Twenty years ago, I was the director of a lay mission program, and I had gone to New York City on September 10 for dinner with two missioners who were heading to Swaziland.
The afternoon of the 10th, they had gone to our mission in Chinatown and climbed to the rooftop to take pictures—with the World Trade Center in the background.
Their families had come in from out of state, and after dinner, we had all gone to JFK to see them off.
I stayed in New York overnight, and the next morning, September 11, I was going to walk from Gramercy Park to Chinatown. I remember leaving the building that morning and looking up at the sky—it was clear blue, a perfect day for a walk.
And then the first plane hit, and then the second plane, and then there was chaos. Sirens blared and police cars and ambulances headed south—while cars, buses and pedestrians, covered in white dust, headed north.
I joined co-workers watching television coverage. One woman paced. Another prepared food. We all deal with shock in our own ways.
I remember taking a walk in the afternoon and seeing a line of people waiting to use a pay phone (cell phones were not working). “I’m okay,” each person said into the phone and then quickly hung up so the next person could make a call.
I remember thinking that we were not okay. All around us, people were dazed, crying. We were frightened and wondered if there would be another attack.
Nothing made sense.
By evening, the streets were deserted. No taxis, cars or buses. Very few pedestrians. Just a very large security presence on every corner.
All trains had been halted, so I had no way of getting back to Philadelphia that night. Instead, I watched the burning rubble of the Twin Towers from my bedroom window—and called Amtrak every hour to see when trains would run again. I just wanted to get home.
I left for Penn Station around 4:00 a.m., walked up 19th Street to Broadway and turned right. As far as I could see, Broadway was deserted—no people, cars, buses—just total emptiness. The terrorists had succeeded in terrifying us.
Penn Station was filling up by the time I arrived, but it was unlike the Penn Station I had known just two days earlier. We had all experienced something unimaginable, and that experience created a bond stronger than any differences we may have had on September 10. Courtesy, kindness and sympathy shaped our interactions. Tears flowed freely. We were grieving.
I remember standing in line at a bakery in Penn Station the morning of September 12, exhausted and somewhat anxious about getting on a train. I ordered a bagel and coffee, and the man in front of me said, “Let me get that for you.”
I cried at his kindness.
It saddens me to see how divided our country has become over the past twenty years.