On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda associated Islamic terrorists led by Mohamed Atta wrested control from pilot John A. Ogonowski of the Boeing 767-223ER American Airlines Flight 11 at 8:14AM shortly after take-off from Boston's Logan Airport. With Atta in the pilot's seat, he flew the jet filled with passengers to New York City. At 8:45AM, Atta and his cohorts committed one of the vilest acts ever perpetrated against the United States when he crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center setting it on fire. Eighteen minutes later, Marwan al-Shehhi crashed the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.
In less than an hour after impact, the South Tower began its fatal collapse. Just seventy-five minutes later, the North Tower groaned from the lethal explosion and began its deadly, fiery descent spreading death and destruction and pulverizing everything in its path in a matter of twelve seconds.
The al-Qaeda terrorists murdered 2,752 innocent people in the attack on the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York Police Department officers, 37 Port Authority police officers, and one Catholic priest also died in rescue efforts.
The idea to attack the United States with hijacked planes can be traced back to a series of spring meetings in Afghanistan during the spring of 1999 with the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, meeting with several Islamic terrorists including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohamed Atta. Atta was chosen by bin Laden to coordinate the strike.
Their strategy took aim at high value targets symbolic of the economic, military, and governmental power of the United States by attacking the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and either the White House or Capitol.
They knew that on a typical weekday 50,000 people worked in the Twin Towers with another 200,000 passing through as visitors and tourists. They planned and hoped for enormous casualties.
The coordinated terrorist assault against the United States occurred again at 9:37am when hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon killing 55 military personnel and 65 civilians.
The fourth assault which was against America's governmental leaders was foiled by the brave passengers of United Airlines Flight 93. The terrorists planned to strike either the Capitol or the White House thus showing their power over the economic, military, and governmental institutions of the United States.
The passengers on Flight 93 were herded to the back of the jet. They had learned of the attack on the Twin Towers through telephone conversations and knew they were doomed. Instead of acquiescing to the deadly plot of al-Qaeda, they prepared to take back the plane.
One passenger, Todd Beamer, called the GTE Customer Center in Oakbrook, Illinois, and told supervisor Lisa Jefferson about the hijacking. He asked her to pray the Lord's Prayer with him. They concluded the prayer with Beamer praying, "Jesus, help me." Next, all of the passengers recited Psalm 23 together which includes these words of strength, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." After the recitation, he shouted these now famous words, "Let's roll!"
The passengers and surviving crew members regained control of the cockpit and prevented a catastrophic attack on our government's leaders. The plane crashed into a field near Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania, only 150 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., killing forty four heroic passengers and crew members.
Who can ever forget the horrifying images that we saw and heard on that day? I had just finished seeing my doctor at the Medical College of Georgia. It was about 10am when I cranked up my car to return home and turned on the radio. At first, the reporter thought it was an accident - that a private plane had accidently crashed into the North Tower. As the details became clearer, it was evident that America was under attack.
I rushed home and turned on the TV. By then, the images of the World Trade Center on fire were being broadcast. Next came the collapse.
My wife and I were keeping two Polish teachers in an exchange program. We gathered around the TV and cried in grief and anger. I remember wanting immediate retaliation against the warmongers. In anger, I shouted, "Pay them back! Bomb them with our Air Force!" Little did I know that our government's retaliation would involve a seemingly never ending war against Iraq and Afghanistan and that more brave American soldiers would die in these wars than Americans died in the attack on our land.
You remember as well the time and place you first heard of the jihadist war waged against us on 9/11. Please share your story and reactions with all of us in the comment section below.
Letters posted by the New Yorker magazine after the assaults portray the feelings of shock, grief, anger, and the desire to help the survivors.
Listen to the voices of those who witnessed the attack.
An anonymous letter dated September 13, 2001, remembers. "Staring at the flames bursting forth from the tower, we noticed people waving shirts out the windows, screaming for help. I stepped forward to point one such person out to a police officer when the second plane hit. We felt the heat of the blast on our faces. That's when we knew it wasn't an accident. That's when we all realized our city was under attack. The first word that came to mind was "terrorism", and that's when everyone began to run. "My baby is in that daycare center!" one of them screamed, with tears choking her voice. There were dozens of people running south, against our flow, to go get their children. By the time we hit 14th street, the first building began to fall, and with that, many of us fell on the street. We fell to our knees, crying and screaming, not knowing what was going on."
Susan K. Halloway from Manhattan wrote on September 20 that the face of evil could not defeat us. "I truly believe that it is the strength and resilience of all the men and women who resolved not to fold in the face of unspeakable evil that have given New Yorkers and Americans the strength to pick up the pieces and show them that they cannot beat us. We are stronger than we have ever been. We stand together as a city and as a nation to show them that we will bend, but will not break."
And Connie Wong from Hawaii, a United Airlines stewardess, offered her help. She wrote on the day of the attacks, "This act of war cuts us to the core of our freedom. As our hearts are torn apart by grief and sorrow from loss and the unbelievable devastation and destruction, it leaves us with the pain and anger. I am but one lowly person. Can I make a difference? With my little pint of blood, can I help one who has lost quarts? Yes, because my little pint will be multiplied by thousands guided by divine spirit, and led by our ideals that have made this country the most mighty and greatest nation in the world. God Bless America, our wonderful peace loving home!"
Our nation rallied to the cause. In grief, anger, and pride, we united as one. We flew American flags on our cars and trucks. Flags were lowered to half staff. Millions flocked into houses of worship that opened for prayer services. Members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and sang an impromptu prayer, "God Bless America."
President George W. Bush reassured our shocked nation. That night at 8:30pm, the President restored confidence with these words. "Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But, they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."
Further, President Bush pledged to "hunt down and punish" those responsible. "Freedom itself was attacked this morning, and I assure you freedom will be defended. Make no mistake. Terrorism against our nation will not stand."
We prepared for war.
As clean-up and rescue operations commenced at the World Trade Center, Frank Silecchia, a Brooklyn born hardhat, entered the ruins of Building 6 in the seven building complex. There in front of him stood a twenty foot, two ton steel cross as if placed there by divine providence. He stared in disbelief. Overwhelmed, all he could do was weep.
Silecchia testified, "[The cross] helped me heal the burden of my despair, and gave me closure on the whole catastrophe."
He hurried down the street and found Father Brian Jordan from St. Peter's Catholic Church. The church is three blocks from the Twin Towers on Church and Barclay Streets. He led the priest through the smoldering chaos and brought him to the cross. Silecchia asked Father Jordan what he saw. The priest replied, "Frank, I believe that is a cross. ''We are all anxious for some type of God's presence."
Two days before the cross was discovered on September 13, Father Jordan lost his close friend and fellow priest, Father Mychal Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain. He was killed by the fall-out on September 11 ministering to the responders and the victims from the murderous devastation by al-Qaeda. Father Judge's body was brought to St. Peter's Church which became a temporary morgue. Father Judge is listed as the first official trade center casualty. On his gravesite is a replica of the Cross at Ground Zero.
Thus, for Father Jordan and thousands, perhaps millions, of others, the Cross indeed was a symbol of God's presence which comforted him in the loss of his friend and so many others lost in hellish attack.
St. Peter's Church also became a place of hope and rescue. The Church became the place to bring all the emergency equipment.
Father Kevin Madigan of St. Peter's, who narrowly escaped death from the fall-out after the attack, rushed out of the church to help. He later said. "Stuff was piled six feet high all over our pews-bandages, gas masks, boots, hoses and cans of food for the workers and the volunteers, many of whom were sleeping in the church on bedrolls."
The cornerstone for St. Peter's was laid in 1785 and is the oldest Catholic Church in New York State. The current building was constructed in 1840 which replaced the earlier sanctuary. I suppose that throughout the distinguished history of St. Peter's ministry, the church, parishioners, and pastors were never more needed to minister the love and compassion of Christ and the Cross than they were in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda invasion.
The Cross at Ground Zero had to be moved so that the rubble from Building 6 could be removed. Frank Silecchia and others petitioned New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani to erect it on a pedestal on the former World Trade Plaza on Church Street. Giuliani expedited the request and on October 4, the cross was mounted on a forty foot pedestal for all to see.
Father Brian Jordan blessed the cross on that day and addressed the crowd of workers, officials, and others. "This cross is a symbol of hope, faith, and healing."
Another minister affirmed the blessing. He said, "The family of a man who died in the attacks came to the cross shrine and left personal effects there. It was as if the cross took in the grief and loss of that family. I never felt Jesus more."
The Cross at Ground Zero became a back-drop for numerous memorial services. Richard Sheirer, head of New York City's Office of Emergency Management said at one of the memorials, "This piece of steel meant more to many people than any piece of steel ever. It goes beyond any religion."
Others took comfort in the cross, as well. Workers scribbled their names on the metal beam, and priests said mass in its shadow. Many looked at that cross as a symbol that Christ has clearly embraced the pain, and the tragedy and the horror of that moment with a grace that is difficult for anyone to understand.
Johann Christoph Arnold, pastor, theologian, and prolific author summarizes the meaning of the Cross at Ground Zero. "Ground Zero is another manifestation of the cross of Jesus, which symbolizes the worst thing that was ever done, but also the best thing that has ever happened--Christ's victory over death and the promise of eternal life."
The Cross at Ground Zero had to be moved as work progressed to clear the area and rebuild the World Trade Center. Today, it stands next to St. Peter's Catholic Church and faces Church Street, just north of Ground Zero. Father Brian Jordan is the "keeper of the Cross." The administrative assistant for St. Peter's told me in a phone conversation, ""People continue to gather around the cross to pray and remember. Some leave flowers and written prayers."
A plaque at the Cross has these words, "The Cross at Ground Zero - Founded September 13, 2001; Blessed October 4, 2001; Temporarily Relocated October 15, 2006. Will return to the World Trade Center Memorial, a sign of comfort for all."
Rev. Dan White is pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA.