Triumph in Tragedy: Remembering 9/11

In remembrance of the tragedies that took place on September 11, 2001, the Chapel Office invites the Gordon community to participate in a distanced time of prayer the morning of Friday, September 11, at 8:30 a.m. around the bell. The bell will toll four times, once for each moment when a plane crashed that morning.

The sky over Gordon College was eerily empty on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Gordon Chaplain Bob Whittet ’78 remembers it vividly—after planes around the country were grounded, the usual descending flights dotting the view as they circle the North Shore were replaced by fighter jets roaring through the skies protecting the Northeast Corridor.

The uncanny sight mirrored the mood so many remember from that day—confusion, disbelief and fear. For some, life became newly empty with the loss of loved ones, and others felt empty with collective grief while grasping for hope.

Whittet, who was in his third year of teaching in Christian Ministries, huddled with fellow faculty around a small TV in Frost Hall to watch the impossible news unfold. His mind was with his New York City firefighter cousin, and he imagined the view of the World Trade Center from his childhood home across the Hudson River in New Jersey. At the time, Whittet did not yet realize the copilot of the ill-fated American Airlines Flight 11 was First Officer Thomas McGuinness, a congregant of his church whom he had spoken with just days prior.

The scenario, says Whittet, felt like living Psalm 46’s description of mountains quaking and falling into the heart of the sea. “When reporters said that the towers fell down, you couldn’t even comprehend that that could happen,” says Whittet. “The towers were massive buildings; to think that they weren’t there was beyond your ability to even stretch your mind.”

Gordon canceled classes that day and instead gathered in the Chapel to pray and weep. With many in the Gordon community hailing from the tri-state area, the tragedy was deeply personal. “We looked for the certainty of what we knew,” says Whittet, “and that was that God’s in this place and he’s still with us.”

Nineteen years later, Whittet shifts his focus to another sentiment in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear . . . There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells” (NIV).

Though pain continues as families mourn their losses and first responders and firefighters suffer from health conditions resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals on 9/11, evidence of God’s faithfulness emerges out of the ashes and rubble: Whittet’s firefighter cousin was miraculously off duty the morning of September 11 and was spared. First Officer McGuinness’ death provided the opportunity for Whittet’s church, Bethany Church in Greenland, NH, to host a memorial service for approximately 750 flight crew members.

For 40 minutes during the service, crew member after crew member testified, “I know Jesus because I flew with Tom McGuinness.” As the memorial concluded, the pastor shared with those in attendance that they had heard how powerful the Bible was in McGuinness’ life, and invited them to take home a pew Bible if they wanted one to read. Hundreds of Bibles left the church building that afternoon in the hands of men and women intrigued to read it, possibly for the first time.

“Tom’s well-worn Bible, along with the words of so many, were testimony of his heartfelt faith and walk with Jesus,” says Whittet. “In the midst of the heartache and horrible loss, Tom’s service provided a glimpse of hope and the realization that the light was indeed still shining in the midst of the darkness. Lives were changed that day, as the testimony of his life was shared. The light was shining, indeed.”

In a world where TSA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are familiar entities, the tragedies of 9/11 appear in history textbooks and college students are too young to recollect the events, Whittet urges us to loosen our grip on confusion, disbelief and fear, and instead focus on remembrance, gratitude and faith.

“It is a day to remember and a reminder to cherish the people you love,” he says. “We think of those for whom that is an extremely painful day. Just merely remembering can be a celebration because you acknowledge that it’s worth your time to remember.”