The first attack on mainland America since the War of 1812, September 11, 2001 is a day that should never be forgotten. Like December 7, 1941, it is a day which “will live in infamy.”
I remember the day so well. Work stopped. We were glued to our televisions, to the internet. We spent the night at a friend’s house, watching the news reports together, crying with the reporters, with the people wondering where their loved ones were, if they had made it out safely. We knew in our hearts that things would never be the same again.
A year later, the church where I was on staff decided to honor 9/11/01 with a special service. Called simply “Remembrance,” the goal of the evening was to honor those who had died and give hope to those who looked for answers. Working with my friend and co-worker, Kevin Vander Weide, I produced the service with the implicit understanding that it was to be a night not of “hooray for America,” although we certainly wanted to remind people of the greatness of this country. In my heart, I wanted to honor and remember more than anything. Looking back now, I’m saddened–because even one year after the terrorist attacks, I was afraid America would forget. It seems that in many ways, I was right.
The stories I wanted to tell were what Aaron Brown of CNN called “people stories.” 9/11 is full of them: hijackers and terrorists, office workers, pilots, flight attendants, firefighters, policemen, politicians, families. How could I do justice to the memory of these people’s stories with just an hour and a half service? The task was daunting, and I knew there was no way all that I wanted to say could be said.
In the month leading up to 9/11/02, I spent a lot of time researching the stories.
I talked to Pat Hamman, chaplain for the city of Redmond, and heard his story–how he went to NYC right after 9/11 and worked with the priest at the little church that stood at the base of the towers. An old church, with much history already part of its life, the church had become a shrine, a sanctuary, and the stories Pat told were heartbreaking. Families never giving up hope. Rescue workers looking for any sign of life, any sign of humanity, and doing everything the could to honor the fallen. A cross, left in the middle of the ruin through the amazing twisting and falling of steel, offered hope–and gave the workers a place they called “God’s House.”
I heard the stories of a kids’ art class who created a book full of pictures expressing joy, sadness, hope in their own response to 9/11. All the proceeds from the book were given to children who had lost a parent when the World Trade Center fell. These kids, no older than 12, saw something deep in the events of that day–looked into their own hearts and knew they had to do something. Not in response to a call from the government, from a teacher, or even a pastor. These kids responded on their own because they knew something had happened on 9/11–something that had made their world bigger–causing them to think more of just their own comfort or happiness.
How to honor the fallen of that day? To read the names of the 3,000 who had died in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, would take more time than we were able to give. Instead, we chose to take the time to show all the names of the men and women who perished in the attacks. We put their names on the large screens in the church, simple white text on a black background, and while we looked at the names of the fallen, the orchestra played “Hymn for the Fallen,” which John Williams had composed for the movie Saving Private Ryan. In the six minutes of music, we would show the name of every person who had died on 9/11.
To do that, however, required that I find all those names. And then type them out, get them into our presentation software. No problem, I thought. This would be easy. Just cut and paste.
It wasn’t that easy. Because the websites that listed the names did more than just list the names. They linked every name to a story, and suddenly, as I worked on the project, it became more than a project. Every name was a story, every person had a picture, a family. The list disappeared and instead what I saw was lives. Lives that had been cruelly and horribly lost. Fathers. Mothers. Sisters. Brothers. Aunts. Uncles. Grandfathers. Grandmothers. As I read, I wept. As the music of “Hymn for the Fallen” played, I could no longer see just 250 white names on a black background. I saw the faces that went along with them, remembered the anguish in the voices of those left behind.
Even as I type this today, 7 years after that first anniversary, I cannot hold back tears. Whenever I hear “Hymn for the Fallen,” I don’t think of Tom Hanks, I think of Welles Crowther. He was a young man who rushed back into the World Trade Center. He went back in. He’d escaped after the first plane hit. He’d made it out. But he was not content to stay there and let others die. He rushed back in to help. Not a firefighter, not a rescue worker. Just a guy who worked on the 104th floor of the South Tower. He went back three times to rescue people he’d never met. Three times. His body wasn’t found until March 2002. He was buried with honor, as he deserved to be.
And Welles Crowther is just one of 3,000 names. There are 3,000 stories of that day, and countless more stories of those left behind.
I was committed to making the night as timely as possible. We didn’t finalize anything until moments before the service started. I wanted to show pictures of what had happened around America that day. I wanted to ensure that we realized we weren’t alone in our grief and remembrance. Some of my favorites were a National Park ranger placing a flag at the top of Mt. Rushmore, a long collection of flags lining the beach beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. I think two of my favorite pictures in the days after 9/11/01 were of a huge biker dude painting the words “God Bless America” on a broken brick wall, and the giant sign at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas empty except for the words “God Bless America.”
I sang a song that night–an adaptation of Michael W. Smith’s “This is Your Time.” We tweaked the words a bit to make it about people like Welles Crowther. “To rush in and help, to put life on the line–for them there was one choice to make. This was their time. This was their dance. They lived every moment, left nothing to chance. They swam in the sea, drank of the deep, embraced the mystery of all they could be. This was their time.” I had been sick and unable to sing all day. As I sat on the front row of the church, waiting for my time to sing, I was overcome with emotion. I could not hold back tears, and I think, in that moment, God gave me something more of Himself.
I stepped up as Pastor Rick finished speaking and began to sing. My voice was a little shaky and I messed up the first sentence. But suddenly it got stronger, and I ended up singing pretty well. I think I could hear my own response to the question the song asks, “What if tomorrow, what if today, if faced with life’s question, oh what would you say?”
I would not forget what happened on 9/11. I would not let my children, two of whom hadn’t even been born yet, forget what happened on that day.
While 9/11/01 was the day that changed the world, I think 9/11/02 was a day that changed me. That was my time.