Just four days after two hijacked airplanes plunged into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, I boarded a plane along with seven other church members. Our nation was still gripped in shock, anger and fear from that Tuesday’s attack.
Sonya Fontaine, Robert Elliott, Luke Anderson, Charlotte Burroughs, Gary Woodbridge, my wife Joy, my son Jeff and I made our way to the airport the day after flights resumed. The 175-seat plane had only a dozen passengers, the eight of us making up the majority of the aircraft.
The terminal was empty. Security was tight. The plane silent. The crew anxious. And so were we.
We landed in Baltimore because the New York airports were still closed and drove north on the New Jersey turnpike into the night.
Nearing New York City, we saw the haunting lights amid the decimated buildings at what was being called ground zero. A smoke column spiraled into the night sky where the Twin Trade Towers once stood. No one spoke as we paralleled the city across the East River.
Monday morning, we crossed into the battleground of Manhattan. The empty site of the once-bustling city was sobering. Policemen stood stationed on every corner. The streets were virtually vacant. There was little traffic. The acrid smell of smoldering debris filled the air.
Joy, Robert and Luke went to the Manhattan Church of Christ to help with incoming calls, e-mails and donations. Gary met with families and Charlotte consulted with local school counselors. Sonya, Jeff and I, all Licensed Professional Counselors, went to the Red Cross on Amsterdam Street to be credentialed.
The police put us in a cab, and we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to the Red Cross in Brooklyn, passing only one car on that fabled bridge. It was eerie.
We were assigned to Pier 94 on Manhattan. The 135,000-square-foot building acted as a staging area for law enforcement agencies, social agencies and fire rescue workers. The rescue men had vacant stares, beaten with emotional and physical exhaustion. My heart went out to them.
Docked next to Pier 94 was a Navy hospital ship named Comfort. Marines armed with M-16 rifles were posted around the deck, a sight I had never seen on American soil. We were at war.
It was our job to help the people looking for missing loved ones. First, we took them to computers to check for any word regarding their loved ones. We then took them to a bulletin board filled with pictures and notices of missing persons. Each push pin told a story.
It was a somber and humbling experience, standing next to people as their tear-drenched eyes frantically searched each notice, hoping to find those who filled their thoughts, their fears. From the wall, we took them to another aisle for possible DNA matching.
There were so many people who were lost and wandering around. We stood by them, sat by them, talked to them, listened to them, ate with them — whatever they needed, whatever might help. Our assignment was to stay with them for as long as they were on the pier.
I can only imagine how crushed and grief-stricken those poor people were as they shuffled through each station, barely knowing which way was up. It was totally heartbreaking.
Sprint had parked a special communications truck outside Pier 94 for the families to use. The truck had its own generator, satellite dishes and phones inside so people could call anywhere in the world. Normal cell phone service was shoddy that day, with so many calls trying to simultaneously go through to check on loved ones.
I especially remember one family from India that had not yet heard from a son and daughter-in-law who worked above where the plane had struck. I helped them make calls to other family members back in India.
Though I could not understand their words, I could see how deeply overcome by grief they were by the week’s events. I have often wondered about them.
I wanted to stay in New York City longer because there were so many opportunities to minister to emotionally hurt people in meaningful ways.
Even though that trip was 10 years ago, many of the emotions that flooded my mind then return as we remember the 10th anniversary of that terrible day.
On Sept. 11, 2001, we saw the worst of mankind.
In the days and weeks that followed, we saw the best.