Accounts of the Latter-day Saints on the Day of Infamy
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Editors’ Note: Four Latter-day Saints died and one is still missing following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Mary Alice Wahlstrom and her daughter, Carolyn Beug, were passengers on American Airlines Flight 11 that slammed into the first World Trade Center tower. Brady Howell and Rhonda Ridge-Rasmussen were at ground zero at the Pentagon, and Ivan Carpia, a cook at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, is still not accounted for.
The enormity of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon swamped every other thought or emotion that terrible Tuesday morning, September 11. We had a shared experience that was greater, more demanding, than anything we were doing individually. We all turned our heads at once from our particularities and became one.
You’ll feel that kinship as you read the accounts of some of the Latter-day Saints at the center of the terrorist drama. Through them, we are choking on dust, we are praying for help, we are calling everybody in our ward to see that they arrived home from blasted buildings, we are attending Pentagon briefing meetings hoping to get word that our husband or wife is found, only to realize it will not happen. It was a morning of miracles and heart-stopping loss, of being fortunately late for work or of being unavoidably at ground zero.
Elder Craig Zwick, president of the Church’s North America North East Area said, “We estimate that 70 Church members work in the twin towers and there were 24, who for one reason or another didn’t come to work that day. Three were traveling, a couple were ill. Some were in the building and made it out.” But it wasn’t that way for everybody. Here are some of the accounts from that traumatic Tuesday:
Just a Feeling
Robert Wood’s Merrill Lynch office is a block east of the World Trade Center, but Tuesday morning, September 11, he was across the street from the twin towers at a trading floor in one of the buildings of the World Financial Center. Just before he was about to leave and walk back to his own building, he had a feeling. There was nothing special about it; it came with no significant force or meaning. It just occurred to him that he should talk to one of the traders named Matt with whom his company usually works. He had nothing particular to talk to him about, but the trader asked him to look at a report and they spent five or ten minutes together.
As they talked, they suddenly heard a deep rumble that sounded like thunder. “That’s when we knew something had happened,” Brother Wood said. “We didn’t have windows at the trading desk, but we had television screens. After a minute or two, we saw the top of the World Trade Center with fire coming from the gash where the plane entered the building. Nobody knew what had happened yet, and the TV commentator was just speculating. A few minutes later while we were watching, I saw a huge explosion. We didn’t see the plane, but assumed that it must be, and then I realized that this had to be terrorism. My immediate thought was ‘are we next?’ How many more planes are in the sky? I turned around and my friend was there and I could tell he didn’t know what had happened. ‘Matt,’ I said, ‘We’ve got to go.’
“We just took our belongings and left the building immediately in an orderly way. There’s a ferry slip behind our building, so I got in line and got on the second ferry leaving Manhattan. I didn’t stick around to see what happened. I had been in a tower in 1993 when the bomb exploded the first time at the World Trade Center, and the experience had prepared me to take quick action.
“It wasn’t until I was riding the train home that the grief and magnitude of what happened started to sink in with an immense feeling of loss and shock. It took me awhile after that to realize that I would have been right under the building, in the path of falling debris, walking back to my office when the plane hit, if I hadn’t stopped to talk to Matt.
“Later I talked to him and he said, ‘Do you realize you saved my life?’ You know I was going over to the World Trade Center when you stopped to talk to me.”
Robert Wood is a member of the Caldwell, New Jersey Stake.
Grateful for E-mail
Kim Smith, president of the Scotch Plains, New Jersey Stake, has a good view of the World Trade Center from his 27th floor office five blocks away. With his colleagues, he watched from the window as the first tower started billowing flames and smoke, and the air began to fill with papers from offices ripped open in the collision. It was an eerie sensation, like the ticker tape parades they’d seen before from their office. Then, like a nightmare, their attention was riveted as they saw the plane hit the second building, and both buildings collapsed leaving a huge cloud of smoke and debris behind.
It was black outside. “I don’t know if that’s fully captured in the news footage,” he said. “The sun was darkened. It turned the street lights on at 10:00 in the morning. At that point, we went to a lower floor and could see people running on the streets.”
The question for President Smith was should he stay in his building or go outside? The quality of the air outside looked dangerous. He decided to stay. He tried to call family to tell them he was safe, but the phones worked erratically. Cell phone lines were jammed. The telephone system was overloaded, and he couldn’t get through. He started checking with bishops and asked them to track down all of their members. E-mail was the only thing he could count on, so he dropped a note to his family and continued monitoring the stake from his office.
At home, the children had been let out early, and his wife was worried that she hadn’t heard from him. The phone had been silent. Then one of President Smith’s computer-savvy teenagers asked, “Have you tried the e-mail?” To their relief they learned that he was safe.
“I’ll never forget the hugs I got at the end of the day when I came home,” President Smith said.
Since April, both Floyd and Rhonda Rasmussen had worked at the Pentagon, but they wouldn’t be there too much longer. They had decided the Monday before to take jobs that had been offered them with the Department of the Army in Monterey, California. Going back to California was going home and they were happy about the decision. They toyed with the idea of taking the day off on Tuesday to begin packing, but not very seriously.
Instead, that morning they left their home at 5:50 and arrived at work at 6:45. Since they worked two floors apart, he walked her to the elevator, kissed her goodbye and told her he loved her. But he heard from her again because she called about 9:00 to say that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Little did they expect that they were the next target.
When American Flight 77 hurtled into the Pentagon, Floyd heard a terrible noise and staggered at the impact. He saw flame and debris, but assumed it was a mail bomb in the other corridor. They issued a speedy evacuation order, and he assumed that Rhonda was moving out with the flow of the crowd as he was. At first the people were moved to the center of the Pentagon, and then finally out into the streets. Floyd strained to catch a glimpse of her auburn hair, her face in the crowd. “Please find me, dear.” He asked to see if anyone had seen her, only to receive negative replies.
He finally found a ride home and arrived hoping to find her there. He thought they’d embrace and everything would be OK. But only their daughter, Rebekkah, greeted him at the door in tears. They called all the hospitals with no success. The day passed with no word from her. It seemed so unreal. He kept hoping that maybe she’d just gone somewhere.
He didn’t sleep that night except for a nightmare that she hadn’t survived, and the next day he went back to the Pentagon, but they wouldn’t let him near the building. Finally, he found a building engineer who pointed out to him exactly where the plane had struck. “When I saw that, I knew there was no way she had survived.” Brother Rasmussen wept.
Some people need to talk about a loved one who has been suddenly taken from them as if talking keeps them here. Brother Rasmussen likes to talk about his wife, because he likes to remember her. She had been quick to laugh. She had called him a high-maintenance husband-but worth it.
She had liked to hold hands with her husband.
Brother Rasmussen said, “To her it may not seem long until she sees me again. To me it will be a lifetime before I can feel her soft hand again.. I’m older than she is, so I always imagined I’d go first. “Now I have a real purpose to serve well and to make it back to be with her again because I know she’s waiting for me. I just keep thinking: endure to the end.”
Glued to the Set
Lin Llamas’, husband, Robert, works in the American Express building, in the World Financial Center complex. He called her within minutes after the first plane hit to tell her that he was safe. She turned on the television, and watched with horror as the buildings toppled into a mushroom cloud of smoke, but she didn’t sit down. She stood, glued to the set, because through her window she had her own better view of the upheaval. Was her husband still safe? He called her from the ferry as he was on his way home.
Can We Come Too?
Jimmy Morrison of the Westchester 2nd Ward works in a building two miles from ground zero in Manhattan. With his co-workers they watched the burning towers on a big screen TV, and fears began to erupt. His administrator came to him in tears because her husband worked on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center for Cantor Fitzgerald and she was desperate for help.
Brother Morrison got on the phone with the Chicago office of his company, who in turn contacted the 105th floor. He learned that those on the 105th floor had tried to make it down the stairs, but four or five floors from the fire, the heat had grown so intense, they turned around and climbed back to their offices. The assumption was that when the fire was contained, they would make it down.
Meanwhile, his administrator’s husband called her. He had missed the train that morning and was at the base of the building. As both were on the phone, the first tower collapsed. The moment of relief had been short, and it took another two hours before she learned again that her husband was safe.
Next, Brother Morrison went downstairs to check on other people who worked for him. One had a husband and one a father who was not accounted for. Later they learned that the father had missed his train and was late and the husband had stopped for breakfast. However, during the commotion, he had run into the street and was hit by a cab. His injuries were minor.
Shock and disbelief filled his office. The employees met in the cafeteria, and they decided since they were in one of New York’s landmark buildings, they should evacuate. It wasn’t until later that night he came back to his office to do an analysis on the day’s events on their business. It was about 1:30 a.m. before he left work, unable to go home, and started walking toward Times Square looking for something to eat because he hadn’t eaten all day.
“It was an eerie feeling, so extremely quiet,” Brother Morrison said. Usually Times Square is busy, jammed with people and cars, all hours of the night and day. Now-no cabs, no cars. I looked back at the view where I usually see the twin towers and they were gone.”
Friday, as employees started coming back to work, Brother Morrison made it a point to go to each one and see how they felt. He has a diverse work environment with many of the Moslem faith. Great grief was the universal sentiment.
“I just want you to know that these terrorists are not religious people. According to my religion, killing an innocent person is an unpardonable sin,” one said. Another expressed great fear that the Moslem and Hindu communities would receive violent backlash.
“When it was time for the broadcast from the tabernacle, I sent out an e-mail,” said Brother Morrison, that I was going to attend a prayer service and invited any to come. I had nine employees come with me. None of them were Christian. One of them asked me, “Would it be OK for non-Christians to come into our synagogue?
“It was a very inspirational experience to sit there with them, see them bow their heads and pray to God. On the 15-minute walk back to work one Jew, four Muslims, four Hindus and I had a wonderful discussion about the similarities between our religions.
“The comradery that exists now in our office is amazing. A real sense of caring, of love for one another exists. It supersedes any issues of religion or any differences between us. It has been OK to talk openly about the blessings we have received from God.
“Friday night our ward had a camp out that had been planned for some time. One of my co-workers learned I was going camping that night and asked if he could come. On the way up, my boss called and asked, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ I asked him if he wanted to come along. We ended up together at our ward camp out, sitting around the fire talking and feeling the peace and quiet. It gave us time to talk about our belief in God,.” Brother Morrison said.
10 Family Members Working in Manhattan
President Doug Jackson of the Westchester, New York Stake, can hardly speak of that morning around nine o’clock without tears. He was alerted to the disaster when one of the bishops in his stake called and immediately his mind rushed to the people he loved-10 members of his family who worked in Manhattan and 4,000 people in the units of his stake. Immediately he asked the bishops to begin phoning their ward members-and a work began that would take two entire days and well over 100 calls personally to complete.
The stories began filtering back of those who might have been in danger. Sometimes they were accompanied by relief, sometimes with more anxiety. One woman had decided to take one more day of maternity leave. Another man was on a business trip in Spain. One young man who President Jackson had recently interviewed to be married the next Saturday could not be located for two days, and he felt sick to think of the promise possibly lost. He knew great joy when the young man was finally located and knew the wedding would go on.
So much depended on whether the people had arrived on time for work or had been inexplicably delayed. President Jackson’s own daughter and son-in-law would have been in the thick of it, but they decided to delay their job by a week and remained in Wyoming. He heard stories of people who walked 60 blocks to get out of the city, stories of members who walked down from the highest floors and made it safely. Once when he paused to rest, he started to cry. He was so grateful the people he knew were safe, but as he said, “Everybody in those towers is a brother or sister and in the neighborhoods in our town, some Dads and Mothers didn’t come home.”
One call took him back to a more peaceful time. It came from Eric Bench who had been a scout years before when President Jackson had arranged a most unusual scout trip. Scouts in every area of the Church use the resources unique to their own area for camping expeditions, so President Jackson thought what is unique to us? He had come up with the unique idea of camping on the top of the World Trade Center. Everybody thought it was impossible, but he managed to get permission and take 180 Scouts up to camp on the observation deck sporting t-shirts that said, “I camped on top of the world.”
“Remember that?” Eric had asked President Jackson. It had been a time before innocence was lost.
What Can We Do For You?
Brady Howell, 26. didn’t come home on the day of September 11, and he didn’t call his wife Liz to check in. His office in the Pentagon, where he served as a presidential management intern to the chief of naval intelligence was right at the point where the airliner slammed into the Pentagon.. In a small miracle in that time of closed airports, his parents, Kenneth and Jeanette Howell were able to fly immediately to Washington D.C. in a jet owned by Provo-based NuSkin International, but then began the agonizing wait and the hope that grew dimmer by the day. The Pentagon was providing two briefings a day for families of the missing, but finally after waiting nearly a week for the news they dreaded to hear, the family learned that Brother Howell’s body was found in the rubble on Monday.
Grant Lattin, president of the Mt. Vernon Stake in Alexandria, Virginia said that more than 100 members of the Church work at the Pentagon, and members of his stake had put their collective arms around the victims’ families during this difficult time. When he talked to Sister Howell, he said, “Is there anything our members can do for you?” She answered, ” I already know what they are doing. They have been praying for the victims, and I can’t tell you how much I have felt that. I know now what the comforter is and how the Holy Ghost brings comfort to your life during this kind of time. I know that this is because of the prayers of so many members. This is one who has been the recipient.”
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.