A Dream, Delay, and Devastation: My 9/11 Story
It has been 20 years. I will never forget.
It was a beautiful Fall morning on September 11, 2001. The sun was shining so brightly, splashing its rays across the bluest sky I had not seen in a long time. The night before, I had a dream where I was running home. Finally, I made it home. My mother stood in the living room with her arms stretched wide as I thrust into them and broke down weeping. I would not let go. I was inconsolable.
I overslept and woke at 7:00 am. I knew then I would not get to my office on time. I frantically jumped in the shower, then dressed and bolted out the door. A few weeks prior, I joined the staff as Executive Assistant to the president of the King's College. Our offices were in the Empire State Building. My average travel time, with good to medium subway traffic flow, is about 1.5 hours. I knew I was done at that point and feared getting reprimanded or even fired. Upon getting on the bus en route to the subway, I remembered that I owed a friend some money who attended Alliance Theological Seminary in lower Manhattan. I phoned the college from my mobile to give them a heads up on my late ETA but no answer.
After boarding the Manhattan-bound E train from Queens, I realized that I had no cash, and what was worse, I was not wearing a tie (company policy). I hopped off at 42nd street and headed into Bank of America at Times Square. I was delayed there for more than 20 minutes.
While I waited in line, my eyes took me to a flat-screen TV on the wall. A plane was circling the World Trade Center towers. It was 8:45 when I saw it crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At that point, I drew a blank and thought what I was seeing was not real. I focused on getting downtown to hand off the cash to my friend. I rushed outside only to see a mass of people walking the streets looking up into the sky in horror, not saying a word. Still distracted, I hopped onto another train heading to the World Trade Center. When we arrived at the 34th Street Penn Station, the train abruptly stopped between the platform and the tunnel, only a few stops before the Trade Center. The lights went out, and then an announcement was made that we had to evacuate the train.
The Towers are gone! The Towers are gone!
All of a sudden, I heard someone scream, “The towers are gone! The towers are gone!” People began to fight, and hysteria broke out. Still bewildered and distracted, I hopped off the train (The Empire State Building was only a few blocks away). As I ran towards the building, by then, it was 9 am. I later found out that a second plane hit the south tower. Afraid of losing my job for not following the dress code, I darted into a menswear store and bought a $40.00 tie. No one told me anything. All these years later, I still have my "9/11" tie. I was so removed from everything happening that I did not even notice the yellow police tape around Empire State Building. And then it hit me.
I heard screaming, moaning, weeping. People were falling in the streets, fainting, and flailing. It was at that moment they knew they had lost their loved ones in the towers. The cries for help could be heard from 34th street down to the desecrated site. I tried calling home, but the cell phone tower had collapsed, and no one could get service. I braced myself, thinking we would all be taken captive or murdered. I paced back and forth as the sun beamed on my head, pouring with sweat. I clutched my bible in my hand and prayed as the mass of mourners pulled me down 7th avenue toward Madison Square Garden. It was as if the blood of the dead were calling out from Ground Zero miles away. As I walked further, the sounds increased; fear began to grip me. I moved away from the crowd and went into a TGIF restaurant. There was a group of people seated at tables in complete silence. Some were weeping, others in shock and horror. It was a hopeless situation. I sat down at my table, and the waiter took my order. I began to pray, “Lord, if this is my time to go, I am ready.” I confessed my sins and reflected on my life, my family, and all of my loved ones whom I believed I would never see again; I was either about to be taken hostage, killed, or stranded in Manhattan for God knows how long. The trains were shut down for several hours as I sat in the restaurant, writing, reflecting, weeping, and praying.
About 2 pm, the trains started again, and as you can imagine, mobs were trying to get home. I pressed my way in and finally got on the train heading back to Queens. After two or three hours on that train, I made it to the station, jumped off the train, and was overcome with weakness. I took the first bus I could find home and wept all the way. When I got to my street, I composed myself, and then I started running. I thought I would still be taken captive; I still heard the voices, the sirens. My mind was filled with horror and images. Finally, I got home. And just like it was in my dream when I opened the door, my mother stood there in the living room, eyes filled with tears, her arms wide open. I fell into her arms and wept.
It took a few weeks to leave my bedroom and go outside the house. The tragedy was two days before my birthday. I refused to eat and closed all the blinds and curtains. No light or sound! I could not handle it. No communication devices worked, so we were literally without any contact or knowledge about what was happening. Days later, power was restored, and then, the death toll was announced – 3,000 lives lost!
In the days following, copycat bombers emerged. I later found out that not only did the terrorists plan to take down the World Trade Center, but the Empire State Building also. God’s divine delays and protection were there, and I never knew it.
A lingering trauma
Trinity Church near Wall Street was converted into a 9/11 Memorial, covered with tributes, art, flowers, photos, and other memorials. It was overwhelming. Later in the week, I began thinking of the children in my neighborhood who were deeply affected. I gathered as many of them as I could and opened the church for a time of prayer and artmaking. Some 20 – 30 kids were there with their parents, and I told them to find a safe place in the church alone to pray. When we gathered together, I led some songs and asked the group, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A little girl answered, “If I ever grow up, if I live, I want to be. . .” That floored me. Weeks and months went by. The subway stations were plastered with 8 x 10’s of the deceased or presumed dead. Sadly, that is the way many people found out about their lost loved ones.
“If I ever grow up, if I live, I want to be. . .”
The media played a huge part in my trauma. Having no access to the internet at home, I ventured out to a nearby Kinkos to go online and get a message to my boss. CNN's news channel was on screen, repeatedly replaying the planes going into the building. I could not take my eyes off the screen. The trauma got deeper and deeper. The images are still in my mind. I saw devastating footage of people jumping out of the sweltering windows to their death. I watched Ray Charles sing “America the Beautiful” at a Yankee Stadium prayer meeting on television days later, and then I broke. When I heard “God shed His grace on thee,” I could not hold back my emotions, and I fell to my knees in desperation and hopelessness, crying out to Jesus for help. To this day, when I hear his recording of that song, I cannot hold back my emotions.
"I may never know the answers to the questions that plagued me after 9/11. But I know if we lean on God and each other we will be guided to a better, brighter future." Michael Hingson, 9/11 survivor
Months later, after going back to work and trying to get back to normalcy, I was headed home one night and as I walked through the subway station, I heard what sounded like burning, sizzling of some kind with a foul smell. I later found out that a train had been crushed as it went under the towers that morning of September 11, and those were the bodies of the dead still burning underground.
The trauma remained for years, and I still shriek at the sound of a fire alarm or police car siren. I live in Florida now, but even today, when I travel back home to New York, after being there just a few days, I begin to feel nervous and the events of that day resurface.
9/11 survivor Stanley Praimnath's words have helped me to focus on God, His faithfulness, and protection in spite of what happened on that fateful day.
"I still have the shoes I wore to work that day. The soles are melted and they’re caked in ash. I keep them in a shoebox with the word “deliverance” written all around it. They’re kind of like my ark, a reminder of God’s presence and the life I owe to him."
God has given me hope through His word in all of my brokenness, loss, and trauma. The 46th Psalm is my comfort. God is our Refuge, an ever-present help in trouble.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
The 46th Psalm (ESV )
Twenty years later we still mourn the loss of thousands of lives lost in the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy. God’s comfort is everlasting. His empathy is endless. The One who keeps all of our tears in a bottle is near to our broken hearts today.
Copyright 2021, Dr. William S. Barnett
No portion of this content can be copied, electronically stored, or reproduced without the express written permission of the author.
Photo Credit: The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York after terrorists crashed two planes into the towers causing both to collapse, Sept. 11, 2001. Marty Lederhandler—AP