Sandra and I joined a group of mayors and spouses at The White House. In preparation for the train trip to New York, President George W. Bush told us we were about to take a spiritual journey by visiting Ground Zero. The group took Amtrak to New York City and later boarded a bus to the site. It was a silent and somber journey. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hosted our visit.
The scene became quiet as recovery equipment went temporarily silent. We were admonished by Mayor Giuliani to treat the site with reverence, as we were in a cemetery with hundreds still buried below us. You could have heard a pin drop on the trip. The surroundings were devastating, with huge tarps covering the damaged buildings near the Twin Towers site. We ended our trip with a visit to Gracie mansion, the official residence where we were hosted by incoming New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
There were many “miracle” stories surfacing from the 9/11 tragedy. One that stands out in my mind is the story of St. Paul’s Chapel which, having been constructed in 1776, is one of the city’s oldest buildings. George Washington, along with members of the United States Congress, worshipped at St. Paul's Chapel on his Inauguration Day on April 30, 1789. Washington also attended services at St. Paul's during the two years New York City was the country's capital. Above Washington's pew is an 18th Century oil painting of the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1782. It was said that President Washington once said the chapel “shall forever be a place where people come to worship and pray.”
A New York police officer told us when the towers fell, it was the first time many people had seen sun shine through the beautiful stained-glass windows.
The chapel has quite a history. It survived the Great Fire of 1776 that burned a quarter of the city. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, when the 110-story skyscrapers collapsed, it was spared once again. When the towers fell, more than a dozen modern buildings were destroyed or damaged. Yet somehow amid all the destruction and devastation, St. Paul’s Chapel still stands without as much as a broken window.
In the months to follow 911, the Episcopal chapel became a sanctuary for Ground Zero workers. Mobilizing nearly 10,000 volunteers, New York’s Episcopal community launched an around-the-clock ministry that involved giving recovery workers, regardless of denomination, a place to “enter, rest, pray” away from news reporters, cameras and photographers. It continues to be a place of healing and hope at Ground Zero.
9/11 was a tragic day in our nation’s history. Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that Dec. 7, 1941, was a “date that will live in infamy.” Most anyone living on that date can remember where they were when they heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Baby Boomers remember where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And today’s generation will remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, when the suicide pilots crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. I remember vividly all three of those historic events.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in Nashville finishing breakfast and heading to a meeting at the Capitol. The first call came as I crossed the street and my cellphone rang. Sandra called to give me the news. I hurried to my meeting and was advised it was cancelled. As I headed home, I listened intently to the news accounts as the second plane struck, then the third, then the fourth. I was also in communication with staff at City Hall and our Emergency Management Agency as we shared information from state and national security officials preparing cities for any other attacks.
Later I would be placed on the Homeland Security Council and now I receive periodic briefings that I had not received before.
That day has changed the way we do things now on a local, state and national basis. It changed my life professionally … but the visit to Ground Zero changed my life personally.
Life is more precious, family more important, my job takes on more dimension and each day I thank God for His saving grace.
It is only fitting that each year on 9/11, we take part in a remembrance of some type. This year, the remembrance called “Cry Out America” is Sept. 11 at noon at the Bradley County Courthouse. It’s a time to come together to give thanks and a time to do just as they do at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York — enter, rest, pray, and seek hope and healing.
Please join us as the Cleveland and Bradley County community comes together Sept. 11 on the anniversary of a day that has changed us forever.