It’s only a couple of months into the new publishing year, but I’ve already had the privilege of working on a number fascinating new Cascade titles. Today, with permission of the author, Charles H. Featherstone, I’m sharing an excerpt from Chapter 13 of Featherstone’s extraordinary memoir, The Love that Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Fear.
I blogged about how I discovered Charles’s journey through childhood abuse to becoming Muslim to Christian conversion here, and about Rod Dreher’s reaction to the book that he was instrumental in bringing to us here. Dreher describes the work as “an American spiritual classic“ and offers this thought about the contemporary relevance of Charles’s journey: “It strikes me that a true story about how religion channeled anger, and how it delivered someone from that anger, has special meaning in this moment.” For more on Charles’s life and work, check out his active website.
That Beautiful Tuesday
The morning of September 11, 2001, began as most mornings did: the radio went off at 6 a.m., and I lounged in bed, somewhere between consciousness and sleep, until about 6:30.
I love lying in bed in the mornings listening to the radio in that in-between state. Because I love that in-between state, not quite asleep but not quite awake. My wife hates it. She hates getting up in the mornings, and she always grumbles when the radio goes off and she’s forced to wake up. What typically woke me in the morning was the BBC World Service on the shortwave. But that summer, the BBC had finally abandoned its last English-language service to North America, and the Caribbean signal I could occasionally leech off of was only really good for about fifteen minutes.
Especially this close to the World Trade Center. The twin towers were murder on shortwave reception, scrambling frequencies and showering much of the shortwave spectrum with noise.
So, I’d learned to settle with National Public Radio. I wasn’t happy about that—I missed World Service—but it’s what there was.
I showered, made coffee and had breakfast. I thought about getting Jennifer out of bed. After all, a group of us from BridgeNews were planning an outing to A Salt & Battery Fish and Chips in Greenwich Village for lunch. But she looked so sweet sleeping there, and she always got so cranky when I woke her up.
So I let her sleep. It would have been nice to have coffee and breakfast together at American Express, or at one of the many cafes in the World Financial Center, but it wasn’t necessary.
I put on a pair of khaki shorts, a striped blue T-shirt, and my sandals, and grabbed my backpack. I had a few books in there, as well as my shortwave radio. Since I’d been at San Francisco State, I almost always took a shortwave radio with me everywhere I went.
“Little one,” I said, using my favorite nickname for Jennifer. “Remember we have a lunch outing today. So, go ahead and come over whenever you want. Just lie in bed for now.”
“Okay,” she mumbled drowsily.
I took the elevator down from our 26th floor apartment—we were still in the Bridge corporate flat in Jersey City—and walked out the front door. It was beautiful that morning, and the sun was just beginning to inch above the skyline of lower Manhattan. The sky was clear blue, a blue I remembered from winter mornings in Southern California.
PATH train or ferry this morning? Oh, it was too beautiful to take the train under the Hudson. This morning was clearly a ferry morning. I walked the short walk, about five minutes, from our apartment to the ferry slip, handed in my ticket, and got on the next boat across the Hudson.
The blue of the sky, the brightness of the sun, all struck me intensely. I stood on the bow of the ferry, pressed myself up against the railing, and felt the spray of the river on my toes and ankles. And the warm breeze in my hair. Trying to take it all in.
“The world is so beautiful today,” I thought. “What an amazing, strange and wonderful life I’ve had.”
I looked at the Manhattan skyline. The rising sun had come up behind the South Tower. The World Trade Center did something that morning I’d only ever seen mountains do before—the shadow it cast was visible in the air. I looked up and saw that shadow cut through sky above me. Like that shadow was actually a thing you could touch, something you could grasp and hold in your hands.
Sunrise over Lower Manhattan was almost always spectacular, especially on cloudless mornings like this one. And sunset, especially as the setting sun was reflected in pinks, oranges, yellows and reds in all the steel, glass, polished granite, and burnished aluminum of Lower Manhattan, was very nearly always a thing to behold.
I inhaled. And exhaled. I thought of the fact that Jennifer and I would soon have to leave.
“Remember this sight always,” I thought. “It will not be with you much longer.”
The ferry docked. I walked past the New York Mercantile Exchange, into the Winter Garden, up an escalator, swiped my ID badge, and took an elevator to the 28th floor of Three World Financial Center. The last week of Bridge. I went to work early, out of habit. Because my one and only story was an early morning story. And, well, just because.
I walked through the maze of cubicles, saying hello as I went. Deborah Kinirons was there. Deb was young, only a couple of years out of college, a graduate of one of the SUNY schools, and she’d been hired as our frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ) correspondent. I’d worked with her on a Brazil orange production story once when I was in Washington. FCOJ is where Bridge tended to start commodity reporters who were brand new, and it’s where the New York Board of Trade also tended to start traders. It’s a fairly simple and stable market, not prone to wild fluctuations.
The key to Three World Financial Center. Note that I’m not wearing a T-shirt in this photo.
My heart would often skip a beat when I looked at Deb. She’d smile and, for a brief moment, I’d see Lauren. When she spoke, though, it was all Long Island.
And Scott Reeves was there too. Scott was a hard-bitten old-timer, a reporter from the days of Underwood typewriters and ever-present Scotch bottles. He’d started his career with the Associated Press in Mississippi, then graduated to covering California government for The Sacramento Bee in the 1970s and 1980s. He’d become somewhat notorious after showing up drunk to a press conference—and asking questions—of then-Governor Jerry Brown. He gave up drinking completely not long after.
Scott was opinionated, irascible, and absolutely wonderful to be around. He covered initial public offerings for BridgeNews and had a stuffed cloth doll of Hillary Clinton he kept at his desk. So he could stick pins in her.
He was that kind of conservative.
I sat down at my cubicle and turned on my computer. I made a note of the things I needed to do this week before Bridge was done. Mostly, I needed to grab copies of all my stories off my computer before I left so that I’d have samples of my work. I’d kept some, but I didn’t have a full archive. And I wanted one.
I browsed my e-mail. Nothing new there. I went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website and opened the template for the power plant story, preparing to do my one and only thing for the day.
That’s when we heard it.
It’s a hard noise to describe, a kind of muffled, oscillating whoosh. It went in and out, going from silent to loud, like very slow helicopter blades or something. And it got louder. Whooosh! Whoosh! WHOOSH!
Then there was a very loud grinding sound.
Heads popped up from behind cubicle barriers.
“What the hell was that?” somebody asked.
I turned around to the side of the building that faced the World Trade Center, where the noise had clearly come from. Suddenly, burning debris fell just outside our office windows: giant chunks of steel, huge twisted pieces of metal. They weren’t identifiable as anything.
Between the noise and the shape of some of the debris, I thought at first a helicopter had hit the North Tower. Several reporters who sat at window desks and had seen the whole thing happen were at a loss for words to describe it.
The best view was in our corner conference room, which overlooked the intersection of West and Vesey streets and had a full view of the World Trade Center. I wandered over to the conference room and saw a giant hole on the north face of One World Trade Center. Whatever had hit the building, it had gone clear though.
I looked down. On the ground, thirty floors below us, shards of glass and bits of metal sparkled in the early morning sun. The city began to fill with the sound of sirens.
What about Jennifer? She might have gotten out of bed, might be on a PATH train or somewhere under the World Trade Center. I grabbed my cell phone and punched her speed dial number.
Nothing. The phone was dead.
Then I remembered: that antenna on the top of the north tower. That’s not just TV and radio for much of New York. It’s also cell phone service. My phone didn’t work.
Which meant Jennifer’s likely wouldn’t either. And I didn’t remember the land line number at the corporate apartment.
So, I had no way of getting ahold of Jennifer. For some reason, though, I wasn’t worried. I don’t know why.
It was not even six in the morning in California, but I called my mother.
“Hello?” she said sleepily. I had woken her up.
“Mom, you probably haven’t seen this yet, but something has happened here in New York. We think an airplane has crashed into the one of the World Trade Center towers. I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.”
“Mmmph, okay,” she said, still not entirely awake.
Scott and Deborah joined me in the conference room. We stared up at the giant hole in the building, sixty floors above us. It belched fire, smoke, and great billows of paper.
“Well, they finally did it,” Scott said. As much as I liked and admired Scott, he had a dismal opinion of Islam and Muslims. We would spar on this subject occasionally, and while I was never entirely sure how far I could take the sparring, he always seemed to enjoy it.
It didn’t seem to lower his opinion of me.
“I hope not,” I said. And I did hope that.
In fact, for those twenty minutes we gawked at that hole, I hoped and prayed fervently that this was just an accident.
“Attention!” The rarely used PA system crackled to life. “This is American Express management. A plane appears to have crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. There is no cause for alarm, and there is no need to evacuate the building. We ask all employees to remain calm, and we will keep everyone updated on the situation. Thank you.”
Ambulances and fire trucks gathered on the ground below. They were everywhere, red lights flashing in the cool shadows of Lower Manhattan’s deep canyons.
We gawked. We stared. We talked. We tried to make sense of it all. And then we heard it: a roar that came out of nowhere, the roar of a second plane. There it was, a United Airlines jetliner in blue and gray, not far above us. The plane banked, and I could see the sunlight stream through its windows and glint off its shiny metal skin.
The roar got fiercer, as if in that very last moment the pilot was gunning the engines. And then the plane simply disappeared, vanished in fire and smoke as it crashed into and through the southwest corner of the South Tower. Tongues of fire blew through the building.
And that sound. I will never forget that sound—that horrific snap of metal, that shattering of glass. I felt it as much as I heard it.
I turned around. There was a look of stunned horror on Deb’s face. There was no mistaking what we’d just seen.
No one waited for American Express to give the evacuation order. Everyone who, just a moment before, had been gawking at the great big hole in the North Tower moved en masse to the center of the building. To leave as fast as we could. I went to my desk, grabbed my backpack, and made my way to the elevators.
“Don’t take the elevators!” yelled the same Bridge editor who’d told me not to be envious of the new hires at American Express. “We’re in the next tallest building, and if there’s another plane coming, we’re the most likely target! Take the stairs! Everyone take the stairs!”
Another plane. That possibility had to be taken seriously.
The stairway was crammed with people but everyone was moving quickly. I want to say that people helped those who couldn’t move fast, and I think there was some of that. But it was really everyone for themselves
And so I ran down twenty-eight flights of stairs. As fast as I possibly could. It was surprisingly easy, and I don’t remember having to stop or even getting winded.
On the third floor, I knew an alternate way to get to the entrance, one far less crowded that went through American Express’s cafeteria. So I took it.
Once I’d left the building, I found myself on the corner of Vesey and West streets. It was chaos. A panicked FDNY captain was directing everyone to go west, to the retaining wall along the Hudson River, and then walk north. I had to get to a ferry, to get to New Jersey, to Jennifer.
As I walked quickly toward the ferry slip, I noticed that the FDNY had set up an ad-hoc triage and treatment station in the space between Three and Four World Financial Center. I saw a man sitting, propped up against the granite wall, covered in blood and holding a bandage or towel or something to his head. He was dressed in what looked like a white chef’s shirt and black slacks or jeans. There wasn’t much blood on the cloth he was holding, and I looked at the way the blood covered his shirt.
The blood covering him was not his own.
I walked past the New York Mercantile Exchange. There was a huge crowd there at the ferry slip, and New York Waterway, the company that runs the ferry service, hadn’t quite figured out how to respond to the situation and was still taking tickets from anyone wanting out of Manhattan.
I looked up. Both towers belched fire and smoke. And heaved billows of paper into the wind, paper that fluttered off to Wall Street and across the East River to Brooklyn. The sun, which earlier had shone so brightly in that clear blue sky, turned a sickly gray-orange behind the smoke.
The fire in both buildings was steady.
The gathered crowd murmured and gasped. And then someone would either slip and fall or throw themselves out of one of the buildings. And the crowd would cry out in unison, “No! Don’t! Stop!” A pathetic and powerless plea made as bodies tumbled end over end to the ground.
I watched six people die that way.
At some point, I remembered I had a radio with me. I got it out and fiddled with the dial. The New York CBS affiliate had its broadcasting tower on the Empire State Building, so it was one of the few radio stations still transmitting that morning.
People gathered around me.
“What’s happening?” someone asked.
The Pentagon had just been hit by a jetliner, and another plane, believed to be headed either for the White House or the Capitol, was somewhere over Pennsylvania. The FAA had just grounded all air traffic, but two more jetliners were unaccounted for.
And there were reports a bomb had gone off in front of the State Department building in Washington.
“This is the end of the world,” someone said.
It felt like that.
I knew I had to get out of southern Manhattan. Because those towers were going to come down, and when they did, they would respect neither power nor position. By this time, New York Waterway had given up on taking tickets and had started moving its entire ferry fleet to the little slip in front of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
But it took a bit. So I stood there, looking up at the burning buildings, the drifting paper, the falling bodies.
And then, as had happened twice before in my life, there were words in my head. Words I knew were not mine. My love is all that matters.
But this time there was no electric shock. Nothing turned blue. No breathlessness, no halted prayers. Just these words, gently inhabiting me, words given to me—spoken but not spoken—in the midst of death, terror, and destruction. In the midst of the worst thing that I and everyone else standing there beneath the fire and smoke had ever experienced. My love is all that matters.
There was no time to think about this, to contemplate what this might mean. Not that morning, not in that moment. I finally got on a ferry, stood on the stern as it pulled out, watching a couple of NYMEX floor traders, one standing next to me and the other still on the ferry slip—each wore the same company’s coat—give each other hand signals as the ferry pulled out.
I stood on the stern of that ferry and wept.
The terrible thing was that the burning buildings in front of me, the hijacked airliners, all made sense to me. I understood this act, the anger behind it. There was a time in my life when I myself could have done it, been part of it, eagerly supported it. I could have learned how to fly a plane only to crash it. I never cared about virgins in the afterlife, but I was angry enough once to believe that this kind of act was a perfectly valid, legitimate way to make a political or even moral point.
To be honest, though, I suppose I would have found myself, at the very last moment, as the building loomed in front of me—when it was too late—saying, “Well, this was probably not the best idea I’ve ever had.”
It was as if God had grasped me by the scruff of the neck and made me look. “Behold what you could have done. See what you once wanted. See what it means.”
I was living through someone else’s violent vengeance fantasy. I’d had so many of my own. And now I was being shown what that kind of vengeance led to. What it really meant to want to get even with the world. The pain, suffering, destruction and death that could bring.
Because whatever ideological and religious reasons Muhammad Atta, or Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, or even Osama bin Laden himself would give for this day, at bottom it was all about vengeance. About inflicting pain. About getting even.
When the ferry got to New Jersey, we all hurried off. The police were ordering everyone to move on. I walked home to the corporate apartment, took the elevator up, and found Jennifer watching a fuzzy television signal, a look of sorrow and fear on her face.
I held her. And wept. For how long I don’t remember.
“I don’t know why, but I didn’t worry about you. I just knew you were okay,” she told me.
There was a knock on the door. It was Frank, our next-door neighbor. Frank had been an engineer for Grumman in the 1960s, where he helped design the lunar lander. Currently, he worked for a venture capital firm. Frank had been working out in the gym in Six World Trade Center when everyone had been ordered to leave, and his wallet—with all his credit cards—was still there. Now it was under several stories of rubble.
“You need to see this. The South Tower has just collapsed.”
We looked at his television. He had cable, so his picture was clear.
Frank placed a call to his bank; we left him as he was wrangling with a representative. We went out to a little park that jutted into the Hudson River and sat together. The sight we beheld was strange. One lonely World Trade Tower stood there in the late morning sun, framed by haze, still belching fire, smoke and paper.
“It’s going to come down,” I told Jennifer. “Watch.”
We sat for a few minutes. And then the top five floors of the North Tower wobbled from side to side for a bit as weakened steel began to give way. And the top just came straight down, the antenna flopping about and falling as the collapse began, leaving a cluster of columns in the center—as if the building were being peeled—that themselves collapsed just after the rest of the building.
A man in a NYMEX trading jacket stood on the shore in front of us, shouting and waving his fist.
We sat there, Jennifer and I, watching the dust rise over southern Manhattan. The World Trade Center, which had loomed so large and seemed so permanent, like a pair of mountains, just hours before, now was gone. Flattened.
All that remained was smoldering rubble.