On September 8, 2001 I was having dinner with two Chinese intelligence agents at a restaurant on the Potomac River across from the Pentagon. We were surprised how close the planes flew to the Pentagon and White House as they came down the Potomac River into Dulles Airport. “It would only take a flick of the wrist by a terrorist to hit a target,” I mused. Although I returned to NYC thinking how insecure Washington, DC was, I was looking forward to celebrating my birthday on a quiet Tuesday, September 11th.
Everybody in our office down the street from the World Trade Center was taking the day off. It was going to be a beautiful sunny day, and we were lingering in a summertime mood. Anatoliy Khotsyn, our office manager who did hard work with military efficiency, deserved the time off.
I had just finished reading the morning papers and gotten my last cup of morning java. I was wondering what to do with the time on my hands. Within a minute my memory of those stories and my leisure were obliterated.
At 9:01am Tuesday morning a federal agent rang, saying, “Turn on your television. I’ve got to go.”
Click. He hung up; I realized he was serious. But what would his heavy duty world have to do with me, a religion reporter?
I saw that the broadcasters were talking about a plane that had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It turned out to be American Airlines 11. It seemed too deliberate for an accident so I wondered if it was a terrorist attack. Two minutes later, United Airlines 175 curved across the television screen into the South Tower.
The television newscasters didn’t realize that a second plane had hit the South Tower. They thought that they were watching a replay of the first plane from a different angle. Maybe, they were in a little shock because I could see the smoke coming out of the North Tower as the second plane hit its twin. I think I was shouting, Look out the window!
I started to worry that one of the planes or another one might be carrying a nuclear weapon. From some ancient memory I remember a military reporter Charles Wiley and Edward Teller, sometimes called “the father of the H-bomb,” had reassured me that the initial blast of a one megaton nuclear weapon at Wall Street could only level everything up to 14th Street, leaving the buildings above 14th Street intact. After the initial blast, the main danger was radioactive ash. My wife worked on 15th Street. With that grim reassuring memory, I called her and left a message that she should not get in the subway because they probably will be frozen and that if there was a major explosion that she should head to her building’s basement which had an old but still usable nuclear fallout shelter. Later, when we talked, I prettied up the grim reassurance about a nuclear blast that my old friends had given me.
In less than an hour the South Tower went down. I was transfixed like prey before a snake.
I went into shock. For the rest of the week, my face was numb and my lips felt like they had been injected lightly with Novocain.
My editor at Christianity Today called with a laconic directive, “Get to work.” He mentioned that some of our staff didn’t think that 9/11 had a religion story to it. Before I could object, he cut me off, “Don’t worry, they will come around. You just go and don’t worry about that.” I had other worries.
My cell phone was useless. But I discovered that my land line still worked, though often the circuits were overloaded and I got a busy signal. I started calling church leaders to find out if anybody in their congregations were in the Towers and how were the congregations going to respond. I called many people and got ahold of a few. I talked with some uptown church leaders like Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Charlie Drew of Emmanuel Presbyterian and some near Ground Zero like Andrew Lee of Overseas Chinese Mission, Rick Del Rio of Abounding Grace and Marcos Rivera of Primitiva Iglesia. Then, I called the big relief organizations and national ministries like Salvation Army, Campus Crusade for Christ and others.
I knew that I needed a home base from which to report. It turned out that a whole car had been blasted onto the front doorsteps of our office building; there were also arrows of metal shards tattooed on the brick facade. Down the street, the iron fence of St. Paul’s Church served as a clothes hanger and boot rack for firefighters who weren’t coming back. Later, I found a hand stuck to a wall just around the corner. I couldn’t find a safe home base anywhere in the area.
Marcos Rivera said I could stage out of his church which was close to Ground Zero. I had gotten to know and admire Pastor Rivera earlier in the year when I wrote a column, “The Pentecostal City,” on him and others for the Wall Street Journal. Campus Crusade said I could attend their executive meetings as they planned their responses.
On my way to do interviews, my first stop was to check on the safety of a Muslim leader who publishes the Koran here in New York City. He was okay but in shock.
That afternoon, I needed to write up my story, so I went over to a McDonald’s to get some distance from the phones and my own feelings. A reporter from NY Newsday interrupted to interview me for my reaction to the terrorist bombings. I didn’t have the energy to tell him that I was a reporter too. I rambled about how the air smelled sickly sweet like the air around the crematorium Baoshan in Beijing where I used to be based. I think that as I made the comparison that I felt beyond tiredness. But I had a story to finish.
I filed my first story from the city at 6:23 pm, a round-up of first reactions from church leaders around Ground Zero and those in Upper Manhattan. Redeemer Presbyterian’s Tim Keller had one of the most striking observations about the attack, “It was satanically brilliant. Now, every time you see that empty space you will not be able to put it out of your mind. I felt a hatred welling up in me, so I thought, Well, we are going to have to deal with that too.”