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General Conference

Reflections on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 20 years later

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I find myself pondering how that day in New York City changed so much of the way we live.

United States | Debbie Michel, Lake Union Herald editor

I had just finished a three-mile jog around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, my routine before heading into work at NBC News’ Rockefeller Center headquarters. I remember the cool crisp air hitting my lungs, and the bright sun casting a ray of hope on that gorgeous September morn. The mood would quickly change when I returned to my apartment. 
On the Today Show I watched in horror as the second plane, United Flight 175, hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. My immediate reaction was disbelief. My next thought was: Get to the office quickly! 

However, that became impossible as the trains soon stopped running. I was stuck at home while the story of a lifetime unfolded ten miles away and I spent the next several hours glued to the television, with the background sounds of sirens blaring outside the window as emergency vehicles raced to what would become known as Ground Zero.

By the time I arrived at the office the next day, it was what I’d call non-stop organized chaos. As a booking producer, my teammates and I were responsible for lining up high-profile guests for exclusive interviews with the show’s then anchors, Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley. At this point also, Tom Brokaw was on the air round-the-clock perched on a balcony with the smoky scene billowing in the distance. We were frantically scouring reports for any possible leads, scrambling to locate survivors and eyewitnesses. We would soon discover there were few survivors and nearly 3,000 dead.

A few of the people we reached told us stories that still stand out two decades later. One involved the greatest single loss suffered by a company, located on the top five floors above where American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. None of the 658 employees who came to work that day at the financial trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald survived. I’ll never forget listening to the sobbing CEO, Howard Lutnick. 

It would be the little things that jumped out. For instance, as it turns out, he was scheduled to come in late that morning because he was taking his five-year-old son to his first day in kindergarten.

Another emotion-filled story that stuck with me was the anguished Lisa Beamer. Five months pregnant at the time, she recounted how she’d been sleeping on the morning of September 11, when her husband, Todd, left their home in Cranbury, N.J., to catch his flight to California. A software salesman for Oracle, he was supposed to have flown on September 10, but he and Lisa had just returned from a vacation in Europe and Todd wanted another night with the kids before taking off again on business. Little things. 

September 11 transformed Todd Beamer into a hero when he rallied with his fellow passengers to fight back against the hijackers of Flight 93 with his now-famous battle cry, “Let’s roll.” The aircraft crashed in a Pennsylvania field, likely averted from the terrorists ramming it into the White House.

In the weeks that followed 9/11, navigating the streets of NYC was like walking a gauntlet of grief. Every pole, every sign and every bin on street corners, and many walls and windows, carried fluttering, frantic, homemade computer-printed posters with pictures and details of someone ‘missing.’ I’d go home each day, riding the elevated subway over the Manhattan Bridge with an eerie view of the smoldering towers, feeling powerless, wondering how anyone could recover from such an unthinkable tragedy. The stories, as heartbreaking as they were, I believe offer some guidance for us today.

We need to be ready. Yes, life is fleeting. We must value each day as a gift because tomorrow isn’t promised. The Bible tells us that last-day events will be sudden ones. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark (Matthew 24: 38).

Let us live lives of meaning. God is in charge of the little things and big things in our lives. He cares for us and is interested in using the little things to add grace and mercy to the big things. The big things, which ironically may seem like little things, are things such as loving each other. Not neglecting family. Looking for ways to help those in need. “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Let us encourage each other now. We need community. In the aftermath of 9/11, New Yorkers drew closer together. Police and firefighters were celebrated heroes. There’s more that unites than separates the children of God, so let us seek to encourage one another each day. “And you must keep on while there is still a time that can be called today.” (Hebrews 3:12-14).

God is still in control. We may want to question why God allowed this to happen. We don’t understand everything that happens--it doesn’t take a lot of faith if we have everything figured out. So let us hold tightly to our faith, pushing forward, despite uncertainty, and always remembering never to forget that our God is with us to the end.