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'Look out your window': Seamen's Church Institute swings into prayer, action

By Debra Wagner
[Episcopal News Service]  The staff at Seamen's Church Institute [SCI] starts work at 8:30 a.m., and we were discussing our Pilot Boat dinner cruise scheduled for the evening. Henry Enright, director of development, Jennifer Edmondson, event coordinator, and myself were talking about the guest list when we heard a loud boom.

'Must be a truck hitting the road hard,' said Henry. We never took our eyes off the guest list even though the south tower of the World Trade Center looms out our 4th floor window. I returned to my office and started to check email. 'Look out your window, Deb,' said Jennifer. 'The World Trade Center is on fire.'

Within minutes the SCI staff was looking out the 4th floor window, watching the flames leap out the windows from several floors.

Someone shouted, 'A plane hit the World Trade Center.' We stared in shock as we watched the fire burn out of control. We felt helpless as we saw people falling to their knees on the sidewalk outside our building, crying, writhing, calling out names of friends and loved ones. The phones started ringing off the hook. Our executive director, the Rev. Peter Larom, had arrived at Islip airport in Long Island and was trying to make his way in. Two SCI employees had called in from the Brooklyn Battery tunnel in a rented van they were bringing in for the dinner cruise. We did a head count and tried to find the missing people.

People were walking in a stunned daze as we watched the debris begin to fly from the building. Then we saw the mushroom clouds of fire from the second plane hitting the South tower. Many people cried. Some were shaking.

We decided to hold a Morning Prayer service. Our response would begin with prayer. The entire SCI staff gathered and we read a service for peace. As the service ended we went back to answering calls, letting loved ones know that we were alive. Streams of people began leaving the area on Pearl Street outside our building.

A few people came to our door and asked to use the telephone. One woman came in sobbing, 'My God, they are jumping out the windows.'

I held the son of one of the SCI employees who was in the Battery tunnel and whose girlfriend worked in the building next door. We went to the chapel to pray.

We felt relatively safe even though the sirens roared and emergency vehicles raced down the street in front of SCI. We had water, telephone and internet service, and air conditioning. We decided to stay open.

I watched out my window as the first building collapsed in with a loud rumble. It was only then that the people on the street started to run and panic could be seen on everyone's faces. The sky grew grayish white as a snow-like dust began to fall. The building staff turned off the air conditioning so that the dust would not get in the air system. We still had telephone and internet access. We had electricity. We decided it was safer to stay in our building.

The width of Pearl Street was covered with a steady stream of people leaving the area. The wife of our cafeteria cook came in covered in dust and ran to her husband. The second building collapsed and sent a new wave of people covered in dust.

By lunch, Canon Larom arrived at SCI. He left his car in Astoria and against the crowds going the opposite direction, he walked across Queens to Williamsburg bridge and walked downtown. He gathered the SCI staff in the chapel and we talked about our response. We would offer office space to the Port Authority as we had during the last terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and we would open SCI as a canteen for emergency workers.

Some staff members began to set up the cafeteria to give away the food and drink that we had on hand. We could not get through to the Red Cross or police so we decided to make flyers and hand them out to rescue workers. Episcopal churches were notified that we needed donations of water, soda, and volunteers.

A team of volunteers took flyers and went off in different directions to hand out flyers. Within minutes, the first wave of rescue workers came in.

They washed the dust and grime from their hands and sat down, some for the first time that day. We listened as they told about losing fellow fire fighters, and police officers. They spoke of carnage. We listened. We prayed. We served them drinks and whatever food we could find.

We finally heard from the two missing SCI employees. They heard noises in the Brooklyn Battery tunnel and the lights went out. The leapt out of the van and ran back to Brooklyn. They were safe. As I was leaving the skeletal night crew, Peter Ng, his wife, and the senior warden of the Church of Our Savior came in to help. They carried soda, water and other snack foods.

It took me over an hour to walk through the police lines and up to 20th Street. Radios and television carried the latest news to the streets. A graffiti artist on the Lower East Side had already created a mural covering the side of a building with the twin towers in flames.

City officials asked SCI to shelter three families from a building that was being evacuated. The electricity went off and SCI was lit by candles. The Pascal candle from the chapel lit the front lobby. Canon Larom led prayers and the first night began to pass.