It’s been nine years. But most Americans remember where they were when they first learned that a hijacked passenger jumbo jet had just slammed into the World Trade Center.
We also remember how we felt: the incomprehension, the shock, the fear and the anger.
A few moments stand out for me that give me pride to this day.
The Events That Took Place In the Skies Above Pennsylvania:
United Airlines flight 93 was a Boeing 757 on a morning Newark-to-San Francisco route. On 11 Sep 2001 the plane was hijacked by a four man hijacking team. Evidence suggests that the hijacking was apparently thwarted by the efforts of the plane’s passengers and flight attendants. The plane crashed southeast of Pittsburgh in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The plan was carrying 37 passengers and 7 crew members. There were no survivors. Todd Beamer, a passenger, tried to place a credit card call but was routed to a customer service representative instead, who passed him on to supervisor Lisa Jefferson. She called the FBI. Beamer reported that one passenger was dead. He asked if together they could pray the Lord’s prayer, which they did. Later, he told the operator that some of the plane’s passengers were planning “to jump” the hijackers. The last words Ms. Jefferson heard from the plane were “Are you ready guys? Let’s roll.” The plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 AM, killing all aboard. It is believed that this aircraft was intended to be crashed into the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC, Congress was in session at the time.
A shiver goes up my spine every time I try to visualize the raw courage of Todd Beamer and the beyond-heroic men and women who assisted him in taking back the plane so that it could not be used as a weapon against other Americans. Even as they likely knew that they would surely die themselves.
I think particularly of Todd Beamer asking to pray with an operator whom he would never see in this life, and afterward that operator being able to recollect his last words, spoken to other passengers: “Are you ready guys? Let’s roll.”
I feel pride. and I pray, and hope, that I would have been like those heroes had I been on board that flight.
The Events Of The 343 Firefighters, Paramedics, And Police Officers:
As thousands of workers in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center desperately fled down the stairs, there were heroes laboring their way up carrying their heavy gear. Laboring up floor after floor, trying to make their way up to render aid when everyone around them was trying to make their way to safety.
Few if any of those men knew that they were climbing to their deaths. But you know what? I have a feeling that many of them would have kept on climbing even if they did know. It was just who they were.
And on this day, I honor them. And I’m proud of their sacrifice.
The Events On The Top Floors Of The World Trade Center:
One of the most vivid images in my mind was the footage of people in the top floors of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center throwing themselves out of windows to their deaths to escape the raging inferno within that dying skyscraper. We can only imagine their horrific and terrorized desperation in facing the nightmare choice of a certain death by fire, or a certain death by fall.
In the months afterward, I watched a program putting these events into a spiritual context. If my memory serves, it was R.C. Sproul who had the made the most memorable impression in my soul.
He spoke of 9/11 representing both the greatest evil and the greatest good in the world, of the evil of the terrorists, and of the love exhibited by those who perished as a result of their evil.
He described how he imagined the final moments of those who had been in the top floors, unable to escape the inferno. He focused on the image of many of those who threw themselves out of the building: how they leaped to their deaths holding hands with their fellow workers.
I can imagine a crying, terrorized secretary, afraid to jump, but even more terrified of the terrible heat and smoke, and the approaching roaring flames. And I imagine someone telling her, “Come with me. Hold my hand. We’ll go together.”
And amidst all that evil, they leaped. Holding hands.
The image brings tears of sorrow, that so many such anonymous, but such wonderful, people, died that day. But it also brings pride.
What would you do in that situation? I hope if I had to go out like that, someone would be holding my hand.
The Events Of The President’s Visit To The Ground Zero Site:
Another vivid memory for me was President George Bush’s so-called “bullhorn moment” on September 14, 2001 as he visited Ground Zero following the attack.
I had joined my brother and his family and my parents in a restaurant which had a giant screen television. And that’s where I saw Bush step up – literally – and say a very few, but now very famous, words:
As described by eyewitness and participant Karl Rove, who documented the scene in his book, Courage and Consequence:
Bush was hearing and seeing the rescue workers up close. They were not shy about sharing their feelings. These men were working on adrenaline and passion and, after three days and increasingly less frequent good news about survivors, they were nearly spent. Pataki was right; the presidential visit was energizing for many of the people we met. Bush later told me what he felt from the workers was deep, almost overwhelming anger, even hatred. […]
There was a tug on my sleave. It was Nina Bishop, a White House advance woman working the event. She pointed to the chanting workers and said, “They want to hear from their president.” No one had prepared remarks, but she was exactly right…
I pointed at the battered fire truck. Andy [Card] made a beeline to the president. Nina had commandeered a bullhorn from a man who worked for Con Ed and met me at the fire truck with it. The bullhorn’s batteries weren’t that good, but it was all we had…
The president took the bullhorn and reached his hand up to the rescue worker, a retired sixty-nine-year-old firefighter named Bob Beckwith. Beckwith looked down into the scrum below him, saw the outstretched hand, grasped, and pulled. In an instant, Bush was sharing the top of the truck with Beckwith, who suddenly realized he’d helped up the president of the United States. Beckwith tried to crawl down but the president asked, “Where are you going?” Bob said he was getting down. Bush said, “No, no, you stay right here.”
The cheers and chanting subsided and the president started to speak into the bullhorn. With the National Cathedral prayer service still fresh on his mind, Bush began by saying, “I want you all to know that America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. This nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.” Someone yelled, “Go get ‘em, George!” Someone else yelled, “George, we can’t hear you!” and others echoed this complaint. Bush paused and then responded in a voice now fully magnified by the bullhorn, “I can hear you.” The crowd went nuts – and he knew what to do from there. “The rest of the world hears you,” he went on, “and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd broke into defiant, even bitter, chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Bush handed the bullhorn off and he climbed down.
In an iconic moment, George Bush was very much alone with an enormous responsibility. The nation wanted reassurance; it wanted to know it had a leader who understood the mission America now faced. No speechwriters, no aides, no advisers were involved in Bush’s response. It was an authentic moment that connected with the public in a strong, deep way. Without assistance and in an instant, George Bush gave voice to America’s desires.
Seeing President Bush hop up on that busted truck and stand shoulder to shoulder with a weary firefighter is a sight forever etched in my mind, and for many it remains one of the most inspiring scenes from the terrible events of 9/11. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley’s assessment of Bush’s visit to Ground Zero was prophetic: “We can’t just judge him as President Bush anymore, but we’re going to soon be judging him as commander-in-chief.”
Karl Rove, Courage and Consequence, pp 277-279
President George Bush was at his finest moment when the country needed him the most.
The Events Of Our Very Greatest Americans: The Congressional Medal Of Honor Recipients:
Our soldiers are all heroes, these days. You don’t volunteer to serve in today’s military without realizing that you may very well be called upon to serve in a combat zone. And with terrorism and the tactics used by terrorist fighters, anyone can suddenly find himself or herself on the front lines.
I’ve marveled at our soldiers and Marines since the first footage showed them ready to go into battle. And from those first days to the present, they have been magnificent.
I am so proud of them, so proud of what they have accomplished, and so proud that these incredible men and women wear the flag that I cherish.
I obviously can’t name them all, and tell all of their stories. But here are the stories of the greatest of the great: our Congressional Medal of Honor recipients:
- Salvatore Giunta, Staff Sergeant, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Infantry Brigade (Airborne), US Army
- Robert James Miller, Staff Sergeant, A Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), US Army
- Jared C. Monti, Sgt 1st Class, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division, US Army
- Michael P. Murphy, Lieutenant, Alpha Platoon, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE (SDVT-1), US Navy
- Jason Dunham, Corporal, 4th Platoon, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (3/7), 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, USMC
- Ross A. McGinnis, Specialist,1st Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, US Army
- Paul R. Smith, Sgt 1st Class, B Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, US Army
These men, in receiving this the highest award for valor, have transcended themselves, and rightly epitomize the greatest attributes of not just soldiers, sailors, and Marines, but of human beings. I think of the words of Jesus, “Greater love has no one than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
On this 9/11, I remember that the United States was attacked by men who had murdered their very own humanity in the name of a rabid religious ideology before they murdered nearly 3,000 Americans. I remember that we are at war, whether all of us recognize it or not. And I remember that we must hold the same steely resolve to fight against an adversary who practices no rules, has no compassion, and stops at no moral or rational limits.
But most of all, I remember the men and women who gave us the greatest possible example of love, of courage, of sacrifice, and of both the human and American spirit.
And I’m proud to be an American, because I am surrounded by such a cloud of magnificent heroes.
Thank you, Lord, for producing these magnificent men and women.
And Lord, please make more of them and keep them coming. For we surely need others like them.