Friday, September 9, 2011

Ten Years Later

I was in seventh grade, and it was a pretty Tuesday morning at Freedom Middle School in Franklin, Tennessee. During second period choir, we sang a sweet little song with the words dona nobis pacem. When we finished, our teacher asked, “Does anyone know what this song is about?” Someone ventured, “Peace?”
“That’s right,” Ms. Fuller said. “It’s an important song to sing, especially today.” She looked at us meaningfully and was met with blank stares.
“Why today?” I asked, voicing the class’s confusion.
Ms. Fuller looked briefly surprised, realizing she was the one who would have to break the news to us. “Oh, well, a plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York this morning.” More blank stares. Not many of us knew what that was.
“Was it an accident?” I asked.
She paused for a second and then replied, “They don’t know.”

Then class was over, and I went to the library for my next class. The TV was on. I saw footage of firefighters walking around in smoke and rubble, but the magnitude of thing was still lost on me.

By lunch word was out that it was probably terrorism, and, still not grasping the severity of the situation, I made the joke, “Yeah, I heard that the terrorists hate country music and are going to bomb Nashville next.” A girl further down the table heard the joke repeated and dissolved into tears, thinking it was the truth.

When Mom picked me up from school, I could tell she had been crying. She had that same strained look as all the teachers at school, the manifestation of trying to process her own emotions while combating the desire to protect her children from such horrific evil.

That night, we attended a prayer service at church. Thousands of people were there, and it was standing room only. We watched the newscast of President Bush giving his speech, and I remember thinking, “This is my Pearl Harbor. This is my JFK. My kids will ask me where I was today.”

After the speech there was a long silence, and then an old man in the back of the sanctuary began singing in a booming baritone, “God bless America, land that I love!” People hesitated, unsure if this was going to take off, but slowly the voices began multiplying and rolling towards the front of the room in a powerful wave of patriotism. For the first time, I felt a surge of American pride in my own heart, but I don’t remember feeling the weight of the injustice, or any initiative to take ownership in my American-ness.

If we’re callously honest, most of us were not affected by the events of September 11th, 2001. Geoff Nunberg notes that, ten years later, even our language harbors almost no vestiges of the day. As a nation, we quickly got over our fervor and resumed apathy, rendering it just another Tuesday. Initially I thought I’d write about 9/11 out of a sense of sentimental obligation, but the more I read and remembered, the sadder I got. I asked my family to e-mail me their personal accounts of that day, and reading them made a hot lump rise in my throat. For most of us, nothing has changed, but for thousands upon thousands of our people, life as they knew it was obliterated.

And so, because of them, and because of the thousands of servicemen and women who have willingly sacrificed their lives in two wars on our behalf, it is vital that we, at the very least, remember. This week, post your account in the comments. After the jump I’ve included the reports from my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents.

Finally, I encourage you to check out the National Day of Service and Remembrance to see how you can get involved.


Susan Rowell: I got up early that morning. Your dad was out of town speaking at the Week of Spiritual Formation at Taylor University so I decided to get busy on painting the dining room. After you and Meagan left for school, I needed to get in a work-out, but checked my email first. The Yahoo headline said something about a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV - which I NEVER did in the morning - to get more info. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The station was replaying the first and then the second plane crashing into the buildings. I felt panicky. Do I go get you and Meagan from school so that somehow I could insure your safety? I tried to call Ed to see if he was watching, but he was not in his hotel room. Then I called my mom and asked if she was watching the TV and she was. Her voice was strained. I continued to watch and hated being home alone.

The news then switched to something going on in DC, but no one was commenting because no one knew what had happened. It was a picture of smoke billowing from some building and it took several minutes before someone reported that the Pentagon had been hit. Later, the news came about the plane in Pennsylvania. A nightmare was unfolding in front of me.

While the cameras filmed the twin towers burning, one newsman mentioned debris falling from the buildings. However, it looked like bodies falling. I found out later I was right. I remember watching the first tower collapsing and I started screaming and crying. Peter Jennings (ABC news anchor) couldn't figure out what he was seeing and said something like maybe a bomb went off. I was yelling at the TV telling him he was an idiot because it was obvious that the building was collapsing! When the second building collapsed, I continued to cry because I knew there were people still in those buildings and I was in a way, watching them all die.

Needless to say, I didn't work out that day and I don't think I showered. I couldn't get away from the TV. I worried about you and Meagan and Ed. I worried about the future of our country. I had difficulty praying; I didn't know what to say.

Your dad finally called later that day. Someone from Taylor called him and woke him up to let him know what was going on. Taylor students gathered in the Chapel - standing room only - and your dad changed his talk for that day and spoke to them about what happened. I think they had an all day prayer session. Since all planes were grounded, your dad wanted to find a way to get home quickly. He found one rental car available in a town about an hour away. The next day, someone took him to the rental agency and he drove all the way home, straight through.

You and Meagan came home and had heard what happened. I was afraid to keep the TV on because I didn't want you guys to be scared. At the same time, I was afraid to turn it off. I kept waiting for I'm not sure what.

The Peoples Church had a service that night. It was standing room only with Michael W. Smith leading worship. I found great comfort in the service and came away remembering that when all hell breaks loose, God is still in control. We watched the telecast of Bush speaking to the nation - one of his finest moments. When he quoted part of Psalm 23 (yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...) people cheered. After the telecast, someone started singing "God Bless America."

I substituted at Moore the next day for Mrs. Brown and she left me a note that said not to mention what happened the previous day. Umm, not sure how you do that when the kids wanted to talk about it. So we did talk about it and when I told her we did, she was mad. Oh well.

Sunday after Sunday, church was packed out. People were looking for answers. People were scared. It felt like the U.S. was on the brink of a revival. I kept thinking there's no way we can return to our previous lives, things had to be different. But one day, church attendance went back to what it was, TV returned to it's regular crapola stuff, and life resumed.


Ed Rowell: On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I was in my hotel room working on a talk I was about to give in 90 minutes to 3500 college students. The phone rang.

“Are you watching the TV?” asked the voice on the phone. I had a moment of panic. Was I late? Why was she asking such a crazy question? I was the guest speaker for the week of Spiritual Renewal at Taylor University. The woman on the phone worked for my host, the Dean of the Chapel.

“No, why?”

She started crying. “Just turn it on and see what’s happening. Richard will call you back in a few minutes.”

The set came to life just two or three minutes before the cameras caught the plane crashing into the second tower. Like everyone else who tries to describe that morning, the numb feeling that “this can’t be real” soon gave way to a flood of emotion that words cannot capture. But that only lasted a few minutes.

I’m a pastor. When emergencies come, we’ve learned how to put our own emotions on the back burner so we can to tend to the emotions of others. I knotted my tie, grabbed my Bible and left my room.

Within minutes, I was meeting with the University President and several other senior staff and faculty. Chapel started in half an hour. Obviously my carefully planned series of talks was history. The University president would speak first, followed by Richard Allen Farmer, the beloved Dean of the Chapel.

Good, I thought. I’m off the hook. I have no idea what to say at a time like this.

“Then, we’ll hear from Ed. I’m glad you’re here with us at a time like this.” As the words were coming out of the President’s mouth, I was looking around the circle wondering who he was talking to.

“Me?” I asked

“Absolutely. You’re a pastor. And who among us doesn’t need a pastor on a day like this?”

This week, I’ve gone back through my sermon files, my journal, everywhere, looking for my notes from that dark time. What was my text for that morning? What did I say? I wondered. Or that evening? Or the morning and evening of the next day?

I have no idea. I had no manuscript, carefully footnoted and double saved for later review or re-use. I had some scribbles on a piece of notebook paper, which were not preserved for posterity.

I remember speaking as if I were outside myself, watching, listening. Every eye was locked on my face. I remember every service being packed, kids on the floor because there were no more seats. I remember praying with a girl whose father worked at the Pentagon. Another whose father had flown to New York on business that morning.

I was worried about my family at home without me. I wanted to be with them, but there was no getting home right now. A few phone calls was all I could give them. It wasn’t enough. But here I was, and here was where I would do what I could to be the presence of Christ.

For the rest of that week, all I remember is the intensity of every spoken word, every prayer, every hug. Classes continued and professors were conscripted into pastoral ministry. When the last service was over around midnight on Wednesday, I realized I had to figure out how to get home. The airlines were still closed down. Someone found me a rental car, the last one in a neighboring town. I drove the 8 hours back home to Franklin, TN, too tired to process that week.

Like too many events in my life, I never did get around to processing my own emotions, because when I got back to our home church, it was more of the same. For weeks, I had conversations of deep significance with person after person. I remember helping one man profess faith in Christ.

And then, in about six weeks, what we swore would never happen, happened. We all pretty much went back to “normal”. That season of deep intensity and spiritual yearning was gone. That is the saddest part about the whole thing to me, and I still haven’t fully grieved that loss either.
Meagan Rowell: On September 11, 2001, I walked into my third grade classroom to find the TV on. This was unusual as we only used the TV for the morning announcements and Bill Nye videos. The footage was of two tall skyscrapers. One of those buildings was on fire. As my classmates and I filed in, the teacher continued to watch the broadcast. We asked what was going on. She told us that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center in some kind of accident. I asked her if they would be able to rebuild the tower, and she assured me that they would. Somehow the fact that people were in the burning tower never occurred to me. She turned off the TV and we started our lesson.

When I got home, mom was crying. I still didn't understand what the World Trade Center was, or how it concerned all of the adults in my life. It took me several weeks to piece together what a 'terrorist attack' was and that people died in the towers. It took me a long time just to find out that both towers had been hit and both collapsed. This week I've been looking at photo archives about 9/11 and the following years. The full force of the attack hit me 10 years later. For the first time, I realized that terrorists attacked the World Trade Centers because they were a symbol of American affluence. For the first time, I saw pictures of people jumping out of the buildings to escape a fiery death. For the first time, I sobbed about that day.


Marie Moon: I was home cleaning the kitchen when the phone rang. It was Dennis and all he said was, "Do you have your TV on?" Immediately I wanted to know what was going on. He told me briefly that a plane had flown into one of the towers in New York. But, of course, at that time that was about all anybody knew. When I turned on TV, it was hard to realize that it wasn't a movie or some kind of stunt. But it didn't take but a minute to realize that what I was looking at was "for real." And when the 2nd plane flew into the tower right before my eyes, it was almost beyond belief. Cleaning the kitchen was forgotten, and I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV. When the plane hit the Pentagon and when the 4th plane crashed in the field, I began to wonder, "Who did this and Why?" and "What else is going to happen?"


Bill Moon: I've forgotten most of the details of my reactions when it happened and my impressions on the developing events for the next month or so. Like so many disasters of world changing proportion, one can't get a rational response when so many people are involved; when loss of assets are impossible to calculate; and when it happens to people or things we feel acquainted with as though we had been there and done that. Major disasters tend to make us feel that we had a relationship with the people affected as if they were family.
Someone called us that day (I think it was Dennis) and told us to turn on the TV. I saw one of the towers on fire and black smoke coming out the windows of the tower. At that time there was no information to let us know what had happened. The news media knew that a plane had hit one tower, and firemen carrying hoses and other equipment were converging on the tower by the hundreds. I have been to the top and I wondered how that many firemen could climb that many stairs carrying that much equipment. I had been told that approximately 10,000 people lived or worked in each tower. How could anyone get out without panicking on the stairs with fire and smoke every where. Fortunately, there were much fewer people in the tower than 10,000.

Suddenly the TV announcer said that another plane was headed that way and within seconds it came into view. I watched as the second plane crashed into the second tower. Soon after that, the towers collapsed. I thought how dreadful for people to s urvive the plane crashes only to be killed by the towers' wreckage.

To this day, I really can't get a mental picture because it is too much to comprehend.


  1. Elizabeth Kirchmeier:

    My reading class had gone to the library in another building to pick out AR books. An 8th grader was in the library and pointed to the TV, which had just shown live footage of one of the planes hitting a tower. I remember the librarian turning off the TV and threatening the kid with detention for changing the channel to watch a movie.

    A few minutes later a secretary from the Principal's office came in to see if the librarian had seen the news. That was when she realized that it hadn't been a movie. Obviously, the TV was turned back on. I remember thinking how unfair it was that she didn't apologize to the 8th grader.

    Our class went back early and all of the teachers were very stiff. There were lots of rumors that we would be dismissed early because Ft. Hood would make a really good terrorist target.

    When I got home mom was sitting on the couch crying. That was when I finally understood the gravity of what had happened.

  2. I was in 7th walking to first period class when I saw Tim Harms coming around the corner. My initial excitement faded as I saw the concerned look on his face. He walked quickly by me and said abruptly, "A plane hit the World Trade Center. Accident or attack. Pray." And just as soon as the words reached my ears, he had faded into the sea of other bodies who were completely oblivious to the exchange. I made it to the end of the hall, slipped into my place desk, and played his words over and over again in my head, trying to make sense of it. Within a few minutes two of my girl friends (I believe it was Grace and Caroline, but I can't remember for sure) arrived, and I told them what Tim had said. In their eyes I saw my confusion reflected. Then Coach Kelley walked into the room and turned on the TV. The scene of the one burning tower unfolded, and I asked the girls if they would pray with me. I can't remember what we prayed, but I remember hearing laughing all around me. The rest of the class didn't understand why we were praying. Afterall, it was probably just a random accident. I remember feeling a bit uneasy, but then Coach Kelley came around us, whispered some type of encouragement and thanked us for praying. Our eyes opened and fixed on the screen, while our class threw around many different theories as to what happened. Then we watched as the second plane hit. No one spoke or moved.

    From that moment the rest of the day was a series of emotions and snapshots. I remember singing the song about peace in choir and the silence mixed with hushed whispers that covered the school. I remember seeing Zack (who was in 6th grade) after school and not knowing if I could/should say something to him before my parents talked to him. I remember the prayer service and seeing tears in my dad's eyes for the first time in years, but I hadn't remembered about the man singing "God Bless America." I remember how I winced when I heard the noise of an airplane flying overhead for the first time several days later. I remember being glued to the tv, newspapers, and magazines for days and weeks later. I remembering trying to make sense of it. Something I still haven't fully been able to do.