September 11, 2001

Sep 13, 2001 |Ethan Campbell

I saw the towers crumbling and people running. And in the midst of the horror, I saw God.

The radio alarm went off above my head, and I pulled out of sleep to stretch my arm and turn it off. My hand lingered over the snooze button. Something was different this morning.

The usually chipper, inane deejays at Q104.3 had altered their voices. They were serious and spoke slowly, awkwardly, like people who are rarely called upon to be serious. I sat up in bed.

"Jeff has a pretty good view out there in Staten Island. So Jeff, you said that both towers are now on fire?"

"That's right. The first was hit by that plane we mentioned earlier, and now a very large explosion has gone off in the second tower. It appears the second explosion may have been caused by a second plane, though we haven't confirmed that yet. If that does turn out to be the case, it would seem that the first crash was not an accident."

"So you're saying that unless this is an incredible coincidence, what we're looking at here is a coordinated terrorist attack?"

"That's certainly the way it appears."

I slid into sandals and shuffled to my roommate Andrew's bedroom. He was dressing and preparing for his work day. His own radio was on, but tuned to a different station.

"Are you listening to this story about a terrorist attack? Somewhere on Staten Island, I think."

He looked at me. "They hit the World Trade Center."

I turned on the TV, but the screen was filled with static on every channel. Finally, a fuzzy CBS came through, and we saw what we'd already pictured in our minds: the two ramrod-straight skyscrapers towering over the skyline of Manhattan, pouring black fumes as if they were factory smokestacks and not the financial center of the world.

It had finally happened, I thought. The unthinkable yet all-too-probable event we had half-feared, half-expected for years, had happened. The mass destruction of landmarks in New York City had been imagined by filmmakers and magazine writers and crackpot theorists for so long, the idea had almost become a joke. I remembered a long-ago subway ride in lower Manhattan, with a conductor who'd said, "Next stop, World Trade Center ... unless it's been destroyed by Godzilla." Now that the joke had become reality, it didn't seem quite so funny.

As Andrew left for work, I called my mom in Nebraska and left a message that I was alive, then went online. The lead story on Microsoft's homepage was Michael Jordan's return to the NBA. The story felt laughably insignificant — as would any headline, I thought, more than half an hour old. CNN and all the major news network sites were jammed up, and I turned off my computer after five minutes of watching the hourglass hang on my screen.

Andrew came back. "I decided not to risk the subway," he said.

"They've shut them down anyway," I said.

"But we should check out the Promenade."

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade, home to Wall Street execs with multi-million-dollar nineteenth-century apartments, and favorite night spot for tourists and hand-holding couples, sits about four blocks from our apartment. The walkway faces west across the East River and offers a breathtaking view of Manhattan, from the Statue of Liberty on the left to the Brooklyn Bridge on the right, anchored by the twin towers of the World Trade Center directly in the middle.

Right now, the breathtaking view was streaked with a broad ribbon of smoke, which stretched southward toward the Statue. The same scene we had seen on television now played in front of us — smoke churned and rolled from the towers, punctuated by flashes of flame from below.

Of the hundreds gathered in the small park, many stood alone, weeping, crossing their arms against their bodies. Others stood in small groups around radios, which announced the Pentagon had also been hit. Many were women and children — whose husbands and fathers, no doubt, worked in the vicinity of the disaster. A handful, young men mostly, grew angry. "Strap on your uniforms, boys," one shouted as he paced the walkway, "we're going to war!"

I joined others at the railing who had cameras, and started shooting everything I saw — Lady Liberty with smoke trailing over her head; the skyline with its two smoldering icons at center; the Staten Island Ferry crammed with people. The air smelled like cigarettes, but the smell was inescapable, carried on the wind.

With a low rumble like a far-off waterfall, the south tower collapsed. The sound was quickly overwhelmed by a wail that came from all sides. Shrieks of disbelief, shock. Great, grief-stricken sobs. Those who didn't cry breathed loudly and painfully, put heads in their hands. Our greatest landmark, our symbol of security and stability, had fallen in a billowing heap of dust.

I would remember it exactly the same way many others described it later, with words that speak volumes about both the disaster itself and our culture: I felt like I was in a movie.

Our view of the city quickly became obscured by the giant grey cloud, and the deep cries around me soon formed themselves into words. "Oh God, oh God, oh God ..."

I couldn't honestly say where God was then, as I stood on the Promenade. I don't expect I'll ever have an answer for people who ask, "How could He allow this to happen?"

The only thing I can say for certain is that I have seen Him, in other places, not far from this event ... in the hundreds of people who lined up to donate blood, so many that the hospitals were overwhelmed ... in the people who offered to drive strangers to donation centers ... in the people who stood at the east end of the Brooklyn Bridge and offered water to the throngs escaping the smoke in Manhattan ... in the man who stood outside his apartment and handed out surgical masks to everyone passing by ... in the churches that stayed open all night for prayer. I even saw Him on the evening news, in the more than 300 estimated firemen, policemen, and medical personnel who lost their lives to save others.

It's far too early to know what long-term implications these attacks hold, politically, emotionally, spiritually, for New York City or for the United States. But right now we can know that God is with us, among us, working through us and thousands of others who may not even know Him yet. That knowledge gives us courage to face whatever comes next.

Copyright 2001 Ethan Campbell. All rights reserved.

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