Remembering 9-11: New York, New York

by Andy Pelander ’99

Monday, September 17, 2001

New York City, New York

Dashing to the roof of my Brooklyn apartment building last Tuesday at 9:34 a.m., I found a view of downtown Manhattan I did not recognize. There were no words to describe the scene, but only words.

Unimaginable. Plume. Incredulous. Fear. How? With morning haze and black smoke enveloping me – and sirens and sirens and sirens – wailing. Then silence, incredible silence. This is an unshakable memory. There they were; the towers I used to look at while sitting on the roof with friends or alone, burning like a couple of New Jersey smoke stacks. My city had been robbed of something.

As so many have said, and as so many have tried to say, with tied tongues and tear-weary eyes and hearts bound with anguish, the past seven days have presented more at times than we have known how to bear. The past week has felt like the longest of my life, while also seeming to have gone by in a brief stretch, not broken up into days, but instead a nameless, formless episode of bleak darkness lit only by dingy sunlight and burning fires. Today is Monday, and they still burn. We are a mess here. Newsstands sell out of the New York Times by late morning, the Dow is down 600 points, and we cannot say with certainty that the terrorists and others like them who set out to penetrate the impenetrable America will not succeed. A week later, we have aged a year.

I sat glued to the television Tuesday with the smoke outside to prove this was happening not in some distant place overseas, but only a few subway stops from my apartment. The wind blew steadily southeast all day, bathing Brooklyn in soot, burned paper, and the smell of scorched plastic and jet fuel. I had to close the windows throughout the day when the odor grew too intense. I felt my experience was not unlike that of anyone else who did not know anyone personally working in the financial district and has only Dan, Peter, Tom, to narrate a story. But that feeling changed toward the end of last week when I entered Manhattan again, confronting the carnage and seeing solemn faces and squinting eyes of people wearing masks in the streets.

At makeshift memorials on 14th Street, I saw candles burning and flags waving listlessly. I passed endless pieces of paper, displaying photos, names, heights, weights, eye colors, nicknames, and clothing descriptions, taped to lampposts and fences and walls. I heard the zealots shouting the name of the Jesus I have struggled to see through all of this. I toured the military armory on 25th Street, where the families and friends of missing persons register the names of those presumed living. More photos and names and candles and tears.

Women handed out roses to the parade of onlookers as they inched along the walls of buildings, staring into the eyes of each pictured victim, trying to see the images as real people and not just faces on scratchy photocopies lining sidewalks. Men in fatigues kept the streets clear. I realized my experience would no longer be limited to white noise, endless TV sound bytes, and streaming images. I appreciated the uniqueness of my firsthand account and wondered why I have been burdened with this exposure... or privileged.

And where, after all, is God in all of this, in the wake of such evil?

I consider the words of George W. Bush during the National Prayer Service on Friday, September 14. God is present any time the President boldly utters Truth taken directly from Romans 8:38-39, citing the importance of prayer at this time. God is with the rescue crews as they sift through debris and alongside children who wave American flags, proud of their country. He is buried below several hundred feet of rubble, embracing the lost, and patiently wooing those who ask questions they have never before asked. He is in and through and under. He is everywhere, as He mines good out of evil.

Still today I see smoke rising from the place where I used to see the towers, just beyond my living room windows. Ground Zero, a name ordinarily reserved for the epicenter of a nuclear blast, exists in New York. After seven days, people all over the city are beginning to realize that no one else is going to be pulled out alive.

And all I can do now is pray for those who survive the loss as the death toll rises and the anesthetic of shock wears off. I pray that our nation’s leaders would know a godly wisdom in the approaches they take in the coming weeks and months. I pray that Osama bin Laden and his followers would somehow meet the One true God, the God of compassion, the God of mercy, the God of justice, the God of love. I pray that those of us who claim to serve that God would be at the front of every volunteer line, attached to hands that rest on shoulders, arms that embrace, lips that kiss, and knees that kneel.