On Sept. 11, 2001, a Tuesday morning, four coordinated terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000 others. Four airplanes were hijacked by terrorists. Two planes were crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Another was crashed into the western side of the Pentagon. The fourth plane, initially heading to Washington, D.C., was crashed in a Pennsylvania field as passengers fought to overcome the hijackers. It was a day most people will never forget.
The attacks caused about $10 billion in property and infrastructure damage.
A cross formed during the collapse of the WTC is on display during the cleanup process.
While the attacks stirred fear in most people, volunteers, including North Carolina Baptists stepped up to help. Within 24 hours of the attacks, a team was already serving food at the Pentagon. Here are three stories of people who responded to D.C. and New York within the first week:
‘Preach the gospel’
“I remember the steel rising above the rubble. I remember exhausted workers with the smell of smoke and sweat leaving the scene emotionally and physically wiped out. I remember the tears of those with whom we prayed.”
Thomas White was among a group of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) students who went to New York after 9/11.
“We had a desire to do something,” White said. “We wanted to go and pray with hurting people and to share the hope of the [g]ospel with those who may have felt hopeless at the time.”
White had just started his doctor of philosophy degree and was serving as SEBTS director of student life. He traveled with several students in a 15-passenger van from Wake Forest.
A temporary memorial wall set up near the World Trade Center (WTC) drew crowds of people. They brought flags, notes and flowers to the area to participate in the mourning process.
The group stopped on the side of the road in Washington, D.C., on the way. “We looked at the damage to the Pentagon and prayed with others.”
The team spent nights in their van “because we didn’t have the money for hotel rooms,” White said. They led their parking attendant to Christ, along with seven others, and passed out 2,000 tracts and numerous Bibles.
“One night in a park, we sang praises to God, and as a crowd would gather, one of us would share the [g]ospel as the hope of the world with the crowd, and then we would break up and pray with people. After they dispersed, we would do it all again. I remember the long line of volunteers wanting to help.”
The events of 9/11 highlighted what is truly important, White said.
“This tragedy forced America to consider evil, the fragile nature of life, and our own eternity,” he stressed. “Even if only for a brief time, it forced us to rely on something bigger than our own strength, and in those moments people seem more open to the [g]ospel and more serious about considering their own eternal destiny.”
For White, that event and the following trip helped solidify the importance “of being ready to provide a case for the hope within us during the challenges of life that lead to serious reflection.”
Since 9/11, White finished his second SEBTS degree and moved to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, where he served as director of leadership development. From 2006-2013 White was SWBTS vice president for student services and communications and associate professor of systematic theology.
Now, White serves as the president of Cedarville University in Ohio as well as a professor of theology. He urges every student to go on a mission trip before they graduate, and he makes going part of his routine as well.
“I personally try to make sure I am on an overseas trip every two years because I don’t want to ask my students to do something I am not doing myself,” White said.
White remembers one of his fellow student’s boldness in New York. As a line of people, mostly firefighters, were waiting to volunteer, this student jumped up on a wall and began “to preach the [g]ospel of Jesus Christ like a modern-day Paul proclaiming truth in Athens.
“Every eye and every ear focused on his words. Hope for the hopeless and good news for the desperate.
“A boldness that does not care what people may think or what they may say because we are merely servants of the Most High God. His ambassadors pleading on His behalf, be reconciled to Christ.”
Responded three times
Paul Hooker responded to 9/11 three times in a matter of months. He was on the second team that went to Washington, D.C. He arrived on Friday after Tuesday’s terrorist attacks. Rescue teams were still searching through the building for survivors. Hooker was part of the night shift for the feeding team, which was working 24 hours a day in order to feed the workers when they were able to find time to eat.
North Carolina Baptists, who are known by their yellow disaster relief shirts and hats, responded to the 9/11 attacks less than 24 hours after the World Trade Center was struck by an airplane. They arrived, set up a kitchen and were serving food by the next afternoon. The fire was still being fought. Military and fire and rescue personnel were still searching for survivors.
“I think I was, like most of our country … in shock that this had actually happened,” Hooker said, commenting that it was eerie to be in one of the most congested areas and not hear any air traffic.
In 2001, Hooker worked for Duke Energy and served as a bivocational associate pastor of missions for New Vision Fellowship in Madison, N.C., a church which he helped start in 1997. Now, Hooker pastors the church.
In November, Hooker made his first trip to New York. His team was based in an old naval shipyard.
Hooker stayed in an old Navy brig that belonged to the N.Y. Police Department. His team fed all the volunteers who were working at Ground Zero and cleaning apartments for residents. He and his team only went to Ground Zero one afternoon because they were serving meals the rest of the time.
While he was there, an engine fell off a plane over Long Island. It burned a gas station.
“Many people, including us, thought it was happening again,” Hooker said.
In January 2002, Hooker was back in New York. This time, he and his team served on Staten Island feeding workers who were combing through debris that was being brought in from Ground Zero.
He recalls they found $5,000 one day as well as fire trucks, driver’s licenses and bones.
Most recently, Hooker coordinated a mass feeding unit in Mount Nebo, W.Va. “Approximately every 10 weeks we’ve got a team going to Johnsonville [S.C.],” said Hooker, who is the feeding coordinator for region 5 for Baptists on Mission (or North Carolina Baptist Men). The size of the groups vary but Hooker said Baptists on Mission does a good job with logistics and administration.
He has been responding to disasters since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He’s been to Honduras several times.
His family is involved too. His three children have all been on foreign mission trips.
“It’s a blessing to see your children serving others,” he said.
Hooker related Baptists on Mission volunteers to a story from the New Testament.
“Different parts of the body have different things to do,” he said, mentioning some of the different response teams: feeding unit, laundry, child care, communications, chainsaw, etc.
“It’s all the same body working for Christ,” he said.
Skip Greene, a general contractor in Boone for almost 50 years, said his experience with home-based disaster relief in the military during the Vietnam War helped spur his interest when he returned from his service. He was part of Baptists on Mission, also known as North Carolina Baptist Men, when teams developed in Durham and later in Boone.
BR photo by Dianna L. Cagle
A cross made out of the Pentagon rubble after 9/11 sits in a display case in the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina building in Cary. One side is dedicated to remembrances from the Pentagon response. The other side is filled with Ground Zero memorabilia.
Long before 9/11, Greene responded to Hurricane Andrew when it hit Miami and later Hurricane Hugo.
“9/11 was really the first manmade disaster that I ever responded to,” he said.
Greene was listening to his radio when he heard about what happened at the World Trade Center.
“By lunchtime we were already putting a team together out of this area,” Greene said. By 9 p.m. that night, a team of about 15 people left Boone for the Pentagon.
Greene was on the phone trying to figure out how to get all his convoy to the Pentagon. After several calls, Virginia Highway Patrol “basically stopped the interstate,” he said, “and we pulled in the building [as it] was still on fire.”
The team served its first meal Sept. 12 in the middle of the afternoon. The police also escorted the team’s food trucks with needed supplies.
Teams rotated every four to five days and served food 24 hours a day. Meals were even carried into the Pentagon by people wearing those yellow shirts known for their disaster relief work.
“I could see the faces of people dealing with life and death situations,” he said. “There were men and women just giving it all to try to save people.”
Greene said the images are “imprinted in my heart and mind. This was our homeland. This was not Iraq, not Vietnam.”
One fireman sat on the ground beside a truck when Greene saw him and took him some food.
He sat next to him. “We didn’t make eye contact,” he said. “[I] put my arm around him and hugged him for about 10 minutes.”
Greene still sees the faces. While Greene did have a chaplain on the team, at the time Baptists on Mission did not have chaplain training. “A big part of what we do now is recovery,” he said.
He remembers the story of one man who left three men in his office to go to the bathroom when the plane struck the Pentagon. Those three men were killed.
Those real-life stories didn’t always make the headlines, but Greene said 9/11 was the beginning of chaplaincy for Baptists on Mission.
Greene remembered Hurricane Hazel hitting his grandparent’s place along the N.C. coast. People who helped his family inspired Greene to get involved later.
A member of First Baptist Church in Boone, Greene praises the people with whom he volunteers.
“I’ve always had a good team of people working with me,” he said.
When Hurricane Sandy hit in late fall 2012, Greene’s team had an unusual situation. Snow had fallen, and volunteers were cooking hot meals while out in the elements.
“The disaster was still there, and the people still needed to eat,” he explained.
These kind of disasters always stay with you.
“Being there 12-24 hours after the fact, there’s no way that a human being can erase that from their mind,” Greene stressed.
“I don’t see how they can live without reliving it on a regular basis.”
He returned to the Pentagon a month later and met some of those who had lost loved ones, and a year later, he was back in D.C. on behalf of N.C. Baptists at a ceremony to accept a sandstone cross made out of the Pentagon rubble.
There were four crosses made. Baptists on Mission has one in a display case at the Baptist State Convention of N.C. building in Cary. The cross flew to North Carolina in a seat next to Greene after a D.C. ceremony presenting it.
The other crosses are at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Pennsylvania 9/11 memorial site and St. Paul’s Chapel next to the World Trade Center.
The North Carolina Missions Offering (NCMO) supports efforts like disaster relief and recovery as well as church planting and associational ministries. September is NCMO emphasis month. This year’s goal is $2.1 million. Visit ncmissionsoffering.org.