Dick Foth is an author and friend to many who served in Washington D.C. during the 9/11 attacks.
“Something terrible has happened in New York City!”
Those chilling words ended our Tuesday breakfast with a group of government and business friends in a stately old residence above the Potomac River in Washington D.C.
We got to a TV just as United Airlines Flight 175 out of Boston’s Logan Airport exploded through the South Tower of the World Trade Center. One terse sentence said it all: “The United States is under attack.”
It was September 11, 2001. 9/11.
As the towers became furnaces that turned steel beams to liquid and spewed noxious smoke up stairwells, some—trapped by burning jet fuel—leaped from windows. It is, for me, the most haunting memory of that wretched day.
For the hundreds who remained, fighting for air and exit from those fiery prisons in the sky, two kinds of calls went out:
“God, help me!” and “Honey, I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
That day and those calls changed how I heard Jesus.
Jesus had cried out like that when He, Himself, faced death. He cried to his Father, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
We know what He said and to whom. The question is, “Why that reflex?” A question posed to Jesus by a lawyer along the way explains it:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 NIV
I have always understood those words as the Great Commandment. But, on 9/11 I saw it as the Grand Design.
The biblical notion of loving your neighbor as yourself implies that your neighbor is the one “right there.” You know. The one you can call. Or see. Or touch. Or the one you meet on a jammed stairwell soaked in fear. No judgments. No one debating ethics or religion on that day. No one questioning motive or family tree. For the rest of their years, the survivors will remember a face, a touch, a phrase. “Come over here! Take my hand! I’ve got you! Let’s go this way! God help us.”
For me, the events of 9/11 took me straight to my friends. Once I knew that my wife Ruth was safe and we were together, I had one thought: “Where are my friends in the government who have responsibilities to respond to this attack?”
Although we had many friends throughout the city, three of them, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark, and retired Lieutenant General Mick Kicklighter at the Veterans’ Administration all had huge responsibilities.
Vern was in the Pentagon, just a few hundred feet from the point of impact. He lost 42 of his best and brightest in the Naval Intelligence Unit in a few minutes. He called me that evening.
John was flying to Milwaukee. His Justice Department plane landed, refueled, and immediately flew back to Washington. We didn’t connect until the next night.
Mick was tasked with executing the emergency plan the Veterans’ Administration has in place in the event of a nuclear attack. They have access to huge stockpiles of medicines, medical personnel and hospitals. I didn’t find out where he was for nine days.
I cannot adequately describe the relief to know that my friends were safe. It was good. It was right. It was the Grand Design.
Here’s a question for you. Who are the people “right there,” whom you can see, call, or touch? What would it look like to love them as yourself today?