9/11: 9 Things I Learned 11 Years Ago

Where were you when you heard the news of 9/11? What did you think at first?

I’ll never forget the confusion I experienced the first time I turned on my car radio the morning of September 11, 2001. I was on my way in to work at the Grapevine Sun newspaper in Grapevine, Texas, where I worked as assistant managing editor. But this morning was special to me before it became infamous. My boss, Les, was on vacation the week of 9/11 and that left me in charge of the editorial department of the paper. At 24 years old, it was a big deal to be in charge. I felt like a million bucks and just knew with young confidence that the newspaper would run like a well-oiled machine with me at the helm. So I had dressed up in a dress shirt and tie (I was the boss, after all!) and pointed my Dr Pepper red Chevy Cavalier towards downtown Grapevine.

I drove in silence the first seven miles, completely oblivious to what was happening in the world around me. As I got closer to the office I decided to turn on the radio to that morning’s sports talk. But when I started listening the confusion began. It was news. An ABC news simulcast with 820 AM WBAP. Something significant was happening but I had no context. It was like being thrown into a movie during the first action scene without any previous set-up. I honestly thought it was some kind of “War of the Worlds” radio drama — not real and very strange for a Tuesday morning. I didn’t realize anything was real until I heard these words, “We have a report now of smoke rising over the Pentagon…” I then went, “Oh my goodness, what is going on?” When I went into the newspaper office the mood was so tense that no one could work. The sales and office staff were gathered around a small tube TV that they kept in the back. Thanks to rabbit ears on top, we all watched Peter Jennings and ABC anchor the dramatic events with horror and shock. What does this all mean?

That day was unforgettable and, perhaps, the most challenging day of my journalistic career. Grapevine was the official home of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and, as a result, our newspaper took it to heart to cover airport news. A lot of pilots and flight crews lived in Grapevine and if the airport was a terror target, so was my city. So I spent the entire long day organizing news coverage of the airport, city, and fielding calls from bigger newspapers. I was too busy to grieve and too shocked to know any better. I went to the D/FW airport news conference while our other reporters covered various local angles. By the end of the working day I was able to go home and begin to process what had happened. I had class that night at Dallas Seminary, downtown, so I went from covering 9/11 as a journalist to processing with fellow Christians as the seminary president, my teacher for that course, tried to lead us through the curriculum prepared beforehand for that night. It was a tough night for all.

What did you learn on 9/11? What did you learn about this country, this world, yourself? Here are nine things I learned, since September is the ninth month.

  1. That even those who don’t openly follow Jesus will pray if the crisis is big enough. About 30 minutes after the second plane hit the World Trade Center I led a group prayer of all willing staff of the Grapevine Sun. Most people gathered around, including some I knew to be hostile towards the Church. It was one of those moments when you learn that deep down everyone knows they need help from above. Not all seek it, though, unless they’re in a tight spot.
  2. That being next to a quiet airport is the most unsettling thing to experience. D/FW is one of the world’s largest airports, with hundreds of flights departing and landing every day. The silence on the morning of 9/11 was eery and uncomfortable. It was too quiet.
  3. That seeing two fighter jets circle downtown Dallas on a day of national crisis is the second most unsettling thing to experience. As I walked out of class that night I looked up at the dark, empty skies (not even a helicopter was allowed in the air) to see two F-15 jets streak across the Dallas skyline. Dallas was under military watch now. Comforting in an uncomfortable kind of way.
  4. That reality can be just a strange as fiction. Watching the events unfold on television was unreal to me, yet I knew it was all true. Seeing the second plane hit the towers looked like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster. But Bruce Willis wasn’t around to save everyone. The NYPD and FD were the heroes and did all they could. But this movie had a tragic ending.
  5. That I now look at everyone around me with new eyes. The terrorists came into the country and lived among us for a while. They rented apartments, drank in bars and went to flight school. No longer can we look at everyone with innocence now. Reporting suspicious activity could stop the next 9/11.
  6. That I, personally, seem to excel in crisis situations. That Tuesday morning was my first major crisis to handle as an adult. My personality, behavior type, and everyone’s distress led to my stepping up to take charge during the crisis. When things are going haywire, I’ve found that I usually take charge and lead. It’s one thing I have discovered about myself repeatedly over the past eleven years. When a death happens, when a church is in trouble, when calmness and direction are needed, I usually turn from meek and mild to confident and authoritative.
  7. That people will turn to the Church when they have no answer for what they’re experiencing. In the wake of 9/11, many churches across the country saw an increase in attendance. People who weren’t active in a local church suddenly looked to the Church to make some sense of the death and destruction they saw around them. Why did this happen? Is this from God? Why didn’t he prevent it? People looked to find that “constant” missing from their lives to find some semblance of grounding.
  8. That I will never look at fellow airplane passengers the same way again. Every time I walk down the aisle of an airplane I take notice of who else is on board. Is there someone who looks suspicious (as if I can tell!)? Is there a good selection of strong men who can take down terrorists with me? If a TV movie were made of this flight, who would play whom? (yes, I seriously think of this.)
  9. That the only sure thing to hold on to during times of trial is the sovereign Lord God Almighty. He never changes, never wavers in His love and grace. A firm belief that God is sovereign over all the nations is essential to being grounded in this life. I found it strange and yet reassuring that my co-workers turned to me that morning for emotional and spiritual support because they knew I was a Christian and that I was going to a Christian seminary. I made no secret of the fact I was here at the newspaper to make a living while I attended Dallas Seminary. Was I a journalist? Absolutely. It’s my nature and my training. But I was grounded with faith — a faith that made me the butt of jokes and a constant source of quarreling (it took me a little while to figure out that some of  my co-workers were just poking me with a stick for fun) — but a faith that was really envied during a time of trial. I learned a lot about the role of a Christian in the secular workplace that day.

How about you? What did you learn?