Ebenezer Collective | Life After 9/11, Tower II
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Life After 9/11, Tower II

By Nathan Harness

{For the detailed 9/11 story, scroll to the bottom for the audio version!}

My name is Nathan Harness and by the grace of God I am struggling well with fear, anxiety, control, lust, and people pleasing.  I know, I know that is for another ministry, but it paints well the picture of the man who sits before you – a simple and broken vessel being repaired by the binding agent of a gracious God and filled with the hope and peace that only the Holy Spirit can provide. Romans 15:13 says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

Growing up my childhood was very prosaic, not in a mundane sense, but rather more of a “Leave it to Beaver” naivety to the stark reality of death and destruction.  All of this changed in 2001, my story of grief begins as a young stock broker working in New York. I had only been employed by my company for two days when I found myself on the 61st floor of the World Trade Center Tower II on September 11th, 2001.  Even thinking back now it almost seems like a surreal story.  I remember that morning well having started the day with a feeling of pride in my ability to garner a job of such stature.  But my hubris quickly turned to ambivalence as I realize that something was amiss as I looked out the window to the streets 61 floors below.  I was able to make it to the stairwell and ultimately to the 42 floor before our building was hit by the second plane. The impact was like the shock wave from a bomb.  The lights went out, sirens blared, people screamed, the walls cracked, and the steel girders creaked to the breaking point. Emotions surged through me quicker than I thought possible.  Fear, anger, sorrow, loneliness, hope, resignation, and peace as I asked to Lord to make it quick and to give my loved ones comfort. But it wasn’t yet my time. The building swayed back to center and stood with final resolve giving hundreds of us the precious minutes we needed.  By the time I got to the lower floors fire fighters were coming up the stairs telling us to keep going. These men and women became our lifelines to an exit we were unsure of. They died to give us a chance of survival. When I got to the mezzanine I saw for the first time the carnage and death equivocal to a war zone.  I had to exit out of Tower I because too much debris was falling out of Tower II. I ran across the street passing piles of newspaper that served as burial shrouds for what had been the living moments before. When I looked up I saw for the first time the gaping hole where a plane had ripped through our building. I could still see smoke and flame pouring out of both buildings and the impulse of flight overwhelmed me.  I ran for about 20 minutes before I heard a sound that forced me to turn back. My building, Tower II, was collapsing and dust was traveling towards us like an inexorable dust storm.

The rest of the day seemed like a blur as I wondered the city in search of my hotel.  As the adrenaline from survival started to diminish my brain began to grasp the magnitude of the events. I was able to call my family and could only get out the words “I’m alive” before I began to weep.  I had survived. It wasn’t long before the joy of survival became the guilt of survival. How many faceless victims had died so that I could live? Was this fair?

The next year was spent dealing with much anxiety stemming from what doctors called post traumatic stress disorder.  I found myself at times paralyzed in fear and even guilt, and can remember feeling that God spared me because I had done enough “good”.  Maybe if I lived an even better life I would again be rewarded with the simplicity of an ingenuous disposition toward death and suffering.  Many people who heard my story would come up to me afterwards and say “God has big plans for you son”. But with a heart that was hurting I saw statements such as this as genial platitudes at best.  Over the next two years my outward behavior reflected more and more a man who saw God as a disciplinarian rather than a loving savior. Life became more about me and what I did and less about Jesus Christ and what he did.

Almost three years later, I was still processing the “purpose” of what had happened to me during 9/11 when I got a late phone call from my dad.  This was exceedingly rare. I felt anxiety creeping in quickly when I picked the phone up. My dad said, “Son where are you?”. I said, “I am at home, what’s going on?”. He said, “I want you to be calm”, and he said words I will never forget… “your brother has been shot”.  I felt like someone had put a vice grip on my chest. How could this be happening?

Andrew was my younger brother.  We grew up sharing a bedroom and had been close from the moment he was born.  We had two twin beds in our room, and I can remember as a little boy being scared, pulling Andrew into my bed sometimes so I’d feel safer.  The next morning I would tell him he must have crawled into my bed because he was scared. Being kind of heart he would just accept it as true.  That was Andrew: kind hearted, funny, inquisitive, he was the kid who would take apart his toy just to see how it worked.

After my dad’s call, I immediately got in my car and started driving towards home which was 12 hours away.  I felt so much uncertainty and fear. I remember crying out to God, begging him to just save Andrew. I asked God to take me instead.  I thought if I bargained well enough maybe we could keep Andrew. My family called about halfway into my drive, and I didn’t even want to pick the phone up.  I knew that news this late could only be bad. And so it was. On the side of the highway in Oklahoma my mother called me to tell me that the gunshot wound was self inflicted and Andrew was clinically dead.  I felt so empty at that moment. How could this be happening? Why? My despair soon turned to anger. I was angry at Andrew and I was angry at God. How could God allow this to happen? Why would Andrew do this to our family? What could I have done? I wanted to crawl into a hole and hibernate, hoping that spring would bring about new feelings.  I decided to drive on and 5 hours later I was at the hospital where they were keeping Andrew’s body alive for organ donation. My mother and I were the only ones who made the drive to the hospital where Andrew was. My father just had back surgery and couldn’t even get out of bed so my sisters decided to stay and comfort him.

Upon arrival they took me to the room where Andrew’s body was being kept alive.  I remember being so scared. I didn’t know if I wanted this to be my last memory of him; plugged into machines with doctors standing around him.  I asked if I could have a moment with Andrew. My hand was shaking so much. I grabbed his hand and I remember the Holy Spirit just overwhelming my body.  Fear, anxiety, anger, they all melted away to a peace that surpasses understanding. Holding his hand I told Andrew I forgave him. I don’t know what part of him was left to hear me, but I know that God gave me that moment to see my brother for the last time, to pray over him, and to forgive him.  On November 6th, 2004 Andrew’s brain shut down and he passed from this world to the next.  It was my mother’s birthday.

My mother and I finally decided to leave the hospital to reunite our family at home.  I had yet to see my father and sisters. I had not slept in 48 hours and had reached the point of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.  It was a warmer than usual fall day and I remember walking up the steps to the house, seeing my father sitting on the deck taking in the sun, still unable to move from his surgery.  My dad smiled at me and we embraced. I felt like that young, scared child again who, when in the arms of his father could feel safe. As I sit back up, my father again said something I will never forget.  He said, “son I have overwhelmingly felt a message from God, and it is— With This Death Will Come Life”. I didn’t know what to think. The emotional fog had overcast my ability to process any purpose at that moment.

I’m a very slow processor and so the next five years were spent in much emotional cloudiness.  Living in emotional and spiritual isolation I started to rationalize the segmenting of my circumstances into the good and bad moments, believing that God blessed me during the good moments and punished me through the bad moments. Proverbs 18:1 speaks to the problems of isolation (Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.)  Over the years, fear had coated my heart, even my very identity, causing spiritual arrested development and obedience based solely on myopic and observable outcomes.

Through additional trials God brought me to Watermark Church in 2009.  It was there that I heard other believers talking openly about subjects that I had run from in fear.  I heard about a program called celebrate recovery and decided I would bring a friend who had lots of “problems”.  It was at that first meeting that I realized how broken I really was. The dam broke that night. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” The fear of change had finally given way to the unrest and avoidance of grief. C.S. Lewis puts it this way, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”.  

For the first time I wasn’t so focused on the “why”, rather I began to focus on the “what”.  What does God want? He wants my devotion, my worship, my faith in him, my identity, my very life.  I was finally able to begin letting go of control, fear, and grief. Acts 17:27 says, “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”  These past several years have looked so different as my perspective began to change. I still don’t have answers to all the why questions? I know that sin entered the world and with it came death (see James 1:15). But as I have continually focused on what God’s desire is for me, I have seen glimpses of his purpose.

Proverbs 2: 6-10 “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;”

As I look back at Gods providence, I can see that grief has shifted my perspective and positioning with Christ in a way that prosperity would not have allowed. We will all taste death eventually, but when we experience the death of a loved one we taste the mortality of this life.  Grief in my life has, in part, peeled back the layers of selfish ambition, need for approval, and control. The things of this world that have burdened me to it seem less important in the wake of grief. 1 John 2:15-17 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

God has renewed relationships within my family and external family to new heights.  I share the joys, triumphs, and burdens of my life with my parents and siblings with new vigor.  Old feuds with other family seem unimportant when measured against the loss of life.

New life has sprung up as Andrew’s organs have given life to numerous people.  Carrie got Andrew’s lungs and was able to run a 5k. She actually met her husband through the organ transplant process.  His kidneys allowed a mother to see her two sons graduate and she can now live without being strapped to a dialysis machine. A father can have new sight with retinas that have been transplanted.  

God has given my family a new empathy for death and through this an avenue to spread the gospel in ways they we never could before.  Andrew’s best friend had started using drugs around the time Andrew died and his trajectory was much the same. But God used tragedy for his glory as this young man has now earned his Ph.D. in economics and is a beacon of spiritual light in the darkness of the university setting.

Lastly, losing the things that were closest to me has given me a whole new appreciation for what I have.  Like a beautiful flower that could be crushed in your hand or awed on the stem, I hold loosely to that which is not mine.  As the why’s have changed to what’s I realize that God has not cursed me and my family, rather God has blessed us with a new perspective on what it is to “truly live”.  The verse I learned as a child has new meaning. John 3:16 – For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten son. That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  We serve a God who knows what it feels like to lose a son. More than that we serve a God who would give up his son to be tortured and hung up to die in the most inhumane way possible and not just for the best of us but for the worst of us.

My father once wrote me: “The adversity of life is designed to shape us in a way that prosperity cannot.  We never chose adversity, it is a divine gift. God allows it to come when and where it can do eternal good.  We all have many questions when it comes…but no answers seem to come. Some answers we find as we are able to look back and see positive changes.  Other answers await us. Knowledge comes from learning, but wisdom comes from experiences understood.

Sometimes I long to have Andrew back as I weep when a wave of grief overwhelms my soul.  But I celebrate with a new fervor the life that I am now aware of because of the world I lost. Joy and sorrow can coexist when swaddled in the in the gentle arms of God’s grace.  

My wife and I recently had our last son, Thatcher.  I feel the duplicity of emotions start to rise within me.  My child will never know Andrew and this burdens me. But then joy strikes at the heart of this sorrow as I realize that my child will grow up with a dad who is not the man he was.  God’s beautiful gift comes in the changes of perspective that springs new life into my precious family. No, my child will know Andrew– not in the way that I would have expected, but in the way that only a perfect God could have orchestrated. My children will know Andrew when they see a father who will not neglect the preciousness of every moment spent loving them, a father who recognizes the importance of a deep relationship with his children, and a father who emphatically points them to a savior that brings the promise of life eternal in the midst of a world full of pain and death.

Andrew was a surprise baby.  My dad had a vasectomy the week Andrew was conceived.  It seems his life would mirror this even to the end. His life became the surprise of change that grew through my family and has ultimately impacted the lives of so many.

 

An audio version of this story: 

 

Amanda Buccola
[email protected]
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