There is one lesson about that terrible day above all else.
Posted in , Sep 7, 2021
Recently I’ve been doing media interviews making people aware of our incredible 20th anniversary collection of 9/11 stories, which you can find here.
Invariably interviewers ask what I remember most about that day in New York City. So much, of course, that in a way I’m still processing it years later. I remember the phone on my desk ringing right after the towers were struck and thinking it might be my wife Julee up in the Berkshires with the dogs, or my sister, Mary Lou, back in Michigan, or our Carmel, New York, headquarters 60 miles upstate checking on the Manhattan-based staff. But it was a woman I didn’t know from Kansas, and she said, “I’m seeing all these terrible things on TV, and I just wanted to know if everyone at Guideposts was all right. I’m praying for you.”
I don’t think many magazine editors in this city got a similar call. But they don’t have the kind of readers we do. That call was a pinprick of light in a darkening day.
We’d just put December Guideposts to bed, an inspiring, upbeat, holiday issue as you would expect. We had Christopher Radko, the ornament designer, on the cover and were about to ship it to the printer when the terrorists struck that morning. We knew immediately we could not publish that issue of Guideposts as is. It would seem as if we were publishing from another planet.
We started gathering stories almost immediately, with editors going out into the streets and interviewing people, looking for Guideposts stories, looking for whatever good, whatever hope could be found in a city in shock and mourning. Nearly 3,000 people dead, including hundreds of first responders. It was too much to bear. Yet there was good. There was selflessness and courage and resilience and compassion. People coming together. There was God at work even amidst unspeakable tragedy.
In the years since we have continued to gather stories of that infamous day, including one in our current issue about the heroes on Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before it could reach its target in D.C. While 20 years is indeed a kind of milestone, for those of us in New York who lived through that day, each year is its own distinct anniversary. We will never forget.
I remember gazing in disbelief from our midtown office windows at the twin spires of smoke bleeding into the flawless sky 60 blocks downtown, a 10-minute subway ride. They mimicked the numerals of the day’s date in a kind of ungodly symmetry. One of our editors, a volunteer EMT who was a member of the city’s emergency response team, left immediately. We didn’t see her again for two weeks.
Eventually, after the collapse, I went down to the street and stood along Madison Avenue watching the stunned, ash-covered procession staggering uptown fleeing the smoke and fire and debris, some still clutching their battered briefcases. All they did that day was go to work. Deli employees were handing out bottled water. We were all praying as sirens wailed above the city.
New Yorkers are accustomed to sirens, even inured to them, but all morning I heard them racing downtown, the overlapping doppler effect coming in waves. It was the soundtrack to that day. And it haunts me still to think how many men and women in those screaming vehicles racing to danger would not come back.
But what I remember most about that week is Monday, September 10th. It was an impeccable late-summer day like its twin to follow. We started the week with Prayer Fellowship, a 50-year tradition at Guideposts where we respond to readers’ requests for prayer. Later I took an editor out for a birthday lunch, and we bemoaned the fact that the restaurant had run out of our favorite dish, as if that was all we could possibly object to on such a perfect, consummately innocent day.
Later I made plane reservations for a business trip the next week, not imagining that we would soon never see commercial airliners and air travel itself in the same light. I picked up dinner on the way home—probably pizza—and called Julee and the dogs rusticating in the Berkshires (yes, I talk to my dogs on the phone). I caught the last half of Monday Night Football, Giants versus the Broncos. Then I went to bed. It could not have been a day that I had less to worry about. It could not have been a day that I could have conceivably imagined would cleave history and that the world—and all our lives—were about to change forever.
We are not given knowledge of the future. I could not have known that night that in less than 12 hours nothing would ever be the same again, apart from one thing: the eternal presence of a loving God. I do not ask why He didn’t stop the planes or hold up the towers. I only know that the one certainty about the future that I am allowed to know is that God will be waiting to comfort us, to reassure us, to strengthen us and to lead us forward. For me, that is the lesson of September 11thabove all else.
Our stories about that day 20 years ago are convincing proof that God is always present even when it seems as if evil has prevailed. I urge you to visit our powerful and uplifting September 11th content—stories, videos, slide shows. And do let me know what you remember about September 11, 2001, by emailing me here.