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Navy commander at Pentagon ponders ‘unfathomable’ loss

WASHINGTON (BP)–Carol Stewart rarely watches television, but on Sept. 11 she flipped it on after her husband, Jim, called and told her two hijacked planes had smashed into the World Trade Center towers. A short time later, Jim, a commander in the Navy, called home again.

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

Jim hung up. Carol, a mother of four, ran back to the television and saw an image she’ll never forget. Flames were shooting skyward from the Pentagon. Another hijacked airline had deliberately crashed into the five-story building, entering close to where her husband’s office was located. Carol stood and stared in stunned disbelief as reporters described how damaged parts of the Pentagon were collapsing.

“I kept wondering where Jim was,” Carol told the Florida Baptist Witness. “Had he gotten out? Was he ever coming home again? I was shocked and amazed. I just kept praying.”

A few hours after those constant, fervent prayers, Carol beheld another unforgettable sight when Jim came walking through their front door.

“I felt it was a miracle,” Carol said. “Jim didn’t even have a car. He took the Metro home. I hadn’t thought it would have been working.”

Stewart, a Navy staff assessment director, was at work in the Pentagon when the attack took place. The Stewarts moved to the Washington area last summer after having lived in Florida eight years.

The Stewarts said they saw God at work even in the midst of Sept. 11’s massive tragedy. “This could have been much worse,” Stewart said, explaining that the section of the Pentagon that the airplane cut through was recently renovated and in a state of flux due to some offices being relocated. “In fact,” he added, “my office was moved to the fourth floor of the C Ring between the third and fourth corridor this June.”

Stewart said that while people at the Pentagon knew about the New York attacks and thought they were horrendous, most everyone was trying to carry on with their responsibilities when tragedy befell them.

“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.”

Though Stewart was at his desk at the time, he would have already been down the hall in a more directly hit section if he’d chosen to meet with an admiral at 9:45 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. for his annual review. Both appointment times were open when Stewart chose the latter.

Stewart said he was grateful his entire division got out unharmed. But he was quick to add while fighting tears that three of his close friends did not. One was a Naval Academy classmate; another was a member of First Baptist Church, Springfield, Va., where the Stewarts are members.

“That man was younger than me,” Stewart said. “He had a 4-year-old daughter, a 2-year-old daughter, and his wife is expecting another baby.”

Stewart said it’s hard for people to comprehend how enormous a building the Pentagon is, which he feels makes it all the more amazing that so many individuals got out alive.

“We all went into the center courtyard,” Stewart recounted. “I saw part of an airplane flap there. It had come all the way in through five rings of buildings. There were many people coming out with gashes and burns. And many, I’d say, with psychological shock. People were dazed. Our admiral spoke to everyone for a few minutes, and after making sure who was accounted for, he told us to get out of there and go home.”

Stewart said security was tight and the atmosphere slightly chaotic as the mass exodus ensued. 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.

“Shortly after all this took place, I heard someone who lost a family member in the plane say this must have been God’s will. I do not believe it is God’s perfect will for any person to be murdered,” Stewart said. “I believe God allows people free will to do dumb things. The Lord can bring good from any situation. However, his will is for each of us to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. His will is for us to turn our back on evil and to depend on him.”

Stewart said there is a need for great prayer during the coming days, weeks, months and years. “Pray for the many directly touched by this,” he advised. “The loss is unfathomable. We must also pray for those behind this evil. You don’t do that because you want to or even because you could do that on your own. We must pray for our enemies because Jesus commanded it. Forgiveness does not mean those people will not have consequences to face or that we should not take appropriate action to bring justice and to defend our people. Praying for God to help us forgive means we won’t harbor poison bitterness and hatred in our hearts.”

Stewart also asked people to pray daily for President Bush and for all of the nation’s leaders and law enforcement officials to have God’s wisdom and discernment.

The Stewarts know the power of prayer. From the first moment she heard about the New York tragedy until the time her husband got home safely, Carol said she was in constant communication with God. “When Jim got home,” she said, “we went to pray with some of the families who still had loved ones not accounted for.”

Carol also went by her children’s schools to make sure that Travis, 15, Tyler, 12, Timothy,10, and Katie, 7, knew their father was safe. “We are blessed to be a very close family,” Carol said. “It’s an effort, but we all get up at 6 a.m., so we can have family devotions and prayer before Jim leaves for work. Christ must be the center of what we do. Even at that, you still struggle to understand and to grasp something like this. We’re now praying that the Lord will help us know the best ways to minister to families who lost people in this tragedy.”

Asked if their children really understand what happened, Stewart said he believes they do, each at his own level. The Stewarts had visited New York in August, taking the kids to see the city sights, including the World Trade Center. And, as part of the Navy’s Fleet Week several years ago, Jim and Carol had dined at a restaurant on the top floor of the WTC.

“Last week,” Carol said, “Tyler told me he was so glad our family had gotten to see the twin towers because they are now just part of history.”

The Stewarts, who met 17 years ago while singing in the choir at First Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va., said words now seem to jump off the pages of their Bible as they read. “The 2 Chronicles 7:14 passage, ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land,’ keep coming to mind,” Carol said. “I pray this will be a time of deep dependence on and turning to the Lord. And I pray people will keep ministering to hurting families and individuals for a long, long time.”

Asked if they think this tragedy will affect their children long-term, Stewart said he hopes it will strengthen their faith.

“Each night,” he added, “Katie now asks God to please not let any more airplanes crash into people.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: THE STEWART FAMILY.

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  • Rhonda Reese