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Christians at Ground Zero

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Ground Zero
This color photo reveals the devastation at ground zero of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. Mourners gathered at Union Square to remember the victims. Photo by Jim Veneman
NEW YORK (BP)–At 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, terrorists launched an all-out assault on the United States, leaving thousands dead, hundreds injured, in what has been called the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil.

The first jetliner, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, crashed into the north tower of the WTC, tearing a gaping hole in the building and setting it afire.

Millions of stunned Americans were watching live coverage of the first crash when a second hijacked aircraft, United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston, crashed into the south tower of the WTC and exploded.

At 9:30 a.m., President Bush interrupts speaking to school children in Sarasota, Fla., to tell Americans the country had suffered “an apparent terrorist attack.”

At 9:43 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, sending up a huge plume of smoke. Within minutes, the White House and the U.S. Capitol building were evacuated.

Moments later, the south tower of the WTC collapsed, sending scores of people to their death and thousands of others running for their lives through the streets of New York’s financial district.

At 10:10 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93, also hijacked, crashed in Somerset County, Pa. Passengers were hailed as heroes for foiling the hijackers’ alleged plans to crash the plane into the White House.

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Lighting a Candle
June Bae, of Queens, lights a candle during an impromptu moment of silence in Union Square. Photo by Jim Veneman
By 10:28 a.m., the second WTC tower collapsed from the top down, releasing a tremendous cloud of smoke and debris. All federal office buildings in Washington had been evacuated, the nation’s air space was shut down and fighter jets were patrolling the skies along the eastern seaboard.

Later that night, President Bush addressed the nation, saying “thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil” and asking for prayers for the families and friends of Tuesday’s victims.

“In our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment,” Bush said in an address to Congress on Sept. 20. “Our nation — this generation — will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.”

For evangelical Christians, the events that unfolded on that autumn morning brought them to a crossroads — a place where their faith intersected with senseless tragedy — a place where hope met the hopeless — a place where Christians found their moment and their mission.

Following, are some of their stories:

The Insurance Company Actuary

Lisa Warren is a actuary with a New York insurance company. She was walking to work with a friend when they heard a thunderous sound and looked up to see billowing smoke from the WTC.

“People panicked,” she said. “They started screaming and running and I was knocked down and trampled. I kept screaming so people would not run on top of me.”

For a moment, it became quiet and Warren began helping her friend. Suddenly, there was another terrific blast of debris, this time blowing people down the street.

“It was black,” Warren said. “I had to hang onto scaffolding for dear life not to be blown down the street. It was pure black — dust everywhere — couldn’t breathe — thought I was done. Lost my shoes, glasses and purse. It went on and on.”

Warren, a member of Madison (N.J.) Baptist Church, said a man she knows only as “Alex” took her hand and led her through the dust-shrouded streets. “He found my shoes in the rubble and he walked me home. He talked to me for the entire five hour walk home,” she said. “It was so surreal — a beautiful, cloudless day, thousands of people walking up the East Side, along the water, fighter planes overhead, soldiers in the streets with machine guns.

“One of Alex’s baby triplets had a fever that morning so he went to his WTC office late — which probably saved his life,” she said. “For me, he was an angel, leading me to safety.”

The Baptist woman on Flight 11

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Jessica Sachs
Photo courtesy of The Sun, Lowell, Ma.
Jessica Sachs, 23, was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston when it was commandeered by terrorists. She was a member of New Colony Baptist Church.

The youngest of three children, Sachs was an accountant with the Boston office of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Along with several co-workers, she was bound for Los Angeles on business.

The Sachs family is actively involved at New Colony. Her mother is the church secretary and her father teaches at adult Bible study class.

In college she was involved with Mercy House, an SBC church being started in Amherst, Mass.

“Jessica’s personality was not boisterous or flashy,” said New Colony pastor Jack Parrott. “She wasn’t a ‘surface’ person. She wanted to see other people helped. She believed people needed a personal relationship with God through Jesus. She didn’t just talk about it, she did it.”

That leaves some to speculate that Sachs spent her final moments aboard Flight 11 telling others about Christ.

A Miracle in Tower Two

Dawn Robinson was working in Tower Two when she saw debris falling from the sky. Looking out the window of her Morgan Stanley office, Robinson said she felt God telling her to get out of the building.

Robinson left her office on the 62nd floor and walked down to a holding area on the 44th floor. In one of those ironic moments, the public address system informed workers that the problem in Tower One was minor and everyone could return to their offices.

As she approached a bank of elevators, Robinson said she felt like God telling her not to get on the elevator. Even though her wallet, checkbook and car keys were back at her desk, something told her to run. She grabbed a couple of friends, got down two floors and the entire building rocked. She was thrown against a wall.

A jet had crashed five floors above where she was sitting. Praying out loud, she made her way down 40 floors in total terror. She made it out of the building just before it collapsed.

Robinson and a friend ran across the Brooklyn Bridge and ended up at her church. That afternoon Robinson led her friend to the Lord.

“Kennifer” and Flight 77

Kenneth and Jennifer Lewis were by all accounts and very close couple. The husband — wife flight attendant team were so close that friends nicknamed them ‘Kennifer.’

And on Sept. 11, they would die together — aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.

A standing-room-only crowd packed into Culpeper Baptist Church in Virginia to remember their devotion to God and one another.

Ted Fuson, pastor of Culpeper Baptist, said the plan of salvation was presented in a beautiful way during the service.

“It was a beautiful thing,” Fuson said. “I wish I could say it better.”

Lewis’ uncle, Herman Dowdy, a retired Baptist minister living in Richmond, shared the gospel with the hushed crowd. “He didn’t jam it down their throats,” Fuson recalled. “He told the story of how he led Jennifer to the Lord one day. Everybody in the building heard the plan of salvation.”

The biggest testimony, Fuson said, was their devotion to each other. “They were models of what a good marriage ought to be.”

The story of two presidents

A week after the tragedy, James Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church Snellville and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was in Nashville on business when he received a call from his office. The White House had called. He had been invited to meet with President Bush.

On Sept. 20, Merritt attended a noontime meeting at the White House with ministers from 30 denominations including evangelist Franklin Graham and Christian author Max Lucado. Afterward, President Bush invited Merritt and five other ministers into the Oval office.

Merritt is of the opinion that Bush is God’s man for the moment.

“On the one hand, God knew what was going to happen on Sept. 11, but he also knew who would be sitting in the White House,” he said. “I believe that President Bush is God’s man for this hour. God’s hand is on him.”

At the end of their meeting, Merritt said he shook the president’s hand and told him that “I loved him.”

Bush said, according to Merritt, ‘James, tell all my Southern Baptist friends how much I love them as well.”

The Congressman

Rep. Zach Wamp, a fourth term Republican from Chattanooga, Tenn., was preparing for a committee meeting with his staff inside the Cannon Office Building when he heard and felt the tremendous blast that rocked the Pentagon.

“We evacuated our offices and I took my staff to an apartment I share about a block from the building,” Wamp said. The congressman’s roommates were not far behind. Reps. Steve Largent, Ed Bryant, Mike Doyle, Bart Stupak and John Baldoche, along with their staffs joined Wamp in the minutes following the unheralded evacuation of the U.S. Capitol building.

“We ended up having about 60 people in our apartment,” Wamp said. “I was the first one to show up there. It was almost like a sanctuary for us.”

Wamp said the streets around the nation’s Capitol building were filled with terrified people.

“There was a lot of fear, literally,” he said. “There was terror in the air. But once we got to the apartment we all started praying. We gathered together and prayed.”

After praying, Wamp said the group “broke bread together.”

“We scraped up everything we could and fed all of our staff,” said Wamp, a member of Red Bank Baptist Church. “Then we went back to work.”

According to Wamp, a born-again Christian, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 were the work of Satan.

“I reject the notion that we are getting what we deserve,” Wamp said. “That school of thought is un-American. This is a time when we must stand together in love, but also in resolve. Evil will not stand. This is Satan at work. But this is also about Jehovah God and who is going to stand with him.”

The contemporary Christian artist

Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife, Marybeth, were in Washington to receive a congressional award for their support of adoption awareness. The Chapmans, along with their 2-year-old adopted daughter, Shaohannah, were on the 14th floor of the Metro Center Marriott when the jetliner slammed into the Pentagon.

“I had done an interview with CNN earlier that morning and we were about to watch it when the terrorists attacked,” Chapman said. “We got a phone call from an assistant who works at the White House and they were telling us that it was very serious and we should probably want to get out of D.C.”

Chapman heard sirens and looked out the window to see people running in the streets and smoke billowing from the Pentagon.

“We sat there in shock,” Chapman said.

A Chapman associate ran 12 blocks to find a rental car. “There were F-14 fighter jets flying overhead, people running everywhere. It was a war zone,” Chapman said. “There was a mass exodus of people trying to get out of town.”

At the rental car agency, more than 200 people lined up trying to acquire transportation out of the city. “One guy got up to the counter and announced that he was going to Texas and he had room for two people,” Chapman said. “It was amazing watching total strangers work together.

“I see this as a time for Christians to answer our calling,” he said. “Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have and do it with gentleness and respect.”

The Navy man

Carol Stewart was watching the World Trade Centers burn when her husband called.

“Carol,” he said, “We’ve been hit. They’re evacuating the building.”

And so began Navy Assessment Director Jim Stewart’s journey to survival. “Everyone was busy when, all of a sudden, the building shook violently,” Stewart said. “The Pentagon is huge and has massive amounts of concrete walls. When it moves, you know something big has happened.”

Stewart said the moments after the tragedy were horrific. “There were many people coming out with gashes and burns,” he said. “People were dazed. About 25,000 people who worked in the building were leaving a crime scene — a place filled with flames, choking black smoke and the smell of aviation fuel.”

A few hours later, Stewart was at the front door of his home. “Jim didn’t even have a car,” she said. “He took the Metro home. I felt it was a miracle.”

The Stewarts — children Travis, 15, Tyler, 12, Timothy, 10, and Katie, 7 — know the power of prayer. Carol said she was in constant communication with God during the ordeal.

“When Jim got home,” she said. “we went to pray with some of the families who still had loved ones not accounted for.”

Sadly, Stewart said he lost three close friends in the attack, including a Naval Academy classmate.

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes