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Computer engineer turns evangelist to New Yorkers jolted by Sept. 11

DALLAS (BP)–On Sept. 11, Tom Fortner was sitting in an office building in New York City, munching his fast-food breakfast and watching the news.

Fortner, a computer network engineer from suburban Dallas, was in New York on business. But God quickly changed his assignment.

“It was about 8:45 a.m. when I sat down to thank God for my food,” said Fortner, a Southern Baptist bivocational pastor now between churches. “Someone shouted, ‘The World Trade Center is on fire!’ So we turned on the TV, and CNN interrupted their regular programming about five minutes later with news of the fire.”

The report drew some attention in the break room — but not nearly as much as the subsequent live pictures of a second jetliner plowing into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Co-workers offered explanations, but Fortner knew better. “My dad was a career U.S. Air Force mechanic and pilot, so I grew up around planes and airports. When I saw the second plane bank left to fly a straight trajectory into the building, I knew it was deliberate. It was a couple of hours later that terrorism was announced as a motive,” Fortner said, “which was exactly what I suspected the moment the second plane hit.”

Fortner said the company was sending everyone home, but no one could leave. Like multiplies millions in the United States and around the world, they sat glued to the television.

“Most of the people around me were in tears,” Fortner said. “This is an uncommon reaction for New Yorkers, who pride themselves as the toughest and most driven people in America.

“As the buildings fell, weeping became louder.”

Just a few months earlier, Fortner had visited Tower 2 of the World Trade Center and had done the gawking like other tourists do over New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Staten Island and downtown Manhattan.

“I was numb all over from watching the buildings collapse,” he said.

A co-worker remarked that if she had not rescheduled an appointment that morning, she would have been in the World Trade Center at the wrong time.

As Tower 2 fell, another co-worker came in “covered in sweat and tears, his tie dangling,” Fortner recounted. “He said he watched the plane disappear into the side of the tower, with orange flames and black smoke blowing out of the missing glass panes. I later tried to speak to him about the Lord, but he was still in shock and unable to carry on a conversation.

“The New York fire department arrived early on. But there was nothing they could do because, as the airliners hit the towers, the fuel tanks ruptured and the jet fuel ran down through the buildings, consuming floor by floor from near the top to the middle,” Fortner said. “The smell of molten steel and aluminum filled the air, burning the eyes and noses of the eyewitnesses. As the towers imploded, paper, dust, glass, steel and other sources of shrapnel shot out in all directions.”

Unable to get a flight back to Texas, Fortner switched from network engineer to New York evangelist.

“I was able to talk with eyewitnesses and rescue workers. Most of them needed someone to talk to about what they have seen and to cry with them about the carnage,” Fortner said. “I also told people about the grace of the Lord and their need of the Savior.”

“[A] self-declared liberal who was reared in conservative Lutheranism rejected the gospel. But I was never rejected for sharing my faith with anyone [while] I was there,” Fortner said.

He witnessed to a Catholic couple until late in the night. “I avoided the Catholic/Protestant debate in order to focus on the person and work of Christ. They tried to change the subject often, but I kept bringing the conversation back to Jesus and his death and resurrection on the cross for us.

“New Yorkers keep their distance from each other and keep ‘foreigners,’ like Texans, at arms’ length, so getting close enough to minister was really difficult,” Fortner said. But most listened intently as he witnessed, although the truth that God is involved in every detail of life “was clearly a strange new concept to them. So, I just pray that God sends someone else to continue where I left off.”

Relating to people personally is an evangelism strategy Fortner endorses. He said most people he talked with couldn’t understand the problem of sin. “Sin has been relegated to the compartment of an antique abstraction no ‘rational’ people can believe or understand. So, I just tried to explain the basic truths of God and his salvation as clearly and carefully as I could.”

While on the subway, Fortner talked with two firemen who had worked a 30-hour shift. “They told me that the rubble was 60 feet high. The dust was two feet deep and covered a three-block area in all directions, with the dust still 6 inches deep two miles away. Details of what they told me of their rescue work is too gory to repeat, but I can say that everywhere under the rubble, they found a piece of someone’s body,” Fortner recounted. Neither had found any survivors, and the body fragments led them to believe there would not be any.

“I went to Calvary Baptist Church on 57th Street Wednesday night, but services were canceled. The building was open and several people were praying, so this gave me the idea to embark on a prayerwalk through Manhattan to seek the Lord for New York City and ask him to place people in my path to speak to about him.”

Fortner walked the 10 miles down Broadway from Central Park to Soho and then back to his hotel room about a mile from ground zero.

“While walking through Times Square, smoke and the smell of molten steel still dominated the evening sky. The closer I got to my hotel room, the stronger the smell and the darker the smoke. My hotel room smelled like smoke.

“Times Square was almost deserted — a strange feeling. I remember praying, ‘Lord, I am so small and have no resources, and I have nothing but you to offer these people. How can I make a difference in the few days I am here?'”

The Texan met two policemen directing traffic at 7th Avenue near the south end of the Times Square area. “I thanked them for the job they were doing. They told me they were working 12-hour shifts. I breathed a quick prayer for them and thanked them again, as they were too busy with their duties to speak long with me then.”

Trying to make sense of the events, Fortner reflected that people act on what they believe. Thus, every war is a conflict of ideologies, philosophies or religions of people in a geographic region. “This war is not tied to a geographical [group of] people, but is just as clearly is a war of ideologies.

“The Bible tells us that Satan comes to kill and destroy. God is patient and longsuffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” Fortner said.

“The sects of Islam that carry out terrorist acts consist of people willing to die in the name of their religion. Most ‘Christians’ won’t even speak the name of Jesus in public. If we don’t wake up to the reality of the spiritual nature of this war, we won’t have a clue as to how to fight it,” Fortner said.

“I know the Koran makes promises about those who die in service to Allah being rewarded with a blissful eternity, but the God who created us reserves the role of final judge for himself, and he hasn’t delegated that role to any human.”

By Friday, Sept. 14, Fortner was frazzled. The rental car he had ordered two days earlier had arrived, and he drove the 1,500 miles back to his home in Texas.

“Driving through the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern U.S. reminded me of God’s creative genius and his good will toward mankind,” said Fortner, who also found solace from his “emotional burnout” by listening to Christian radio stations on his 22-hour journey.

A week after the disaster, he still felt the burnout. “But even more, I have a new sense of urgency to pray that God will send more Southern Baptists into New York City and to the other large cities of America.

“New York is in desperate need of a fresh outpouring of God’s presence. It hasn’t had one since the middle of the 19th century.”

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller