On that world-changing morning of September 11, 2001, Manhattan, New York, became a war zone. The terrorists took no prisoners, held no hostages. Death was the only option they offered, so three thousand ordinary people died that day, most without an opportunity for a final embrace or even a last good-bye.
The New York City officials who invited me to tour Ground Zero led me past the check points and into “The Pit,” the area immediately surrounding the fallen towers. In the grim shadows of the huge cranes that slowly shifted scraps of twisted metal, rescue workers dug through the rubble, and bucket brigades passed pails of debris from hand to hand. The workers moved silently, listening, I knew, for the sounds — any sounds — of survivors.
Those ninety minutes will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Words cannot convey, nor television screens capture, the enormity of the devastation I saw for that hour and a half. For the first thirty minutes the only two words I could utter were, “No way!” And I said them over and over again.
In my imagination I had envisioned the two slender towers sinking into a pile of debris that would fit easily within the confines of a large football stadium. My mental picture was big — and tragic — enough, but reality was a hundred times more tragic. A square mile of ruin. Numerous city blocks obliterated. One of the smaller buildings that came down was over forty stories high. Several larger buildings, still standing when I was there, were buckling and would have to be demolished. Some looked like the Oklahoma Federal Building with its front blown off. Others, blocks away, had windows shattered. The sheer enormity of what happened that day took my breath away.
I said “No way!” again when I saw the dedication of the rescue workers, many of whom were still digging after ten days, with bloodied hands and blistered feet, because their firefighting buddies were buried under the piles of twisted steel. How can I describe what it was like to be with them, to look into their eyes and see the profound coupling of utter exhaustion and unyielding determination? There were hundreds and hundreds of them. I found myself torn between wanting to grab hold of them and say, “Please stop. You’ve got to rest. You’ve got to go home,” and at the same time wanting to pat them on the back and say, “Don’t give up! If I were under that pile of destruction I’d want someone like you digging for me.”
I’ve never been in war, so I’ve never seen men and women like that. I’ve never seen people who were nearly dead on their feet walk back into the carnage because they couldn’t do otherwise. I’ll never forget it. People like that ennoble the human spirit. They remind us that we can still be heroic.
Later in the day, I was driven by cab to a designated place several blocks away from the rescue effort, where family and friends were posting pictures of loved ones on a crudely constructed bulletin board that ran for hundreds of feet along the sidewalk. As I looked at the photographs crammed from top to bottom, side to side, again I said, “No way!” No way should men, women, and children have to live with this kind of loss and grief.
Back and forth walked the people left behind. For twenty-four hours every day they wandered like zombies along the city streets, hoping against hope that someone could tell them something about their father, their daughter, their friend. There was no way they could move on with their lives. They couldn’t eat or sleep. They couldn’t go home without some information, some piece of news, some degree of closure.
I could understand their tenacity. What else could they do? If my family — Lynne or Shauna or Todd — or my friends were among those missing beneath the rubble, I would do the same. I’d plaster their pictures all over that wall; I’d grab people by the collar if I thought they could offer me one little shred of information or hope.
As I hailed a cab to take me back to my hotel, I felt like screaming my next “No way!” in an attempt to block out the bitterest truth of all, that all this suffering, this holocaust, was caused not by a natural calamity or even some freak accident, but by the deliberate schemes of fellow human beings. No earthquake, no shift in geological plates caused this wreckage. No flood, tornado, or hurricane did this. The death and destruction surrounding me were the direct result of the careful plans of people so caught up in radical political beliefs and so filled with hatred that as they watched the television coverage of Ground Zero they high-fived each other and jumped for joy.
“No way!” I cried again. There’s no way evil can run this deep. But it did. No matter how incomprehensible was the scene surrounding me, the enormity of evil behind it could not be denied.
But strangely, while the ashes smoldered around me and grief overwhelmed me, even then, a profound hope rose in my heart. Slicing through the anguished “no ways” reverberating in my mind were the words I had repeated ten thousand times before, but now they cut with the flash of urgency. The local church is the hope of the world. The local church is the hope of the world. I could see it so clearly.
Hybels, B. (2009). Courageous leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.