today i want to revisit an experience i had on 11 september 2001. i do this not as a stereotypical tribute to said date (as i don’t think the way our country holds onto this date/event is very healthy). i offer this story to share how God worked on that day.
fall of 2001 found me just starting my second year as high school youth director at liberty corner presbyterian church. our town was only about 45 minutes outside of NY City, and was located on a main commuter-rail line into the city. we had many families with one or both parents who worked in the city. at the church, i had begun to grow really close to my students and was really excited for the year as it began. most of my students went to Ridge High School. as i had grown up in liberty corner, and had attended that local high school, i still knew a lot of the teachers/administrators. i thus had a good relationship with Ridge and had the open opportunity to freely visit my students there. i was also invited to be a participant in a program called Challenge Day that this school was using to benefit the student community. the had piloted it the previous year (which i also got to be a part of), and they were now going to institute it as a yearly event for the incoming freshman as they entered high school. so the morning of 11 september 2001 found me at Ridge High School as a volunteer for Challenge Day for the freshman – school had been in session less than a week.
the morning had just barely gotten rolling, when an announcement came over the intercom (i believe around 9am) that something had happened in manhattan, involving a plane and the world trade center. the announcement was communicated in a way that didn’t lead anyone to believe it was a large-magnitude crisis – or at least i didn’t get the impression that it was anywhere near the horror that it actually turned out to be. no one in the gym reacted after that announcement. minutes later, another announcement was made that seemed to communicate a bit more of the magnitude of the situation. after this announcement, our program took a short break. i exited the gym with my current partner, Laura (one of my youth group kids), and we headed for the bathrooms. as i walked down the hall with Laura, i spotted another student of mine at her locker – a sophomore named Allison – as my steps drew me closer to her, i saw tears in her eyes. and then it clicked in my head: “o God, your dad works in the trade center.” in that moment, we didn’t know what exactly the situation was, but knew that there was potential danger in what had transpired. i immediately put my arms around Allison, and began walking her toward the main office to make a phone call (cell phones hadn’t yet been acquired by every human between age 5 and 105).
at this point Allison was inconsolable. we got to the office and there were at least a couple dozen other people there already, all with red eyes and tears on their cheeks. she tried to get through to her mom, but cell phones were down, and land-lines were jammed. i saw student after student that i knew…even Laura (who i was partnered with earlier) had ended up at the office – she had forgotten that her dad was supposed to fly from Newark to Boston that morning. thankfully he wasn’t on any of the involved flights.
it was unbelievable to be at our high school that morning. to see SO many people who had parents working in the towers, or others who potentially could have been on the involved flights that morning. it’s impossible to describe the feeling of being so close to something so horrific – SEEING the horror realized on the faces of teenagers and adults alike. i mingled around with the students i knew for awhile, trying to be some sort of presence. Allison’s mom soon arrived to pick her up – to head home and wait for word of whether their father/husband was ok. i couldn’t imagine. eventually, they received word that Allison’s dad was alright.
after seeing Allison off, and then tending to a few other students i knew, i eventually headed back to the church. anything that had been intended as work that day was postponed, and we spent the rest of the day on the phones trying to check in on all the families we knew who worked in and around manhattan. as the afternoon grew on, a handful of us started cooking – making food for as many of the families as we could who had spent their day worrying about a family member, instead of remembering to eat.
all in all, our church had a few families with members who died in the world trade center events that day. in particular, we had two families with students in our youth groups who lost fathers. the one, a high school girl, lost her father – and he was virtually all she had left as a family. the other – a brother and a sister, lost their dad – but thankfully (at least) still had their mom.
i still remember, in the days that followed, hearing stories from people – like, choosing to go into work late that day – a choice that unknowingly led them to be safe from the events that unfolded earlier that morning. and me – insecure, meager, high school youth director – God allowed me the chance to be at my students’ high school that morning. i’m not entirely sure why – i had no great words of comfort, i held no extravagant prayer vigils – but i got to stand beside a few students of mine who were trapped in a moment of thinking they had just potentially lost a parent. and i can’t think of any better situation for God to use someone in than that.