9/11/01 - That Morning

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The earliest memory I have of that day is fighting with my now-wife-but-at-that-time girlfriend (Theresa). We both don’t remember what we fought about, but we both remember her going to work in Brooklyn in a sour mood. I was set to leave the house in the morning to go meet Carol Chun to go engagement ring shopping. As I was leaving the house (I already had my shoes on), I woke my computer from sleep to see if I had any AIM messages waiting for me (this was 2001, after all). Usually at that time, I don’t. And usually, I don’t check. However, that day, I did have a message. It was from Jonathan McCurley.

“Is it true? What’s happening?”

Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. After I asked him, he told me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I turned the TV on and saw the burning buildings. It was after 9:00am.

I had a few friends that worked on “Wall Street” and I tried to get in touch with them to make sure they were ok. At this point, I wasn’t too concerned because The damage was contained to the World Trade Center towers. I called a few friends, but couldn’t get through because “all circuits are busy”. I couldn’t get in touch with Theresa either. With her commute going through Manhattan to Brooklyn (and probably right below the towers), I was concerned about her. Through my AIM, I was able to talk to Jeannie An, whose calls to Theresa were going through. What a gift to have the comfort of knowing Theresa was safe and where she was and what she was doing (she ended up stranded in Manhattan and slept at a friend’s place). (Thank you, Jeannie!) Eventually, I called Gene Joo, who was a student at Columbia. This was probably around 2pm. He told me that all Wall Streeters from my church were accounted for except for Andy. 9/11 is also Gene’s Birthday… “Worst birthday ever” is how he put it.

At this point, I did not consider death an option for Andy. Partly because of naïve faith and partly because I knew that the damage was central to the WTC. Then, the call from Michele came.

It was during that conversation that she told me that Andy didn’t work around the WTC, he worked in the WTC. I knew he had recently taken a new job, but I hadn’t realized yet that his office was in the North Tower.* Naivete and ignorance were quickly replaced with panic and dread.

*The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46, which is earlier than most people got to work. Andy wasn’t usually at work until 9am, but had decided just the week prior, to start arriving early to get in a workout. So he was most likely already at his desk.

At the time, I wouldn’t say Andy was my best friend, but he was my closest. I spoke with Andy over IM or on the phone almost every day. He was there on my blind date with Theresa. He gave me computer advice, worship advice, relationship advice. And now he was missing.

Later that evening, around 7:00pm, I had an A-team (Administrative Team) meeting at my apartment to plan for the Intown Open House that Saturday. We spent the next 3-4 hours planning our Open House for the college students. I was fully engaged in our conversations and honestly, surprised at my poise and composure when one of my best friends was still missing.

However, at around 10pm, we were discussing trivia questions for the Open House. I was sitting at the computer and looking at the TV with the scenes of the plane running into the tower over and over. [You remember how many times they showed that? Some said that it was the most photographed event in history.] From where I was sitting, in order to focus on the events on the TV, I had to gaze past the table where we were discussing our Open House. Poetically, I realized that summed up what I was feeling in my heart: I could no longer focus on the task at hand. I had to focus on what was going on up there. I could not stay in Atlanta. I had to be up to NJ.

The meeting ended and I was finally able to reach Theresa by phone. I didn’t trust my decision making myself anymore, because I knew I wasn’t thinking straight. She said that if I need to come up, then I need to come.

The next morning, Wednesday, I packed up my car to head up to NJ. It was about 11am when I turned the key to my ignition. My battery was dead. I knew I had about at least a 12 hour drive to NJ (Google Maps has it at 15hours). I was starting to feel anxiety if my drive got pushed back too late. I called my friend, Fuhlim , and he offered to drive me to the shop, where I got a new battery. As I was about to leave, Fuhlim offered to drive me up to NJ in his car. Perhaps he didn’t trust the way I looked or didn’t trust me driving in my car. Either way, we left around 2pm and didn’t arrive until probably after 5am Thursday morning (we got rerouted through West Virginia around the DC area).

I spent the next two days traveling to NY and NJ hospitals exploring any feasible option that Andy made it out of there alive, but there simply weren’t any unidentified bodies.

That Saturday, I was asked to lead a practice of a praise team that Andy was leading. And, it wasn’t until that morning that I turned the corner and came to grips that I wasn’t going to see Andy alive ever again. The hardest thing about his death was that it wasn’t a sudden realization, but it was a slowly diminishing hope. Basically, I had to make my own personal decision that Andy was dead. Some decided before me and some decided after me. But when I decided, I decided alone.

The next day, Sunday, I was asked to share in front of the Youth Group at our church and to lead praise for the adult service. Andy was a Youth Group teacher and was scheduled to lead worship that morning. I stood in front 2 congregations and was being asked to make sense of the catastrophe that happened 5 days prior. To explain the unexplainable and to comfort the uncomfortable.

This is the gist of what I said:

During this past week, I prayed and prayed that the numerous rescue workers spending countless hours sifting through the rubble would find Andy. I prayed that Andy would be saved and rescued and found alive. And that’s when I realized that Andy has been found. He was found underneath a heap of rubble that crushed him to the point of death. But, this rubble was far more widespread than the WTC. You see, Andy was crushed underneath the weight of the heap of his sin. But, God, the tireless rescue worker did not sleep, nor tire in his pursuit of Andy. And God saved him and rescued him and made him alive.

In times like this we are tempted to find the tallest building still standing and climb to the top and shake our fist at God and curse God. After all, I can’t comprehend how a good God would allow this to happen. How can a just God allow such injustice? In fact, these questions cause many to doubt God’s goodness and justice. What we are essentially saying is that because it doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t believe it. In other words, God must make sense to me. However, the biggest injustice in the history of the world is Christ dying a sinner’s death–my death–when he was himself sinless. If we can readily accept the grace that is so incomprehensible to us, we cannot in the same breath reject the seeming injustice that we don’t understand.

These are lessons that still teach me today and every year on this day, I am reminded of them.