A meteorologist would tell you there were sprawling areas of high pressure, but to me it was simply a picture-perfect day for my last full day in New York, and an opportunity to explore the tourist hot spots. First on the list was the viewing observatory inside the World Trade Center’s South Tower. It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
The subway took about half an hour from our accommodation on 86thStreet to South Ferry – roughly 10 blocks from the site of the twin towers. As we climbed the subway stairs, a woman ran past us in the opposite direction, frantically yelling something about a bomb and urging people to return to the subway. My mate and I looked at each other, shrugged and uttered something about the crazy people in New York.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sunlight as we exited the subway. Moments later, I could see hundreds of people milling around staring intently at billows of smoke pouring out of the side of a building. I asked a bystander what was going on and without turning, his eyes transfixed on the building, he replied “two planes have just hit the World Trade Center”.
With the brashness of youth, we charged up Broadway to get as close to the action as possible. At one point I ducked under some police tape to get even closer to the South Tower, only to be caught by a NYC police officer and ushered away. We stayed close by, gazing at the South Tower blanketed in smoke, unable to make sense of what was happening.
Something that will never leave me is the voice of a woman behind me crying out, “Oh my God there’s another one”. I had seen him too. A man paused for a moment near the impact-zone high up on the tower, before jumping. Witnessing people make that decision took me a long time to come to terms with – seeing it happen live was both chilling and heartbreaking.
After approximately 20 minutes standing dumbfounded, I heard an earth-shattering noise. The tower was crumbling. I turned and ran for my life, all the while thinking: “I can’t believe it, I’m 22 years old and this is how it ends for me”. I was less than 100 metres away when the 415-metre-tall building collapsed. It is the only time in my life when I have felt the certainty of death.
I was instantly engulfed in dust and debris and I knew had to get off the street. I leaped through shattered glass after the windows of the building I was running alongside began to explode. I crawled as far back into the building as I could. I hid under a desk. I prayed desperately to God for forgiveness for the sinful life I had led.
Needless to say, I survived that day, as did my mate; and God has taught me important lessons that shaped my view of life and my relationship with him.
- The fragility of life is real
As a 22-year-old, I thought I was in total control of my life. I was young and healthy. I had just finished my university degree and was traveling the world. I had not experienced the pressures of life. The saying “the world is your oyster” was fresh on my lips. How wrong I was. God taught me that life is fragile. Every day is precious. As a believer, I wasn’t living my best life. I was pushing God into the background. I was more concerned with having fun than living for him. In Luke 12:20 Jesus says “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’”
The fact that God could demand my life at any time helped me realise the importance of having God front and centre in my life. I am thankful that he gave me another chance to work on this.
- God is in complete control
Not surprisingly, many questions arose about the sovereignty of God following that tragic day. People found it hard to reconcile how a loving God could allow such evil and suffering to take place. For me, personally, the events took me to the cross. Christian preacher John Blanchard was asked, “Where was God when religious fanatics killed 3,000 people in America?” He replied, “Exactly where he was when religious fanatics killed his Son, Jesus Christ – in complete control of everything that happened”. What I can say with confidence is that God was in control of my situation on September 11, 2001 just as he was in control of everyone else’s situation that day. This I must trust. I am encouraged and comforted when reading Romans 8:18, which states “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”.
- God is infinitely gracious
Thousands of people lost their lives in the September 11 attacks, no doubt many of them non-believers. I don’t know why God chose to spare my life, but I am grateful that he did. At that moment in time, his plans for me were far beyond my knowledge and understanding. Over time he taught me to trust in his purpose for my life, something I am continuing to work out. My survival and the lessons I learned were only by God’s grace. Similarly, it is only by his infinite grace that those who place their trust in Jesus will one day share in his inheritance. Romans 3:23 reminds us “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. For this we deserve God’s condemnation. However, God chose to send his son as the ultimate sacrifice for our sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).
Many years have passed since that day and I have had time to reflect on how these events have shaped my Christian perspectives. Some might not understand my logic when I say that I am thankful for the experience as well as God’s safety and provision. But on that day he taught me invaluable life lessons and gave me a second chance at faith.