By Mark Schlachtenhaufen
Courtesy of the Edmond Sun
Thursday evening, Charles Kaczorowski returned to a familiar and ultra-meaningful site.
Oklahoma Christian University is the only place in the world outside of New York City to have survivor trees from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the World Trade Center growing side by side. For the eighth year in a row, guests from New York have come on April 18 to commemorate the Oklahoma City bombing.
For Kaczorowski, the pilgrimage to the sacred spot located just west of the Mabee Learning Center is on his annual must-do list. He comes feeling like a drained battery, he said. He leaves re-energized, refreshed and restored.
TOO MANY FATEFUL DAYS
Back in 1990, while he was working for Shearson Lehman Hutton's facilities department, Kaczorowski had an office on the 106th floor of 2 World Trade Center.
Three years later, at 12:17 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1993, the Vietnam veteran was working in 3 World Financial Center on his lunch break in the concourse going down the escalator to the path trains for their schedule when the whole place shook.
“When I felt the concussion, it took me back to Vietnam,” said Kaczorowski, a Navy Seabee from 1969-70.
Terrorists had detonated 1,500 pounds of explosives in a van parked in the underground public lot of the World Trade Center two levels below the southern wall of the North Tower. The attack killed six people, injured more than 1,000 and created a five-story crater beneath the towers.
Less than a month later, the WTC was open for business.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Kaczorowski was arriving at the World Trade Center in New York City.
At about 9 a.m., he was coming from the subway station at Vesey and Church streets, delayed by a subway delay, which made him late for a scheduled 8:30 a.m. breakfast meeting in the Trade Center Concourse.
He emerged less than 25 yards from the North Tower.
“I saw the towers burning,” he said.
When the South Tower began collapsing, Kaczorowski was a block away. He ran as fast as humanly possible away from the dust cloud.
“I never looked back,” he said. “I just kept on running.”
He made it to a nearby building and took cover. Efforts to connect by phone with his wife were hampered by system overloads. Then he heard the North Tower coming down.
When the second tower fell, 35 years of his life were literally wiped clean from his mind and heart like it never existed, he said.
At 8 a.m. on Sept. 25, 2001, Kaczorowski returned to Ground Zero where he supervised the operations for the midnight-8 a.m. shift for the City of New York Department of Design and Construction until July 1, 2002.
Pieces of his memories gradually came back as bodies were recovered from Ground Zero. Like many others who were there he suffers from health issues related to breathing the air; he also has various issues related to his service in Vietnam.
‘I FIND PEACE’
At OC, Kaczorowski wasn’t alone. He was joined by survivors and others from New York and from Oklahoma.
During a chilly evening which looked and felt more like January than April 18, members of 419 Outreach, founded by Oklahoma City bombing family members, survivors and responders, Ronald Vega, director of design and construction of the National September 11 Memorial and OC representatives came together for a quiet ceremony near the survivor trees.
Since 2005, Kaczorowski has been coming to Oklahoma for the Oklahoma City bombing anniversary.
“When I first came here I was so touched by the memorial,” Kaczorowski said as the guests were about to be treated to dinner at OC. “This the most peaceful memorial in the entire country. I come here, seriously, on the 19th of April, I go out by the chairs, I lay down in the grass on my back and I cleanse my body, my soul, my mind and my heart. It’s so peaceful here. I find peace, tranquility and serenity here.”
When he leaves, he feels reborn.
Risa Forrester, OC’s vice president for admissions and marketing, said the campus is blessed to have the survivor trees and granite from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and an iron cross from the World Trade Center at the site.
“For this group to choose our home to put these items at our place is really, really special for our family here,” she said.
When people come from across the world on campus tours, the spot is a must-see place, Forrester said. It helps them remember that peace is paramount and no matter what good always wins, she said.
Neil Arter, OC’s vice president for student life and dean of students, said every year the ceremony is special. Guests never want to forget and there is something more.
“We kind of have these living heroes,” Arter said of the New York and Oklahoma folks. “They come and they really just show you everything that’s great about human nature.”