Originally published in The National Herald, Sept. 17, 2009
NEW YORK– Although it’s been eight years since the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, the emotional wounds of that tragic day are still fresh to those impacted on a more personal level. The Greek American community was not insulated from this act of terrorism and continues to pay tribute to the many lives lost and to the loved ones of those lost who suffer with perpetual absence in their lives.
Rev. Fr. Paul P. Panos, parish priest of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Schenectady, N.Y. told The National Herald he distinctly remembers the events of that day. “I remember I took my kids to school, and at 10 in the morning, I lay down to take a nap,” said Fr. Panos. “Then I got two or three calls to turn on the TV. I was just stunned. I panicked and went to St. Nicholas in Flushing to take my kids out of school and made sure they were safe at home, then I went to my Church [in New Jersey] and I just instinctively opened up the Church; people were coming in left and right.”
Fr. Panos felt compelled to help at the site in any way he could and made his way to the World Trade Center site immediately. “I was kind of addicted to just being there, hoping we’d find somebody. I felt this urgency. Obviously, I’m not a rescue worker, but at the time I was a Naval Reserve chaplain and I was there to offer support with my training as a priest. One of the things they didn’t really show on TV was when the bulldozers would scoop up the rubble and carefully sift for any body parts, which we do a blessing for.”
To honor the memories of 9/11 victims, Fr. Paul initiated a remembrance ceremony. This year’s event, which took place at St. George’s on the anniversary of the tragedy, was well-attended by both parishioners and non-Orthodox attendants alike.
“Our parish is conveniently located across the street from City Hall and I am one of the chaplains for City Council,” he said. “We had the mayor of Schenectady present as well as several city council members, a state senator, a U.S. congressman.”
A portion of the ceremony included a display of a burnt cut-steel cross from Ground Zero given to the reverend by rescue workers.
“Just the experience of walking around and knowing the air of death and destruction, the act of terrorism- it’s kind of rough,” Fr. Panos said. “There were sirens over and over; even now whenever alarms go off [it triggers something in me]. Some memories will never leave you.” Fr. Paul said besides keeping the memory of the victims alive, his primary concern is the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Church which was also destroyed during the attacks.
“I’m very concerned about the [rebuilding], because it better happen,” said Fr. Paul, who often officiated at services at St. Nicholas for Fr. John Romas. “We have every right to be there. So much money was donated by so many people to rebuild the St. Nicholas Church- I do hope it’s not swept under the rug. Granted it’s our Church, but it would be available for all the people to come by who would want to pay the proper respect; it would be a living tribute. If I have to, I will take the collar off and scream as a citizen. We deserve to have that Church rebuilt.”
Fr. Paul, who had a flag thrown in his honor over the nation’s capital for his service to God and his country, added that one of the most difficult losses to accept was the death of his friend, 31 year-old John Katsimatides who was killed in Tower 1 while working as a financial trader for Cantor Fitzgerald.
John’s sister, Anthoula Katsimatides, told The National Herald that the loss of her brother was especially difficult for their family, who were still in the process of mourning the death of John’s brother, Michael Katsimatides who committed suicide in May 1999.
“It’s sad enough to lose one sibling but to lose two in such a short span was just an unbelievable blow, so because we started thinking about doing something for Michael, when John too died, it was a no-brainer that [my family and friends] would start something in their memories,” said Katsimatides, who is president of The Johnny and Mikey Katsimatides Foundation (Jamfoundation.org). Katsimatides said the goal of the foundation is to touch on topics that they supported during their lives, or that have something to do with who they were, including “music education, cancer research, aid for underprivileged youth, suicide prevention and the rights of crime victims.”
Recalling the events of September 11, 2001, Katsimatides said the day was the longest one of her life. “Although I knew my brother was in the downtown area, I had no idea he was working in that building. For the most part, I was extremely hopeful that he would come home because he was a very resilient human being, and a Mac-Gyver of sorts,” said Katsimatides, who at the time, worked for New York’s Governor Pataki. Katsimatides said although eight years have passed, the memory of a loved one is not something one can “get over”.
“You feel it everyday. John would have been 39 years old; I wonder if he would have been married with children, if I would have had nieces or nephews, or an awesome sister-in-law. These are the things you think about,” said Katsimatides, who added it makes it even more difficult that nothing of her brother has been recovered in eight years. “Half the families have not been given anything of their loved ones—ot even a bone fragment. No matter how many years pass, you have that thought: ‘how did he perish’?” Following the events of September 11, Katsimatides served as a sort of the moral compass for the agency that was created to rebuild lower Manhattan, a job she called extremely difficult. “It was very hard because I didn’t represent 7,000 people, I simply represented myself and my family,” she said. “I became a counselor, I met amazing people and have friends I still talk to today, but we all say we’re part of his club that we never signed up for.” Today, Katsimatides sits on the board of directors for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which is a not-for-profit responsible for oversight of the design, raising the necessary funds, programming and operating the Memorial & Museum being built at the World Trade Center site (www.national911memorial.org). “If you’re not intimately involved in the building process, you’re not aware of the tremendous amount of work and blood sweat and tears that flowed at that site, and I am confident that we will have a truly beautiful memorial dedicated to those people who died.”
Katsimatides said that the one positive thing she’s gained from the devastating experience is the will to live life to its fullest potential.
“People don’t know their impact. They don’t realize their kind of impact that they have, so much so that when they stop coming around you feel that loss,” she said.