Can You Believe It's Been Twenty Years?

Can you believe it’s been twenty years since 9-11?  In a few days, we will commemorate the Twentieth Anniversary of that awful day.  In anticipation of this commemoration, the National Geographic Channel has put together a new documentary featuring recent interviews from survivors of the attack.  As they recall their experiences and as the timeline and images from that day are replayed, the emotions come flooding back.  I was surprised to hear a good number of stories about that day that I wasn’t aware of.  They are every bit as powerful and heart wrenching as any I have heard before.

One of these stories involved a businessman who, though American, spoke with a distinctive Irish brogue.  He told how he had a very important business meeting that day.  It was so important, in fact, that he went out beforehand and bought a new suit for the occasion, along with a very fancy yellow tie, which he was very proud of.  His meeting was planned for a hotel in Mid-town Manhattan.  But at 6 AM that morning he received a call informing him that the meeting had been moved to the Marriot hotel located in the World Trade Center.  The Marriot was the much smaller building that kiddy-cornered the two towers which dwarfed it.  He goes on to tell how, after heading out to the Trade Center on the ferry, when he was exiting the ferry someone complimented him on his suit.  They especially took note of how nice his tie looked.  Because he was anxious about the meeting, the compliment gave him confidence that he looked the part and it would go well.  He noted how he thought to himself, “This is going to be a good day.”

He arrived at the Trade Center early, so he wandered into the lobby of the North Tower.  He had been there before and he enjoyed looking at the “Tree of Life” windows which flooded the lobby with sunlight--you might remember how, at lobby level, the steel framing of the Towers widened out a bit to give the appearance of an arch.  It was while he was still contemplating the beauty of the architecture that the first plane hit the Tower he was in.  The jet fuel from that plane plummeted down the elevator shafts and then ignited at ground level with explosive force.  There were twenty to thirty people waiting for the elevator--just standing there to take the elevator--who were immediately incinerated by the blast.  The blast was so intense, it blew out all the windows on the first floor. 

There was at least one woman in the vicinity of the elevators who survived the blast.  But she was badly burned, so badly that her eyelids had melted shut.  She couldn’t see where to go.  Shaken by the blast and wondering what the Hell was happening, this businessman began running for the exit.  Before he got to it, however, he ran into this badly burned woman.  With several other good Samaritans, he removed her from the building and then looked for a place of refuge--at first debris from the crash followed by the bodies of those jumping to escape the flames were raining down on the courtyard.  Within short order, they were able to find a spot and began calling out for medical help.  Obviously, in the midst of all that chaos, nobody was going to be able to get to them for a while. 

They were hunkered down there for about three quarters of an hour when the woman began to get panicky that she wasn’t going to make it.  Though he tried to reassure her, he wasn’t sure she was going to make it either.  She was so badly burned, her clothes had become fused with her skin.  She began crying out: “Sacred heart of Jesus, please don’t let me die.”  Hearing this, he asked if she was Catholic.  She responded that she was.  In an effort to calm her down, he asked if she would like to say the Lord’s Prayer together.  As they began reciting it, she began to calm down.  While they were reciting it, they heard a tremendous crash from above.  The second plane hit in the middle of the prayer.  At that point, he knew they had to get out of there.  So they began to move her.  A firefighter directed them toward the West Side Highway where there were ambulances waiting for the injured.  After passing her to one of the EMS crews, he began walking up the highway with the throngs of other people trying to get out of lower Manhattan.  He said at that moment he just wanted to go home and take a shower, to forget everything he had just witnessed. 

But as he was walking, he received a call from his brother-in-law who was in a panic because he didn’t know where his wife, the businessman’s sister, and their young daughter were.  That morning, they had gotten on a flight out of Boston headed for California and she wasn’t answering her phone.  It didn’t take long before he found out that his sister and his little niece had gotten on flight 175, the second plane the attackers flew into the Towers.  In the middle of that roadway, he fell to his knees in grief.  It was while he was saying the Lord’s Prayer with the woman he was rendering aid to that his beloved sister and young niece met their deaths in the Tower directly above them. 

In the aftermath of September 11th, we vowed as Americans that we would never forget that day.  We would never forget the pain, the trauma, the sacrifices, the heroism of that day.  We would never forget the solidarity and unity we felt that day.  We would never forget the lessons of that day. 

But anyone who is honest about it, heck, anyone who turns on the news, has to admit that, by and large, we have forgotten.  Life went on.  And we forgot to grieve with those who still do, those who live every day with the pain and loss of that day.  We forgot to honor the sacrifices made that day--and as a result of that day, on our behalf, ever since.  We forgot to stay united.  The better angels of our nature haven’t prevented us from being torn apart in all kinds of divisive ways.   

That’s why it is so vital to remember.  To recall and live the lessons that day taught us.  There are three lessons, in particular, that I believe we would do well to remember and keep at the forefront of our lives.

First, that day we were confronted with pure evil.  There is no other way to describe the horror of what occurred, nothing else that does justice to the hell people went through.  To call it anything else would be an unbearable insult to those who bore the brunt of the experience.  That’s why even people who have no religious or spiritual inclination don’t hesitate to unequivocally label 9-11 an unspeakably evil and demonic act.  The magnitude and scale of the suffering and pain that was inflicted that day can’t be called anything but evil. 

We are so comfortable in America, it’s tempting to think we live in a “neutral” universe where all people, even though they make mistakes, are basically good.  And where, all the few really bad actors need is just some more education, some enlightenment to correct their wayward ways.  Or perhaps just a little more love and nurturing to turn their bad behavior around.   

9-11 reminded us how naïve this is.  9-11 reminded us that evil is real.  And dangerous.  And deadly.  But, waking up to the reality of evil that surrounds us isn’t all bad.  It alerts us to the fact that we live in a moral universe.  Evil can only be the unspeakably real thing it is if, and only if, the opposite reality is just as real, and wonderfully so.  As the philosophers tell us, with the polar realities of good and evil, with a moral universe, it is a small step to God.  God is the only adequate explanation for the universe being moral to begin with.  When we acknowledge the reality of evil, it begs the question of God, a good God whose justice and love win out in the end.    

We are in a Cosmic battle.  The human drama is, at heart, a massive battle between good and evil.  There is a battle raging for our souls.  Remembering that day reminds us to relentlessly choose the good, even in the thousand little choices we make each day.  They all matter, even if they aren’t of the same magnitude of evil the terrorists wrought or of the sacrificial heroism we saw in response.  In a thousand little ways each day, we have the opportunity to hurt or to help, to be callous and indifferent or merciful and compassionate.  There is no neutral ground.  We must choose which side to be on.  9-11 reminds us to choose and to choose wisely. 

Second, the people who went to work that day had no idea it would be their last day on earth.  In the documentary, one of the most poignant moments is an interview with a firefighter who was driving the first chief on scene--they’re the ones featured in that famous video which shows the first plane fly overhead and hit the tower.  In the interview, he shares the one thing that haunts him most from that day.  To this day, twenty years later, what he can’t get out of his head is the choice those people trapped above the fire had to make.  Even though he’s been in many fires, fires where he was in tight spots, scared, not knowing if he would burn to death or have to jump to jump from an upper floor, he can’t imagine making the choice the people hanging out of the windows had to make.  They knew they were going to die.  The only question facing them was how.  Would they jump or burn to death? 

None of them went to work that day imagining it would be anything but an average day at work, writing emails, attending meetings, filling out paperwork.  But in a matter of minutes, they were choosing which way they were going to die.  Just moments earlier, they were sitting at their desks, with pictures of their families prominently displayed.  Now, the horror hit them that they would never see their loved ones again. 

During the documentary, some of the recordings these victims left on answering machines are replayed.   One father starts his message by telling his wife to be sure to save this message, that she will want to save it for years to come.  Because, as he goes on to explain, it will be the last thing he will ever be able to say to her and their kids. 

What this firefighter can’t stop thinking about all these years later is how helpless he felt knowing that they couldn’t save these people from having to make this terrible decision.  Tearing up, he says that he just can’t get what they went through out of his head.

In the most powerful way possible, 9-11 reminded us that we are all mortal.  Here were thousands of people just showing up for work and, in a matter of minutes, confronted with the end of their lives.  It is good to remember that there is no guarantee we will live another day.  It is good to remember, as we all did in the immediate wake of that tragedy, to live each day to the fullest--by focusing on what matters, by choosing the good, by loving all the people who come into our life as if it is our last day on earth.

Third, I don’t know if this was an actual sign from God, or not, something God intervened to make happen, or not.  But either way, it is a sign that points to something that couldn’t be more true.  Late in that day, as the firefighters were beginning to pick through the pile of twisted steel and rubble for survivors, someone discovered two pieces of steel that formed a cross.  The picture of that cross has been shown far and wide since.  But in that moment of utter despair, the firefighters standing there saw the steel cross as a sign of indestructible hope.  On a day when many of us were wondering where God was, that cross was a loud and clear reminder: He is right here.  In the midst of this unimaginable tragedy.  He is with us in this nightmare of suffering.  He is suffering with those experiencing this hell.  And if He is here with us in this place, there is nowhere He isn’t.  There is nowhere He won’t be with us. 

Capt. Mike Jonas was the commanding officer of Ladder 6 in Chinatown.  While waiting in the lobby for their orders from the chief, he saw a few other firefighters he knew.  They all had been “on the job” for a long time.  Over the years, they had fought many fires together.  As they huddled for a moment, he tells how one of them said, “We may not survive this day.  There’s a good chance we won’t make it out of this.”  At that, they started to shake each other’s hands and tell each other what a pleasure it was to work together.  What an honor it was to have known each other.  That day, Jonas was the only one of that group to survive. 

Those firefighters knew they would likely die that day.  And yet, they went up those stairs to try and save people anyway.  There is nothing more beautiful and awe-inspiring than heroic love like that.  The cross is God’s act of heroic love for us.  He held nothing back for us.  To save us, He gave us His all.  And because He was willing to suffer on the Cross for us, we know He is always with us, even in incomprehensible suffering like 9-11.  The cross is His vow to never leave or forsake us.  Sign from God or not, that steel cross standing defiantly amidst the rubble of the Towers is a sure reminder that nothing will ever separate us from His love. 

As hard as it is to believe it’s been twenty years, as tragic as that day was, it is good to remember.  May the lessons of 9-11 inspire you to live differently, to live life better and fuller than you ever have before.


About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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