The Day the World Stopped: Churches pull hope from the ashes of attacks
America was secure. The horrors of war were restricted to foreign countries. They were mentioned in wire reports on the inside pages of daily newspapers. Front pages were reserved for football scores and news about the economy.
Then, at 8:45 a.m. on the East Coast, the unthinkable happened. A few minutes later, it happened again. And again.
New York City and Washington, D.C., under attack by suicidal terrorists, broke into pandemonium. The rest of the world stopped.
As clean-up crews continue to dig through the rubble, here are the stories compiled from countless e-mail and telephone interviews conducted by the Chronicle staff in the days following the attacks:
It was a beautiful morning in Manhattan. Tom Robinson, minister for the Manhattan Church of Christ was walking his dog, a black lab named Molly, through Central Park. He headed back to his home, which sits above the church building on East 80th Street, when a church staff member frantically called to him.
Get inside. Turn on the TV. Something terrible has happened.
“You wake up, (and see) these two buildings, solid as the rock of Gibraltar. And before your breakfast is digested, they’re gone, and (so are) thousands of people,” he said.
Unlike the blast that devastated Oklahoma City six years ago, people in upper Manhattan didn’t hear or feel the blast. But in the hours that followed, they saw its effects.
“You go outside – and it’s a beautiful day – and see huge, gray, dark smoke … and throngs of people walking north. There are no taxis … no subways,” Robinson said.
Just days after the terrorist attacks leveled the massive World Trade Center towers, the Manhattan church’s worship and small groups minister, Larry Mudd, was going back to the building with his bagel, walking behind a young girl — fourth or fifth-grade age — and her English nanny.
“It sounded like the little girl was afraid she’d get in trouble at school for not being prepared to give her book report to the class that day, and the nanny calmly and simply responded, ‘I’m certain that they do not expect a child who has lost her parents to give a book report today,”’ Mudd said.
In New York alone, there were “8 million people sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to help,” said Allison Isbel, who works with husband Jason in the Manhattan church’s Shiloh ministry for youth in south Bronx.
“They shut down half of Manhattan,” Jason Isbell said. “They’re treating it as a crime scene.”
“We’re having a great problem with people who want to come here,” Allison Isbell added. “We have to practice patience now. We have to bear the waiting … spend time in prayer.”
Churches of Christ rally in times of disaster, sending money, medicine, manpower and foodstuffs wherever needed.
“Churches from all over want to help,” said Joe Dudney of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Church of Christ Disaster Relief Effort. But “this is different.”
Dudney sent trucks of supplies for rescue workers to churches in Jamaica, N.Y., and the Bronx.
The Memorial Road Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla., sent counselors to Queens, New York, to help the families of victims get through the tragedies. The workers will also counsel rescue volunteers who must face the devastation as they clean up the rubble.
Jason Isbell said the husband of one church member at Manhattan was still missing as of Sept. 14. He worked on the 92nd floor of One Trade Center, just below where the first plane (American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston) hit. Robinson said the church was ministering to the family.
Church members were prepared to open their building as a shelter for people left without homes by the attacks, but the high number of other shelters in the area and relatively low number of survivors kept that from happening.
“I feel so bad for the people that are in this situation,” said Jason Choi, a member of the Manhattan church from Hong Kong who was in class at State University of New York (SUNY) Brockport during the attacks.
“Tears didn’t come out of my eyes, but my heart was saddened. … I have a friend that (was) killed in the rubble. … This city has been turned to nakedness.”
A number of parents in other parts of the country had children studying or living in New York City. One was Oklahoma Christian University Dean of Students Arlis Wood. His daughter, Elizabeth, 18, is a freshman at Eugene Lang College. She was leaving a subway station when she saw the second plane (United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston) crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
She called her father and described what was happening – there were explosions, and people in suits were falling from the sky. Arlis Wood was not able to get in touch with Elizabeth later in the day, as the phone circuits became busy, so she sent e-mail.
“People are covered in dust and everyone is crying,” she wrote. “It is like a Hiroshima video or something.”
Since the attacks, Elizabeth Wood said the college’s Union Square has become a living memorial, with large sheets of paper bearing messages of ‘Christian encouragement’ taped around the plaza.
“New York mentality has completely changed,” she said. “Rather than the well-known, brisk-walking tight-faced faces of all the busy city-goers, many people stop and talk. We buy the officers food and water, and everyone shares stories and hugs. It is almost like everyone knows each other suddenly.”
Robinson said the topic of his sermon for Sept. 16 was to be “Reaching out to a lost world.” He saw no reason to change it.
The devastation had New Yorkers who usually don’t speak to each other sharing their fears and even hugging.
“There are plenty of opportunities to affirm God’s love,” he said.
He said the tragedies emphasized “the tenuousness of life, the uncertainty of life,” even when it is wrapped inside buildings of concrete and steel.
“You see that your life has to be built on something sturdier than this.”
Like congregations around the world, members of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia, near the District of Columbia, wanted to gather for a prayer service after a terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
But they couldn’t.
“We are being advised to stay home and off the roads in this area,” said Terry L. Gibson on Sept. 11, just hours after the attack. “Because of this, we are having a prayer time from our homes at 9 p.m. Eastern.”
Although many Pentagon workers attend Fairfax and other area churches of Christ, none reported any members missing after the attack. Casualties were lessened because the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into a section that was under renovation and nearly 80 percent empty, said Col. William ‘Bill’ Booth.
“If this had occurred six months ago … our office was right in the middle of the impact zone,” said Booth, deputy director of manpower and organization for the U.S. Air Force and member of the church in Manassas, Va.
On his way to a meeting, he walked through that impact zone seven minutes before the plane hit. After evacuating the building and borrowing a friend’s cell phone he was able to get through to his wife, Rebecca. It was four hours after the attack.
Harding University senior Thomas and junior Robin Doran’s parents, Mr. And Mrs. Wayne Doran of Woodbridge, Va., both work in the Pentagon, said university spokeswoman April Mouser.
They were both in the building when the plane crashed. Because she was studying, Robin did not learn of the attack until later in the morning, Mouser said.
“I got the news around 9:45 (a.m.), and I lost it,” Robin Doran said. “I got a voice mail from my parents saying they were OK. However, I didn’t get to talk to them until 11:30 (a.m.). My dad has been in the military for 20 years, but it was my mom’s second day (at the Pentagon).”
Abilene Christian University sophomore Chris Shunk, from Fairfax, was sure his father has not been caught in any of the violence at the Pentagon, but still “needed to hear him say he was OK,” according to the school’s student news service.
Shunk’s father works at the Senate, and his daily route to work takes him right past the Pentagon.
“Basically he missed it by half an hour,” Shunk said. His father arrived at work before the plane crashed into the Pentagon.
“He said it was like nothing he had seen before. There were F-16 fighter jets flying all around D.C.,” Shunk said.
While members of Churches of Christ rejoiced that their families were safe, they knew sad days were ahead as new information was unearthed from the rubble of the attacks.
“I am quite sure that among the dead at the Pentagon will be people that we … know and love,” said Kasey S. Pipes, an Abilene Christian University graduate who works in the strategy office of the White House. “And by the time the names of all those lost (in the disasters) become available, I suspect every American will know someone involved.”
Harding University students Cherie and Mandy Hinton know the forests around Shanksville, Penn. Relatives told them that the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 shook their house on the morning of Sept. 11.
Their brother, Mark, and nephew, Jonathan Mahst, often camp in the woods. They were surrounded by reporters and issued FBI passes to help search for the plane’s flight recorder, said Harding spokeswoman April Mouser.
As the workers combed through the debris, the names of the passengers on the flight became known. One was Thomas E. Burnett Jr., 38, senior vice president for Thoratec Corp., a company that makes medical devices for people suffering from heart failure.
Burnett, a 1992 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., was headed home to San Ramon, Calif.
After the hijacking, he called his wife, Deena, four times on his cell phone. He told her that he and other passengers were going to try to stop the hijackers from carrying out their plan. It was the last time they spoke.
The plane crash killed all 38 passengers and seven crew members. Members of Stonycreek Church of Christ in Shanksville made sandwiches for the crews investigating the scene, said church member Clara Hinton.
Family members are hailing Burnett as a hero.
“We may never know how many people helped him or what they did,” Deena Burnett told the Los Angeles Times. “But I know without a doubt that that plane was bound for some landmark and they saved many, many more lives than were lost on that plane.”