MacSweeney, a carpenter from Kerry, was renovating a penthouse on Canal Street on the morning of the attacks.
A few minutes before 9 a.m., he was having a coffee break downstairs when a laborer burst into the room, announcing that an airplane had just crashed into one of the twin towers.
“I ran up the roof and we just stood there in amazement,” recalled MacSweeney, who is now 32.
“Then next thing we knew, we heard the sound of another plane flying overhead. It was right above us; we could hear the sound of the engine. Next thing, it just sort of rotated and crashed right into the second tower.”
MacSweeney stood for a couple of minutes, trying to absorb the shock of the scene he had just witnessed. Having worked as a search and rescue volunteer in Ireland, however, instinct soon took over as he watched fire trucks and police cars speed past his building on their way down to the World Trade Center.
As MacSweeney headed towards the inferno, the South tower began to collapse in front of his eyes.
“All the dirt and the smoke started hurtling towards us,” he said.
“I ripped my shirt and used the cloth to cover my mouth. I gave some to my laborer and to an old lady who was walking beside us.”
Undeterred by the danger, MacSweeney defied the orders of cops who were already taping off the scene, sneaking under the barriers in order to help.
MacSweeney spent the next two-and-a-half weeks at Ground Zero, as it was now becoming known, working almost non-stop to clear debris, beneath which people were frequently discovered – sometimes alive, but more often, dead.
At the site, MacSweeney met and became friends with several volunteers, including two other undocumented Irish men, but nobody cared about immigration status during those days.
On a visit to the site, President George W. Bush shook MacSweeney’s hand and thanked him and a group of volunteers for the work they were doing.
On his third day, MacSweeney suffered an arm injury that later became so badly infected he had to stop working on the site. Major surgery performed in the nick of time saved his arm from amputation.
As one of the first responders to Sept. 11, MacSweeney has received federally funded medical checks, blood tests and x-rays to monitor his health.
Results of a major assessment released by Mt. Sinai hospital this week led Mayor Michael Bloomberg to acknowledge publicly for the first time that first responders to the Sept. 11 attacks have had higher rates of health problems than those who arrived later.
Recent x-rays have shown that MacSweeney’s lungs are not taking in their full capacity of oxygen, a development that doctors are monitoring.
But harrowing memories and health problems are not what MacSweeney regrets most about that day.
“The most difficult part was coming out of there with the firefighters and all other people and seeing everyone being embraced by their families,” he said. “That’s when you realize you don’t have your family with you and you won’t see your family unless you are prepared to give up your right to be in the U.S.”
Ever since that day, MacSweeney’s undocumented status has never been far from his mind. As U.S. immigration policies become more and more restrictive, he, like the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., becomes even more insecure about his future here.
MacSweeney, who moved to the U.S. in 1998, loves his life in Manhattan, where he makes a good living and has lots of friends.
In those eight years, however, he has not seen his parents, who live in Kerry and are too elderly to fly. He has had two family visitors from Ireland; an uncle who came to visit four years ago, and his niece and goddaughter, whose birthday wish when she turned 13 was to come and see him.
“My grandmother isn’t getting any younger,” said MacSweeney.
“A friend of mine has lost a brother this year and missed her sister’s wedding. Things like that bring it home to me — as much as I love it here, can I really do this for another year? I can’t get insurance, I can’t open a bank account. I’ve been offered fantastic jobs in this country that I can’t take because I have no social security and no green card. My girlfriend is Canadian and she is here on a green card. She goes to Canada to visit her family every year and she takes trips to Europe. I’d love to be able to go with her but I can’t. I’ve tried to contribute, I’ve lived the American way — all I want is the chance to do that legally.”
Through his work as an activist with the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, MacSweeney has witnessed the dwindling numbers of Irish people in traditionally Irish neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens.
“Slowly but surely the neighborhoods are falling apart,” MacSweeney said.
“I’d say 25 percent of the Irish community have already gone home. I’ve already lost most of my friends. Everyone is going home. The Irish communities are diminishing. We have to show the government that they are going to lose their Irish neighborhoods if it continues.”
If enough people lend their support, however, MacSweeney is “100 percent optimistic” for the future of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
“If we can get the Irish-American community involved, if we can get the Irish community in Ireland involved and if we can get the undocumented Irish here involved, we have a chance,” he said.
“With President Bush saying immigration is at the top of his agenda, I’m hoping it will be this Christmas and if it’s not this Christmas I’ll hope maybe next summer,” MacSweeney said.
“If I could say something to him, I’d ask him if his kids were in the unfortunate position we are in now, how would he feel as a parent not being able to see his kids because they were trying to make a better life for themselves?”