. Maybe that woman with the bread. People shopping for Christmas. I wondered what God saw when He looked down on this. Could He have thumbed it to a stop or reversed it with his controls?

I tried to go about my day, but the noise from outside leveled off at a screaming pitch. The pandemonium occupied me wholly, just as it did the students and lay faculty. The older Brothers seemed oblivious to it. Order was kept somehow. Students were not let out on lunch hour. They assembled in the auditorium to eat. No news was reported, but prayers were said. I walked by the main office and heard the phones ringing. Hundreds of worried parents trying to get through. I wanted to call my own mother. Brother Rourke continued, throughout the day, to stick his head into classrooms and stress that both teachers and students needed to go about their work. I hated not being able to help. I hated being shut off from the world. I didn’t know if these were our last hours. I wanted to mourn, to make last phone calls maybe, to see my mother, my pigeons, to hold some of my books.

At the end of the school day, students were filtered out onto Park Place, where their parents waited. I was standing just outside the doors, a heavy jacket and wool hat on, trying to keep order as parents claimed children. Mothers were crying, slumped on their knees, holding their sons tight. Smoke was low in the air. The weather was nasty, cold with spitting rain. Kids were looking around the corner and up the block, trying to catch a glimpse of what had happened on Sterling and Seventh. Usually they took the subway or bus home to Parkville or Canarsie or Prospect Heights. Today that stopped. Parents had fled work, anxious to see their children alive.

Richie’s mother came over to me. Terrible, isn’t it, Brother? she said. What exactly happened? I said. You don’t know? she said. I saw that Brother Rourke and Brother Carmine were occupied with a group of mothers. I know what I see, that’s all, I said. Two planes collided over Staten Island, Mrs. Costo said. One crashed in Miller Field. The other right here. I let out a breath. Good Lord, I said. How many — ? She jumped in: Deaths? A few on the ground. They’re not sure yet. Everyone on the planes, except for one boy. It’s all over the news. You really haven’t heard? I shook my head again. Eleven-year-old boy from Illinois. Flying alone to meet his parents. He was in a stewardess’s lap when the plane crashed. Got ejected. Firefighter found him in a snowbank. Burned up real bad. They took him to Methodist. Got him in a glassed-in nursery. Whole city’s praying for him. I said, Remarkable to survive a crash like that. She said, You imagine if it hit the school? Mrs. Costo’s husband came around the corner and stood next to her. Where you been? she said to him. Jesus Christ, he said. Talking to Mikey Lewnes from sanitation. They lost a couple of guys out shoveling. It’s like Korea. Richie came out then and his mother hugged him, crying like the others, and his father tousled his hair, saying, Oh Richie, oh, good kid, you’re a good kid. Richie said, We at war? No, his mother said. It was an accident, a crash, just bad luck.

I pulled my collar up and started into the crowd of parents. I had become a Brother because I had a calling to consecrated life, but not to the priesthood, as my parents would have liked. Brothers were teachers, and I wanted to be a good teacher, to teach Religion at a university, at Fordham maybe, or back in Providence, but I was not there yet. I was not a good high school teacher, struggling to maintain a pose of control, subservient to the older Brothers, uncomfortable in the community living space on the top floor of the school. I never disobeyed Brother Rourke’s orders, but I found the man stuffy and power-mad, and, though I was outwardly scared of him, inwardly I was angry. I pushed through the crowd, intent on walking to the site of the crash, seeing what I could do to help. I was sure they had set up cots in a nearby building and that there were doctors and nurses who needed assistance. I wanted to go to Methodist to pray for the boy who had fallen from the sky, to offer my blood, to do something useful. It had been hours since the crash and I had done nothing but maintain order in school, following rules blindly, and I was so close, so close I could smell blood and fire, could sense what was happening, bodies being collected and stacked, flames hissing against rain and hose water, buildings crumbling, it was all so very close. Brother Rourke called out from his post: Brother Jude, where are you going? To help, I said. I think not, Brother Rourke said. I stopped. I retreated and went back by the doors, saying nothing.

Later, I watched the news on television. I had finally been allowed to call my mother. She was fine. She said she had stood out on her front stoop and watched the smoke over the buildings. I said I would try to make it over there very soon, tomorrow maybe, but it was not a day like other days, and Brother Rourke did not want us to leave the grounds. The news made me anxious. Reporters confirmed what Mrs. Costo had said. Stephen Baltz, an eleven-year-old boy from Illinois on his way to meet his parents, had survived the crash, though he was badly burned with many broken bones. I started pacing, and Brother Carmine poured me some rye. I went to the window in the room where I had been during study hall in the morning, and I raised the shades and looked outside. I had promised myself, after Brother Rourke stopped me from going to the site, that I would not do this, that I would not go to the window and be a voyeur. Dark out now, firefighters and cops were still sifting through wreckage. Flatbed trucks had been brought in to haul away pieces of the plane. Spots of fire smoldered. Blackened snowbanks looked like inverted bunkers. People rushed around under street lamps. Crime scene tape hung from telephone poles. A rescue station had been set up in Grace Methodist Church. I noticed a halved snow shovel hanging up in a tree. Pillar of Fire was devastated, as I had suspected, part of the plane still in it, the church burning and caving around it. I had learned, on the news, that Mr. Loney had indeed died, and a doctor walking his dog, and a man selling Christmas trees on the corner, and two sanitation workers shoveling the sidewalks.

I watched for a while longer. Marie Gerardi, from the Snook Inn on Fifth, brought sandwiches and coffee for the firefighters and cops, and they stood around, taking a short break, holding cups that steamed to a glow and eating sandwiches wrapped in brown paper. I finished my rye and went downstairs. The doors were not locked from the outside. I was not in prison. Forgetting my coat and hat, I walked out into the cold night. My sweater was not enough to keep me warm, but I refused to go back into the building. I could see my breath and the smoke from the plane burned my lungs now. It was colder, the smoke more intense, and a cloud of debris hung low over the neighborhood. I walked around the corner, a long-seeming avenue to the site, and I went as far as the yellow tape would allow. I tried to speak to firefighters across the tape, making offers of help. Go over to the church, one firefighter said out of the corner of his mouth. So, skirting the yellow tape, I went over to Grace Methodist, where they had lined the basement with cots. Many of the patients there were firefighters who had taken in too much smoke, their faces blasted with soot, their uniforms iced up. I said nothing and tried to do only what people seemed to need. I lifted, folded, pushed, wiped, spoke, listened, served soup. Another volunteer gave me a wool coat and a dark hat with ear flaps. Nurses talked about the boy, Stephen Baltz, as they worked. They said he was being specialed by one nurse at Methodist, a nurse who had been here earlier, as doctors tried to figure out what should and could be done first: skin grafts, bone setting, surgery. They said his parents had arrived and were with him. They said people were holding vigils for the boy across the city. I thought, How could Brother Rourke ignore this? Why is there no vigil at St. Augustine’s? Why have the doors not been flung open for relief workers?

Very little else could be done at the crash site or in the makeshift hospital. The real work had been done during the day, while I was in school, lying to myself and the students. When I heard, finally, on my way out of Grace Methodist, that Moretti Funeral Home had been made into a morgue for the victims of the crash, I went there and wept and prayed over them, burned bodies under blankets, wet ash and bone covered with tarps. Then I walked to Methodist Hospital, intending to be part of a vigil for Stephen Baltz or to hold my own vigil in the lobby or a hallway. When I arrived, there was a crowd outside, people with candles trying to keep them lit. The rain had stopped but the wind was icy. An older woman, with hair like a blotch of ointment dropped in a screwy spiral on her head and wrapped up in a blanket, said, His parents, they let him fly alone. I know, I said. Now we’ve got planes and now we let children fly alone, she said. I’m glad I’ve never been on a plane, she said. I’m glad my children have nowhere to fly, she said.

Local business owners brought coffee and donuts and soup and umbrellas when the rain started up again, keeping radios on in cars and storefronts so they could hear the news. People left and people came. News about Stephen Baltz filtered down from the hospital: he was talking like a healthy child, asking for a television, saying he wanted to live. I ate chicken soup, though I was not hungry. I went to O’Brien’s Saloon, which would not close, O’Brien doughy-eyed behind the bar, and I used the bathroom there and had a double rye to warm up. This kid, this crash, I don’t believe it, O’Brien said. A terrible tragedy, I said. All I can think about is what these people must have been thinking on their way down, O’Brien said. Terrible, I said, and I finished my rye and went back out to join the ranks.

All night we held vigil. In the morning, after hearing that Stephen Baltz had died from breathing in too much smoke and burns that were too severe, I walked to my mother’s house in Boerum Hill. I saw newspaper headlines at grocery stands on the way, passed people who huddled on the sleety sidewalks trying to make some sense of it all. When I saw my mother, when she opened the door and I felt the warmth of her house, I hugged her, and she held onto me, just like Mrs. Costo had held onto Richie. I was so worried, she said. I’m fine, I said.

We went up to the roof, carpeted in slush, and I tended to my pigeons while my mother smoked a Pall Mall and ashed in the rain gutter. We were blocks away from the crash site, but there was a fine layer of dust on everything. The pigeons were in the pen, fluttering, and I had left the landing board down for them, but it seemed as if they had not moved, would not move, as if they were suddenly afraid of the sky. It’s just terrible that boy didn’t make it, my mother said. Why would God let him survive only to take him the next morning? I said. He has His purposes, my mother said, mushing out her cigarette in the gutter. You’re right, I said, and I wondered again about the woman with the bread; I hoped she was home with her loaf, cutting it, dipping it in gravy, safe and warm. I looked out over the street. I felt the terror of the unseen and unknown.