An Unimaginable Experience in New York City:  October 4-7, 2001

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Written by Frank Williams on October 11, 2001

I recently had the opportunity to spend several days in New York City with an organization called Priority Associates, which is affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ.  Our primary mission was to distribute a magazine entitled Fallen, but not Forgotten and to reach out to the residents of New York whose lives were blindsided by the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Late on the evening of Wednesday, October 4th eight of us departed from Clayton, North Carolina in a 15 passenger van and headed north on I-95.  We arrived in New York City early on the morning of Thursday, October 5th and immediately went to work distributing Priority Associates’ Fallen, But Not Forgotten magazine.  The magazine is an outreach document which discusses the aftermath of the terrorist attacks from a Christian perspective.  On Sunday, October the 7th we left New York and returned to Raleigh, thus ending an experience which I will never forget.

A few words and phrases come to mind when I attempt to describe my experience in New York City.  Unimaginable.  Incomprehensible.  Tragically sad.  Awe-inspiring.  Hopeful.

I would like to begin by saying that the images we see on television cannot do justice to the damage we witnessed.  Further, I don’t believe what we were able to see does justice to the full scope of the damage and devastation inflicted as a result of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.  The damage is incomprehensible.  A combined 220 stories of steel and glass came crashing down, compacting into a dense, white-hot pile of rubble.  According to an NYPD officer with whom I spoke, the temperature inside the pile of rubble was estimated to be nearly 1200 degrees at the time of our visit — three weeks after the attacks.  The amount of dust in the air was unbelievable.  When we returned to our hotel at night, our white washcloths turned partially brown or black as a result of the dust in the air.  The rubble and ruins we were able to see were unbelievable… they truly looked like a war zone from a World War II movie.

The sights were almost surreal, but the dust and smells were all too real.  The sight of a clothing store in which the contents were still covered in dust was hard to believe.  The trucks taking load after load of rubble out of the ground zero area, the sight of National Guard and military personnel in the streets, the ruins of the Twin Towers, the view of damaged buildings near the remnants of the towers, the parking garage containing the dust-covered cars of missing people — all of these things truly drove home the unimaginable magnitude and scope of what happened on September 11th.

This trip drove home the human toll of the terrorist attacks as well.

One member of our group struck up a conversation with a lady while we were riding the subway, only to find out that the lady had worked on the 86th floor of one of the towers.  By the grace of God she was down in the lobby when the plane hit, but over 30 of her co-workers were not as fortunate.  She has been going to one or two funerals per day over the course of the past few weeks.  To put this into perspective, she has very likely been to more funerals in the past month than I have attended in my entire life.

Everywhere we went we saw pictures of people who were missing.  Family members were still clinging to any shred of hope that their missing loved ones might still somehow be alive.  The sight of the memorial wall in Grand Central Station was particularly moving.  This wall, which was basically an island in one of the main halls at the station, contained pictures of scores of missing people, along with descriptions of them and who to call if they were found.  What the people of New York are experiencing is unimaginable.

We had the chance to talk with a number of NYPD officers.  These brave men and women lost many co-workers in the terrorist attacks, yet they had little time to mourn.  Their jobs called them to duty in these most difficult of times.  I could see the strain on their faces.  Other members of our group who had the chance to speak with members of the fire department said much the same.

The terrorist attacks also took a major emotional toll on New Yorkers who lost no friends or family members as a result of the attacks.  Many of the people we met at ground zero are long-time New York City residents.  For a significant number, this was the first time they had been able to make themselves visit the site.  Many of them no longer felt safe in their city.  Another lady, who had lived in New York for many years, told us that she basically watched the Twin Towers being built from her apartment terrace 30 years ago.  She equated the loss of the towers to the loss of two children, saying “I watched them grow up and now they’re gone.”  Whether right or wrong, the Twin Towers were a major part of the city’s identity, and as they crumbled so did the feeling of security many New York residents possessed.

The scene in New York City is indeed a tragic one.  It helped awaken me to what is really important in life.  It drove home the point that any day could be my last, and that we should take nothing in this life for granted.

There is, however, a ray of sunshine in the dark cloud that is the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and that ray of sunshine gives me reason to be hopeful.  The people of New York — the people of America, for that matter — are more open to God than at any time in my life.  The positive reception we received in during our time was nothing short of surprising.  The number of people who would read the entire Priority Associates magazine and then come back and ask for additional copies was equally uplifting.  In addition, the number of people who would initially say “No!” when we offered them a magazine, and who would then stop, turn around, and come back and ask for a copy was breathtaking.  It was as though they heard a voice that told them that they needed to read this publication.  Finally, we saw very few of the Fallen, but not Forgotten magazines in the trash or on the ground.  People were keeping them and reading them.  At last check, I believe Priority Associates has distributed approximately 1,000,000 of these magazines since the attacks.

Another silver lining in the cloud is the spirit of servanthood I witnessed among the people in New York.  Everyone there seems to want to do something to help.  Everywhere you turned you saw flags displayed.  Everywhere you turned you saw someone who was trying to do something to help others.

These two rays of sunshine give me hope that this tragic situation will result in something positive for our country.  The spiritual renewal and the patriotic unity I have witnessed are unprecedented in my lifetime.  These attacks, which were intended to divide our country and break our spirit, have had the opposite effect.  It is my prayer that these two rays of sunshine will continue to shine brightly over the dark cloud that still lingers in the aftermath of the attacks, and that the lives we touched will be forever changed.

This was a trip I will never forget.  It is an experience for which I am grateful, and one which I hope I never have the opportunity to repeat.  May God bless America and protect us from such future attacks.