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Episcopalians respond to terrorist attacks in New York, Washington

By James Solheim and Jan Nunley
2001-251
9/14/2001
[Episcopal News Service]  In the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on September 11, the Episcopal Church Center in New York was flooded with expressions of shock and offers of prayers from around the world.

Many wanted to know if the center itself, located in midtown Manhattan near the United Nations, or any of city's Episcopal churches had been affected. While staff members were badly shaken, the center is several miles from the disaster.

Trinity Parish on Wall Street, however, is just around the corner from the Trade Center. The parish's director of communications, John Allen, was arriving at work when he heard what he assumed was a military jet, followed by a tremendous thump. Allen ran into the office building and witnessed a rain of paper and floating debris filling the churchyard.

After calming down the children gathered for school, staffers shepherded them to the end of Manhattan Island, where they escaped by ferry to Staten Island or special buses up the east side of Manhattan.

In St. Paul's Chapel, across the street from the WTC, lights flickered and went out and people ducked under the pews as the granite building shook. Those who had gathered for services waited and wondered what was going on. As the dust and smoke diminished, 15 or so people stumbled out into the streets, now covered with ash, and sought safety.

A disaster film

The Rev. Douglas Brown, prior of Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York, was part of a crew filming at Trinity Broadcasting when he saw the shower of paper from the attack on the first tower descend to the street. The second plane hit a tower much closer to Trinity and 'the sound was unearthly,' Brown reported. Watching CNN, the participants at the filming also learned about a similar attack on the Pentagon and 'it began to be a little apocalyptic.'

When the twin towers collapsed, Trinity staffers moved into the stairwells, using masks to breathe as the wind shifted toward Trinity. Though it was snowing ash and debris, the building emptied and staffers ran down to the Staten Island Ferry to escape the island or moved north to safety. When Brown arrived at the General Seminary, he looked downtown and saw both towers missing.

Archbishop Rowan Williams of Wales, who was part of the videotaping session, said 'it felt horribly like being in a disaster movie, with all the film cliches of people crowding into narrow streets in a dreadful, thick dust that blotted everything out.' In a breakfast meeting with Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, Williams said that they agreed that blind retaliation and revenge would be misguided. He said that he was even 'grateful for the sense of having been permitted to see a little of what it is like to live under bombardment and fear every day of one's life.... This is what it is like to live in Jerusalem and Baghdad every day.'

The Rev. Lloyd Prator, of St. John's in Greenwich Village, was walking down Seventh Avenue when he looked up and saw the towers wreathed in smoke. He went back to the rectory to change into clerical attire and opened the church, knowing that St. Vincent's Hospital, a block away, would be deluged with victims and their worried families. 'The rest of the day I stayed on the street, meeting ambulances, blessing the sick, commending the dying, and talking to people who waited,' Prator said. Fewer and fewer ambulances arrived, meaning that there were not many survivors.

Nightmarish snowstorm

Andy Stauffer, a former staffer at the Church Center, was working at Morgan Stanley on the 44th floor of the WTC's south tower when 'I heard a thud and my boss said that a plane had hit the neighboring tower. He told us to get out, so we went down the stairs. Someone on the public address said that our tower was secure and that we could return to our offices, but we just chuckled and kept on moving.'

When Stauffer and his colleagues got to the concourse level, looking for an exit, the second plane hit their building. 'There was mayhem and the strong smell of fuel. The screaming was incredible,' he said. He found an exit, jumped on the subway and miraculously walked away unscathed. But it gives him a chill when he watches the video, realizing that he was on the ground floor when the jet struck. 'Everybody with me that day got out.'

The next day, Kelley Lackey, a student at General Seminary, rode his bike to within a few blocks of the North Tower 'where I found myself kicking around in the thick white dust that was still falling from the sky like some sort of nightmarish snowstorm.' Offering to volunteer, he was sent as a chaplain to the Chelsea Piers where clergy were waiting to deal with families, volunteers and the wounded. 'I witnessed countless acts of love and compassion,' he said in a reflection.

The Rev. Bud Holland, coordinator for ministry development, and the Rev. Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries, also went from their desks at the Church Center to offer their services and found what Holland described as 'a very compassionate environment.' He said that it gave him 'a lot of hope to see the persistence of life and the wonderful expressions of caring.

SCI moves into action

Although it was not damaged, Seamen's Church Institute (SCI), located nearby on Water Street, quickly organized to support volunteers, police and fire department personnel responding to the disaster, just as they had during the 1993 bombing at the WTC.

Deborah Wagner, director of communication, was at a staff meeting when she heard a loud boom. Within minutes she and other staffers watched as flames engulfed the first tower. 'We stared in shock and 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,' she said. '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.' Panic erupted when the towers collapsed. 'We decided it was safer to stay in our building.

SCI director Peter Larom walked across the bridge from Queens to meet with the staff and determine a response. Calling on help from Episcopal churches in the city, SCI mobilized a group of volunteers and decided to stay open 24 hours a day, even without electricity. Wagner said that the response has been fantastic.

International response

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold immediately issued a statement urging a calm and well-considered response to the attacks. 'Yes, those responsible must be found and punished for their evil and disregard for human life,' he wrote, 'but through the heart of this violence we are called to another way.'

The worldwide Anglican family responded quickly. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said that he was 'appalled to learn of the terrible tragedies.' Calling for prayer, he said that 'this is a time of shock and deep distress.' In a personal note to the Diocese of New York, Carey said that, while 'deep and profound grief is a natural part of a spiritual life,' we must also stress that 'this emotion must be directed in a search for justice, and not for revenge.'

He was joined by other church leaders, including:

*Bishop Riah Abu al-Assal of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, who said that he found himself 'unable to comprehend or even to begin to understand the horrors of this divided and broken world.'

*Archbishop Michael Peers of the Anglican Church of Canada, who said: 'While it is too early to understand with any certainty what lies behind these events, we can be certain that God meets us in prayer, and shares in both our horror and our hope.'

*Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo, who wrote that Christians in Uganda 'stand shoulder to shoulder with your people as they grieve and struggle to come to terms with the terrible tragedy which has befallen your country and the whole world. We are crying out for justice; we are praying for America and for world peace.'

*Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Southern Africa, who said, 'We need to pray that the American leadership is granted wisdom to deal with this horrific situation.'

Prayers for peace and tolerance

Most diocesan bishops asked their congregations to open their doors to all, pray for peace and urge caution in assigning blame for the attacks.

'What we witnessed and felt through catastrophically destructive acts was that which others around the globe have long lived with on a daily basis: the raw, naked display of the empty powers of evil enslaving the heads, hearts and hands of those who are thereby given to ideological fundamentalism, apocalypticism, gnosticism, and sectarianism,' wrote Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison, Jr. 'It is important to recognize that we too can be in the thrall of these evil powers. We can fall into thinking that we alone possess the truth and others are wrong.

'Or we can pray to God for the grace to see the world comprehensively, to be satisfied with less than final answers, to be willing to follow wherever life's questions lead, to live into the full mystery of life, trusting in Christ alone to guide us. ...Whatever happens, God reigns.'

'We have as a nation been deeply wounded. And while those responsible for this violence must be punished for this evil and their wanton disregard for the dignity of human life, our greater calling is to cast out the darkness not with more darkness, but with light,' Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina wrote. 'Let us, therefore, resolve as a nation to rise to the nobility of our national calling, to be a people whose greatness is found in goodness.'

Strong sense of one family

In addition to statements issued by bishops, messages of support and prayer for victims of the attacks poured into the Episcopal Church Center from Episcopalians in dioceses across the country. 'Evil and death are not to have the last word!' wrote Caroline Westerhoff of Atlanta, expressing the sentiments of many.

'In Rhode Island, we are identifying parishioners who will go shopping with or for some of our Muslim neighbors who are being threatened. Anger and fear often meet at these times, don't they,' wrote the Rev. Ran Chase from Providence, Rhode Island.

The Rev. John McCann in West Missouri commented, 'My son is a paramedic in Oklahoma City, so I am keenly aware of the dedication of all who labor now to help and save others.'

'My daughter lives in Brooklyn (she attends NYU) and can look across to lower Manhattan,' wrote the Rev. Gay Jennings from Ohio. 'She said the sight is the worst thing she has ever seen. We are dealing with grief in our office. The sister of one of our employees was on the flight that went into the Pentagon. Too much sadness at one time.'

'I was already scheduled to preach and preside at the 12:30 Eucharist at Bexley Hall on Tuesday,' the Rev. Barbara Price reported from Rochester. 'Many non-Episcopalians from the seminary community joined us. We had some young people walk into Bexley in the afternoon, looking for someone, anyone, to talk to to help them 'think through what we're seeing on TV from a spiritual perspective.' ... This is truly an American tragedy--there is a strong sense of being one family. May God grant us the grace to see our Muslim brothers and sisters as part of our American family, too.'