Waking Up on 9/11 by Christina Ray Stanton

Waking Up on 9/11

The loud roar of an airplane interrupted my thoughts as I walked down Madison Avenue. I glanced up into the tranquil blue sky above, but surrounded by the tall buildings, I couldn't locate the plane. My heart pounding, I ran for cover, sprinting down the sidewalk and ducking under the awning of a nearby office building. I hugged the concrete wall as the jet screamed overhead, and slowly faded away to the west. I realized I was shaking. Cautiously, I stepped back out onto the sidewalk, and looked up. No sign of the plane, only a wisp of a white tail in its wake. Relief flooded through me.

It's been over a month since the attacks; I can't keep freaking out every time a plane flies overhead. Get yourself together, Christina! That was probably a military jet monitoring the airspace over Manhattan.

I sheepishly resumed my walk through midtown, toward the offices of Redeemer Presbyterian. My feet felt heavy and slow. I began regretting my mission.

I can't believe I let my friend Michelle talk me into this. Why did I agree to go to some random church to ask for money from a 9/11 Victim Fund? Yes, Brian and I have been struggling since the attacks—but this is so embarrassing! I've never had to ask any organization for help. And here I am asking a church . . . when I haven't had much of a relationship with God since high school.

With my eyes still darting apprehensively into the skies, I finally reached the front entrance to the nondescript building. I willed myself up to the 16th-floor lobby, and the receptionist pointed to an empty room. "Please wait in there. Someone will be in to see you shortly," he said.

As I got situated in the small, windowless room, two women entered, shutting the door behind them. "Hello, I'm Andrea, the Diaconate director here at Redeemer, and this is my assistant, Honya."

"Hello, thanks for meeting with me," I said as they sat down in the two chairs opposite mine. A bottle of water and a box of tissues sat on a small coffee table next to my chair.

"The water is for you if you need it," Honya offered in a low, soft tone.

Andrea asked gently, "Please tell us, where were you on September 11, 2001?"

The Attack

On the morning of September 11, Brian shook me awake. "Get up! Get up!" he yelled, "Someone's bombed the World Trade Center!"

I struggled to sit up in bed, wondering what time it was. I blinked at the clock. It was 8:47 a.m. One glimpse of the fear in my husband's eyes jolted me fully awake.

I jumped out of bed and followed him out to our terrace on the 24th floor. Brian and I had just moved into this apartment, with a coveted view of the city, just six blocks south from the World Trade Center complex. Now thick black smoke was rolling out from the North Tower.

"Let's turn on the TV," I said, while hurrying back inside.

I clicked it on, in time to hear the newscaster say, "Breaking news; it appears a plane has hit one of the Twin Towers."

"So, it wasn't a bomb," Brian said. "It was a small plane. How the heck did a plane fly into the tower?"

We raced back out to the terrace where we had a bird's-eye view. The tower was still burning. Emergency vehicles raced down the West Side Highway toward the World Trade Center—lights flashing, sirens blaring. It's almost 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, I thought. Thousands of people are already at work.

Suddenly, something caught my eye. Looking up over my right shoulder, I saw a plane flying low . . . too low. With a thunderous, deafening roar, the jet swooped like a hawk between the buildings and banked to the left until its wings were at about 8:00 and 2:00 o'clock.

We felt, rather than saw, the impact. One moment we were standing on the terrace, and the next we were lying on our backs in the middle of the living room floor.

I shook my head and realized that Brian was speaking to me. I could hear his voice, but my ears were ringing, and his words were distant. "Let's get out of here—hurry!"

I was still wearing my nightgown, but there was no time to waste. Upon reaching the hallway I froze, remembering the rule never to take elevators in an emergency. "Let's take the stairs," I yelled.

Voices echoed in the staircase as we raced down 24 flights to the street, with Brian carrying Gabriel, our 40-pound Boston terrier. Outside, hundreds of people filled the streets, racing away from the burning buildings. Men wearing suits and ties rushed by. Women had on blazers and skirts, many in their stocking feet. Paper and scraps floated through the air. We joined the crowds and crossed the West Side Highway, dodging the firetrucks screaming towards the towers. With the towers to the north of us, there was only one way out—Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan.

At the edge of the park, I felt a sense of relief; surely the worst was over. We stood gasping for breath and turned around. The top halves of both towers were engulfed in black cloud, smoke rising a quarter-mile into the bright blue sky. Oh Lord, those poor people, those poor people.

Voices from the panicked crowd floated around us. "This was a terrorist attack!" "More planes could be in the air!"

Am I still asleep? Is this a nightmare? I stared at the Statue of Liberty, praying that I wouldn't see a plane crash into it.

Suddenly, the ground began to shake violently, and I heard a rumble like a freight train. "Brian, a tower is coming down!"

A communal scream rose from the park. I froze in terror as a mass of something hit me in the face. It felt like someone had thrown a bucket of sticky sand over me; gunk filled my nose and mouth, covered my pajamas, and coated every pore of unprotected skin.

I opened my eyes slowly, trying to protect them from whatever was on my eyelids. Brian hadn't moved, but he looked completely different—like an upright mummy.

It looks like we're on the moon!

"What is this? Where'd it come from?" I sputtered, spitting out gunk.

"I think it's the tower," Brian said.

Another shriek from the crowd. The wind had changed direction and was blowing thick clouds of smoke into Battery Park, threatening to asphyxiate us. Pandemonium ensued as people rushed to escape this new threat. We ran too, and took cover by an old fort.

We hugged its stone wall, trying to catch our breath. Gabriel flopped on the ground, exhausted.

We turned toward each other. "Brian, is this it? Are we going to die?"

He hesitated, then looked me in the eye. "I don't know . . . maybe," he said. He took my hands in his and began praying the Lord's Prayer "Our Father, who art in heaven . . ."

God, is this the end? I've always known you were there, waiting for me, and yet I've spent lots of my life without you. If I make it through this, I swear that's all going to change. I'm so sorry. Give me a second chance, Lord!

Before I could formulate another word, a dust-caked man appeared, yelling and waving his arms. "The second building is coming down! Run to the river!"

We ran to the bank of the Hudson, with moments to spare. The second tower collapsed with another thunderous roar. Surrounded by smoke, the burning ruins of the towers, and the Hudson River, I sank to the ground by the river walkway. "We're trapped, Brian. We're
really trapped."

Crowds of people had gathered near us, looking for a way off the island. Finally, I saw an outline of a boat approaching us, a large white commuter ferry with the words New York Waterway painted on its side. The boat came alongside the seawall and ropes were flung over the railing. When it was our turn to climb aboard, my husband approached a dockhand and asked, "Where is this boat going?"

"Paulus Hook. New Joisey." Without hesitation, we jumped in.

As the ferry pulled into the river's current, I watched my city burn.

The Gift

"You took a boat to New Jersey?" Andrea asked, bringing me back to the present.

"Yes," I said. "Police won't let us back home to our apartment, so we don't have a place to live or a way to pay rent. Brian's job prospects have dried up, and I lost my job in tourism, there's no tourists coming into the city . . ."

Honya and Andrea looked at each other. "Wait in the lobby just a moment, please," Honya said before she and Andrea left the room. Five minutes passed before they met me in the hallway, where Honya placed a business-sized white envelope in my hand.

"I'm so sorry this happened to you. Have a good day, and we hope you stay well," she said with an encouraging smile.

I stared at the envelope in my hands. "Thank you, ladies!" I said goodbye and stepped into the elevator. My hands shaking, I opened the envelope to reveal a hand-written check. I slid it back inside and walked toward the subway in a daze. Wow—it's a lot. It'll really help us out. Tears filled my eyes at the compassion and generosity that total strangers had just shown me. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for this check, this blessing. This is a sign—I know you're taking care of us. And I meant what I said—no more doing life without you.

A New Direction

For twenty years, that check was the gift that kept on giving. It not only gave us funds we desperately needed, but it gave us hope. We eventually returned to our apartment downtown, and I got my job back. A month after the attack, we attended a church service at Redeemer. It was there we found a spiritual home that pointed the way for a new life in Christ. As a result, our lives took on a whole new direction.

September 11th will mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks on America. I'm not the same person I was twenty years ago; all our current endeavors and blessings are a direct result of experiencing God when he met us at our lowest point, when I prayed in the shadow of those fortress walls.

I have never forgotten the vow I made to God on that fateful September day. He did give me a second chance. And I will never forget. We will never forget. 

Christina Ray Stanton was the director of Missions at Redeemer Presbyterian Church for a decade, and her husband Brian is Redeemer’s long-time CFO. A professional speaker and award winning author (www.christinaraystanton.com), she is also a licensed NYC tour guide who specializes in 9/11 history. Christina and Brian are the founders of the non-profit Loving All Nations (www.lovingallnations.org).

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