For me, September 11, 2001, started just like any other day. I was driving to work and listening to the radio when I heard the news at 8:50. At the time, the radio was reporting that a small plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I did not think much of it, but I decided to turn on the TV when I arrived at my office to see what it looked like.
I tuned into the news about 30 seconds after the second plane hit. I could not believe what I was seeing. The broad-casters were still trying to speculate what type of plane it was, but I knew that this had to be a large commercial aircraft. I am a flying enthusiast, and I know what most commercial and private aircraft look like. I knew right away that the second plane was a wide-body aircraft, so I knew something horrible was unfolding here. The TV footage showed beautiful blue skies over New York City with miles and miles of clear visibility. There was no way this could be a freakish problem with air-traffic control; even if they had a total system failure, no pilot would ever fly into a building by accident.
The rest of the event unfolded as our nation and the rest of the world watched in horror. I was completely shocked, dazed, and distraught. As the news continued to show the second plane hit the tower, they suddenly switched to a live shot somewhere else. Before they could put up a graphic, I could tell that underneath billows of black smoke, the Pentagon was on fire. I remember loudly saying, "Oh no, that’s the Pentagon." My colleagues in the office watched with me in horror as the news showed the building burning out of control. I knew that the depth of the disaster was not over. Our country was under attack.
My fear grew through the morning because my brother-in-law Tony was traveling that day by air. He was flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to Los Angeles that morning. He was out of contact, and there was no way for me or anyone else in my family to know that he was safe. The day became more surreal by the minute. The phone rang and rang through the morning as family and friends called to check in with each other and tried to discuss what was going on. Finally, I received a call from my sister saying that Tony was safely on the ground in Memphis, Tennessee. His flight landed there after they had been flying for about an hour.
The call I was waiting for came at about one o’clock that afternoon. Dan Norman serves as the regional coordinator for the North Carolina Baptist Men’s disaster relief unit in our area. I have volunteered as a team member for disaster relief for about six years. The disaster re-lief team goes into areas hard-hit by natural disasters throughout the southeastern United States. The team is responsible for setting up a mobile kitchen and serving meals to victims of disasters as well as those who help in the aftermath. We usually serve many volunteers, police, fire, and military personnel. The mobile kitchens are loaded on large trucks and driven right into affected areas.
I have worked several floods and multiple hurricanes. North Carolina has seen several major hurricanes hit the coast in the past several years, so our team has unfortunately had plenty of practice working in the kitchen. However, we have had no experience working in a situation like what we would face now. I wondered if we would be called to step-in and assist in the relief effort from the terrorist at-tacks. My emotions were mixed; I could hardly come to terms with the horror of the attacks, but I knew God could use me no matter how I felt.
Skip Greene also called me a few minutes later to tell me that our unit was on alert and that we should expect to move out sometime Wednesday morning. He did not have any final word on exactly where we were going or exactly when we would get there, so I was rest-less for the remainder of the day wondering where we would go and what this new kind of disaster would be like. Plus, I just kept watching the images over and over again of planes crashing into buildings and people running and screaming. Through it all, I constantly affirmed to my-self that God was in complete control of this, and he would use the tragedy as a triumph.
That evening my family gathered at my mother’s home to be together and share in the day’s events. Our family has been a close-knit group for years, but this night took on special meaning to us. We were so thankful to all be together in the same place (except for Tony who we knew was safe and would be driving back to Boone the next day) and not be scattered about the country. I know so many others around the country experienced a special closeness with family and friends that night and in the days to follow. Families and friends all across the country did lots of soul searching and inventorying of their lives. It did not take much time for practically the whole nation to realize that people are what matter–friends and family and relationships are what God puts in front of all of us as His means to express His love to each other. I believe that our nation was quickly turning on its heels and moving quickly to God.
Several times that afternoon and evening, I called Dan and Skip to see if there was any definitive word on where our unit would go and when we would leave. They heard nothing, and this kept me unsettled on top of the rest of the events of the day. By the time we were ready to leave my mother’s house, it was about ten o’clock that night, and we had no word on our final status. Driving home, my mobile phone rang. It was Dan, "We are leaving in one hour and we are going to the Pentagon." Wow! My surreal day had just taken a turn into even stranger territory. We had all guessed that we would be going to New York City and that we would leave sometime on Wednesday morning. As usual, though, God has His plans beyond what we can imagine.
Our team gathered in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church of Boone at eleven o’clock and prepared to leave. Skip prayed that God would bless us and keep us from harm and use us as his servants of mercy. We loaded up in several vans, and off we went. All totaled, there were thirty-five of us going to set up the unit and serve. We drove all through the night through North Carolina and Virginia. I took the late-night shift and found a radio station that was broadcasting the news instead of regular programming, and that helped me stay awake. I felt like I could not hear enough about the events of the day. I wanted to know every angle and every bit of news and every lead in the investigation. We stopped for breakfast just after daybreak, and we were only about two hours outside of the capital then. We were all anxious as to what would soon follow. We were really close, and we did not know what this disaster would be like. We continued to drive on, and as we got closer and closer, the mood became more and more quiet and reflective.
Traffic was moving pretty well outside of the city, but we knew we would be in for a tough time as we got closer to the Pentagon. Luckily, the head of the North American Baptist Mission’s Board has some pull, and they were able to arrange a police escort to the Pentagon. We met our escort about ten miles outside of the city, and away we went. The best way I can describe the next ten miles is to compare it to the parting of the Red Sea. I do not know what it looked like for Moses and the Israelites, but I think I got a sense of it that morning. We rode past traffic snarled in congestion that would have taken us hours to crawl through. It was a real blessing for us to be able to hurry to the site to get set up, plus it really helped us mentally. I’m glad that we did not have to be frustrated as we were stuck in traffic trying to get help to people who really needed it.
We drove with the windows down, and when we were about four miles out, we could smell smoke and fire. It got thicker as we got closer, and finally we topped the last hill and there it was, right in front of my eyes. The Pentagon was still burning and firemen continued to work to control the blaze. Again, it was totally surreal that here I was a part of this now, sensing the situation with all five senses. The smell of smoke and jet fuel was almost unbearable. My eyes burned. You could taste the soot in the air as you breathed. It was hot as we were only about fifty yards away from the burning building. We pulled into the south parking lot of the pentagon at 8:40 A.M. Wednesday morning, exactly twenty-three hours after it had been hit.
We immediately got to work. We had lots to do to be ready to serve 3,000 meals for supper that evening. The kitchen unit is a large covered trailer packed with cooking wares. Loaded onto the trailer are numerous pots and pans and utensils as well as portable stove burners. The centerpiece of the unit is two steam kettle cookers. Together, these can cook 1,500 pounds of food in about an hour’s time. The unit also has a pro-pane gas tank and an electric generator. The mobile kitchen is truly self-contained. After we arrive where we need to be, we can operate self-sufficiently for days.
The only thing we do not bring with us is the food. The disaster team is usually coordinated with the Red Cross emergency response teams, and the Red Cross is responsible for supplying us with the food to cook. As we began setting up the kitchen, I was assigned the responsibility of managing the inventory when it arrived. This was no surprise for me as I was in charge of inventory when our team went to the North Carolina coast to provide re-lief for the victims of hurricane Fran. At that disaster, I managed six tractor-trailer loads of food and was responsible for ten thousand meals each at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We prepared so much food at that site that we had to have two forklifts on the job just to get food from the truck to the kitchen unit.
This disaster would be easier than the usual hurricane because we were serving much fewer meals, and we did not have to serve breakfast. A local Mc-Donald’s franchise, located minutes from the Pentagon, had volunteered to make biscuits and McMuffins for the 3,000 folks there working the scene. It was truly amazing to see help pouring in from so many areas. We continued to set up the kitchen through the rest of the morning, and 100 yards away, the Pentagon continued to burn. Two tractor-trailers loaded with food arrived just before noon, and my task turned to menu management and inventory organization. Each time we work a disaster, we have to wait for the food trucks to arrive before we can make our menu. Most of the food is canned, which is more sanitary plus it can be stored in a non-refrigerated environment. Some of the food is frozen, and some is refrigerated. On a disaster, we usually have a variety of entrees to serve such as chicken and dumplings, stewed beef, chili, pot roast, and baked ham. We also
serve vegetables such as corn, green beans, field peas, and mashed potatoes. Plus we usually serve pudding or apple-sauce for dessert, and a roll, and tea or coffee to drink.
I quickly surveyed the two trucks to get an idea of what we had, and then I jotted down a menu that would get us through the first three or four days. Next I unloaded the items that we would serve for dinner that evening and then organized the two trucks so that we could easily locate items when we needed them in a hurry. Our unit was taking shape, and everyone was working hard to be able to serve that evening. By the middle of the afternoon, the hardest part was over for me. I had gotten the trucks organized, the evening meal was unloaded and being prepared, and I suddenly had little to do. A couple of us decided that we would walk closer to the building and survey the damage and rescue efforts as close as the security would let us. We did not realize at the time just what that would mean.
The police had set up a security perimeter at the street that runs completely around the building. Between the street and the Pentagon is about fifty yards of grass lawn, and this is where the numerous agencies were stationed and had set up makeshift command posts. Looking in that area was like looking into a bowl of alphabet soup. Local, state, and federal government agencies were all there. Most of them wear a simple shirt or jacket with the initials of their agency on them. We saw AFD, FBI, NTSB, NSA, ATF, APD, PPD, and USAF just to name a few. Plus, there were numerous military personnel wearing their fatigues. As we got closer to the security checkpoint, we noticed that the area had an unusual mood and that something very serious was about to take place. After asking around a few folks, we were told that President Bush and his top aides were about to make a trip to the Pentagon to view the damage and speak with the rescue workers on site.
We got as close as the Alexandria police let us, and we waited to see if we could get a glimpse of the President. Time moved slowly on as the streets began filling up with more police and secret service personnel. At one point, on a hill behind where we were standing, a van pulled up and ten officers wearing all black and carrying the biggest automatic weapons I have ever seen got out and slowly disappeared into the bushes and trees behind us. It was strange to think that this spot that had been so vulnerable just a day before had quickly become one of the safest places on earth. A few officers were on motorcycles right in front of us, and we could hear the chatter on their police radios. Just like in the movies, we heard dispatchers and officers speak in code about the President, his security, and his whereabouts.
President Bush finally arrived, and I was thrilled to see him so close. He was only about forty feet away from where we were standing at the barricade when he got out of his limousine. He walked with his entourage into the secure area of the building and met with rescue personnel and reporters only feet away from where the airplane had slammed into the building. While he was there, a group of fire-fighters unfurled a huge American flag off of the side of the building just to the side where the building had collapsed. It was a stirring moment for everyone there, and most people I saw were crying. President Bush was in the compound for about twenty minutes, and then he made his way back towards his limousine. As he was about to get in, he looked towards the barricade where we were standing. There were several military folks near us, and we were all waving and clapping for him. The President then proceeded to walk around his limousine and approach us all. I could not believe it. Here was the President of the United States walking over to this relatively insecure area to speak with some military personnel and some volunteers.
Just a day before, he had been a specified target of assassination, and then the next day, he was out in public speaking and shaking hands. He came over to where we were standing and spoke to the fatigue-clad army grunts, and he took a few pictures with them. Then, he walked right over to where my volunteer friends and I were standing. I shook his hand and told him "God bless you, Mr. President," and he said, "Thank You." As he made his way down the line, another Baptist volunteer was able to tell him a little bit about our group and our mission. He paused to thank us for being real "soldiers of compassion" and then slapped my friend Charlie on the back with the charm of a man from Texas. We were all very impressed that the President would go out of his way to see folks like us, especially considering the circumstances of the day. I also take great comfort in knowing that our nation is being led by what all signs point to a man of God who seeks His will in the decisions he makes.
Strangely, our time at the Pentagon was fairly easy and routine. We had a job to do, and we did it. At meals, sometimes we would sit next to some officials who were working inside the crash scene and get details of what they were seeing and doing. That was always interesting, and we would try to share in the expression of our emotions with each other too. The hot meals we served were a great opportunity to reach those who needed help and were hurting. They also allowed us to be an earpiece and mouthpiece of God during this time when so many were turning to the Heavenly Father for answers. I will never forget the people I met there, and I am grateful that God used me to touch others with His love in the middle of the tragedy.
We came home on Saturday night having left the unit in the care of the next team from North Carolina. We worked for three days and nights, and our time was done. I was sad to leave in one sense, but I was thankful to be heading home to see and be with family and friends. I will probably never be quite able to ex-plain everything I saw and felt there at the Pentagon for three days, but I do know that God called me to go, and I willingly answered His call. I am grateful to family back at home who picked up the slack for me which allowed me to be gone from work for three days. Mostly, I am thankful that we have a God who loves us and cares for us and has moved heaven and earth for us to know Him, and He promises us eternal peace if we call on His name and are saved by His grace. No tragedy on earth can ever separate us from His love.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 26 No 3
- Zerubbabel’s Commission
- Editor’s Note
- A Christmas Letter
- A Look at a Book
- God’s Standards Have Not Changed: British Fall Conference 1997
- Editorial…Our First Issue
- Free At Last!
- The Faith Process
- Why We Are Attacked
- The Missing Truth
- Nothing Short of a Miracle
- Our Financial Support
- Letters from Norman
- Thoughts on Abraham
- Not by might nor by power…
- Words to Live By