It wasn’t planned this way — to be in Assisi, Italy, on September 11.
I only realized that this is where our pilgrimage would be, on the historic day, shortly before we left.
But that’s what occurred, and there were observations.
For example, on the morning of 9/11 we saw the last remaining effects — a ceiling crack in the main basilica — from two earthquakes that struck Assisi in 1997, collapsing stone tower-walls as towers would collapse far across the Atlantic a few years later.
The first to strike Assisi, a magnitude-5.5, in the Apennines, was felt as far away as Rome, and the second one was yet larger, at magnitude-6.1.
Amidst the chaos of the Upper Church, where the life of Saint Francis was depicted in frescoes, a violent shaking caused the vaulted ceiling to collapse, bringing down sections of the artwork. It is believed that between twenty and thirty people were present at the time of this calamity. Two friars and two government experts were killed.
There was that, and there were the “coincidences.”
The priest we chose for the trip — again, not realizing the exact dates — was Father David Trujillo of Utah.
Twenty-two years before, I was with this priest — who back then was a layman, David Trujillo — when the horror of 9/11 unfolded. He had brought me out to speak about coming events (including how “fire was going to fall”) at St. Therese the Little Flower Church near Salt Lake City on the evening of September 10.
The next morning, while waiting in the hotel lobby for now-Father Trujillo to pick me up and take me to the airport, I saw the news on a television set and earnest initial live reports as smoke poured from the first tower, which I assumed had been an accident involving a small plane.
As I watched, the second jetliner — no small plane — hit the South Tower.
Father David took me to the airport and dropped me off, but just before boarding, they canceled all flights across the U.S. and announced the airport was closing. An airline attendant, clearly shaken, was weeping too much to answer questions. No one knew much of anything. There were rumors the White House also had been hit.
I stayed at Father Trujillo’s family home for the next four incredible, indelible days, unable to get a flight, a bus, a train ticket, a rental car, or even try to hitch a ride with a trucker while my wife Lisa and children waited anxiously back in New York State.
A day later, I received an urgent phone call from Robert Larned, a close college buddy in Virginia Beach, to tell me that another close college friend — almost a brother, Danny Smith of Northport, Long Island, who worked for Euro Brokers in the South Tower of the Trade Center — was missing. We later learned that after the first tower was struck, they had evacuated the second tower, but unlike many others, Danny had gone back up when they received an “all-clear.”
He was on the 84th floor, near where the nose of the second airliner crashed into the skyscraper.
I knew Danny was dead. I think of him often. He left behind a dedicated, devout wife, Mary, equally a good friend, and two children…
Now we get to the second 9/11 coincidence.
While in Assisi today (9/11), our guide for 206 Tours happened to mention that a memorial to the victims had been built in the village, basically a walkway from a bus parking area to a road below, with bricks on the side, each with the name of a victim.
The path connects two of the key churches here, the Basilica of Saint Francis and the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli.
Lisa and I spent time searching for Danny amid the 2,976 other victims, praying as we did both to find his brick and also for all the souls, hundreds and hundreds of names.
Until we came across what we were ardently looking for:
Needless to say, emotions poured forth. It was an extraordinary moment. It is the kind of thing that only happens in places such as Assisi, and especially during pilgrimages.
And so it goes, on this wonderful pilgrimage, finding Danny’s name in a place so far from New York, a place where there has been grace at around every corner, at every stop, if also, for me, on this one day, the accompaniment of tears.
— Michael H. Brown
[Footnote on another happening:
The first full day of the pilgrimage, our group went to a general audience of Pope Francis, and two of our pilgrims in wheelchairs were brought up to where Francis was speaking and ended up shaking hands with him (along with their son and daughter-in-law)!