Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thoughts on 9/11 – An Historical Perspective (Part 5)

Certain momentous events “shock” the American public. They were generally unexpected, sudden, and had a significant impact on the country. In three earlier posts I explored some of those shocks that have happened during my 60+ years of life. In my last post I began to share my recollection of the biggest shock of my lifetime, the attacks on 9/11/01. This post is a continuation of that recollection.

After a little while, somebody mentioned that one of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. I never thought of a collapse, just severe damage. I felt that if the building could survive a direct hit from a large airplane without toppling over, it wouldn’t collapse. However, the intense heat from a large amount of burning jet fuel resulted in the softening of the structural steel. Moreover, the outside steel was more than decorative. It was also supporting. Those vertical supporting steel beams had been breached by the planes, ultimately resulting in collapse. I looked out the window and saw a huge amount of brownish smoke and dust rising from lower Manhattan in a wide inverted cone.

I went into the other office to watch the television, and saw reruns of the collapse. It was at that time that I found out that it was tower two that had collapsed: the tower with our employees in it. It was the second tower hit but the first to collapse. Shortly after that the second tower collapsed. I went back into our office, and the employees were very upset. Some of the women were crying, knowing they had probably lost friends and co-workers in the disaster. I realized I needed to do something as a part-time pastor, so I went into our CEO’s office and asked if I could have a time of prayer for those employees who would like to participate. He agreed that it would be a good idea.

We gathered the employees in the accounting area and I said a prayer and then we had a moment of silence. I finally reached my wife Sue and told her to turn on the TV, that we were under a terrorist attack. After a little while I went home to be with her since she was very upset and was crying. I knew I wouldn’t get any work done in the office, and I had done all I could do to comfort my co-workers. The office closed shortly after I left. Either just before leaving or while I was on the way home I found out that a plane had crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania. I suspected at the time that it must have been headed for Washington and either there had been a struggle on the plane or it had been shot down by the Air Force (which was an initial rumor).

I knew that the World Trade Center had 40,000 – 50,000 people typically in the buildings on a work day. Knowing how fast they collapsed after being hit and how long it takes to evacuate such large buildings, I figured that at least 20,000 people had been killed. Once we got reasonable estimates of the casualties I couldn’t believe that less than 3,000 people died there. Similarly, I suspected that several thousand had been killed at the Pentagon, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that less than 300 died there. Certainly that was God’s grace, limiting the number of casualties. While that is small comfort to those who lost loved ones, it does show, I believe, that God is at work, even in the midst of tragedies, even if he chooses not prevent them from occurring.

As with the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963, all television programming for the next few days focused on the events of 9/11. There were no commercials and no regular programs. The planes hitting the towers and their subsequent collapse were replayed endlessly. Interviews with government officials and new information were broadcast and repeated. We were all hungry for information and were looking for answers to our questions. Who did this? Why? Why didn’t we know this was coming? What could have been done to prevent this?

As a pastor, I was asked by the company to conduct a memorial service on a conference call to the company’s 40+ offices in the U.S. and Canada. I believe it was early the following week that I conducted an interfaith service on that conference call.

As with Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination, people who lived through these attacks will remember vividly where they were when they got the news. Moreover, I will never forget what I saw out our office windows. Even though the events were 40+ miles away, I vividly remember what I saw in the distance. I remember the small plume of smoke, then the larger one as the second tower was hit, and then I remember the enormous wedge-shaped cloud of smoke and ash rising from the scene after the collapses that appeared to cover all of lower Manhattan. With television showing us these events live and in many reruns, those images will be in our minds for as long as we live as well.

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