Meeting pope at ground zero brings tears to Sept. 11 survivor

Dennis Sadowski

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Looking into Pope Benedict XVI's eyes as she genuflected in front of him during his visit to the former World Trade Center site, Julie Malik knew the pope understood what she had experienced on a disastrous September morning more than six years ago.

"I remember thinking, 'You're here. You're here to help us. You took your time to understand,'" Malik said of the April 20 meeting.

Malik, 57, was one of four survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack in lower Manhattan who met the pontiff during his visit to ground zero. Four rescue workers and 16 people who lost family members in the disaster also met the pope at the site.

"There's one word I can think of to describe (the meeting) and that is 'amazing,'" Malik told Catholic News Service. "His eyes are so penetrating. He just stares in your eyes."

Meeting Pope Benedict came as a surprise to Malik, a member of the Church of the Incarnation in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood. Her pastor, Msgr. Gabriel La Paz, had written to the Archdiocese of New York telling them she had survived the disaster.

Even so, when the call came to her home from the archdiocese, Malik said she thought it was someone playing a joke.

"Then they told me I was going to meet the pope," she said. "I said, 'Uh huh. I'm going to meet the man? Get out of town.'"

After the pope left the site, Malik looked at two of the other survivors: a woman she knew from another New York parish and a man who worked in the Pentagon not far from where a jetliner also crashed on the morning of Sept. 11. "We turned and looked at each other. I think it was the fact that we were all survivors, we all started hugging and crying. It's a different feeling. We were there (when it happened)," she said.

Sept. 11, 2001, began like every other workday for Malik. She met a co-worker outside the south tower and they made their way to the 91st floor offices of the engineering firm Washington Group International. She was preparing for her day as the receptionist in the elevator lobby when other workers came running toward her saying something had happened at the north tower.

No one knew it at the time, but the first jet had crashed into the tower. She looked out a window herself. "I remember thinking 'This isn't a mistake. This is scary,'" Malik said.

Although she doesn't specifically recall what happened in the next few moments, Malik said co-workers later told her she was giving them instructions to get their personal items and get out of the building. She was on the ground when the second plane hit with a thunderous roar just below her firm's offices. Not all of her co-workers survived.

She left the area quickly, long before either building collapsed.

Malik said meeting the pope was important to her healing, especially because she was laid off from the engineering firm last fall after more than 20 years on the job. She now works for a company in New York's garment district.

"People forget we were there," she said. "Yes, families lost someone and I don't mean to demean that, but we were there too. We lost friends too."

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