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America assaulted, God exalted

By John W. Kennedy, John Cockroft and Peter K. Johnson

September 11 begins as any other Tuesday for Stanley Praimnath, an assistant vice president of loan operations at Fuji Bank Limited in New York City. As is customary, he arrives at his desk on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center south tower by 8:30 a.m., before co-workers arrive. Here he spends time reading his Bible and praying.

"For some reason, I gave the Lord a little extra of myself that morning during prayer," says the 44-year-old Praimnath, who is also a deacon and Sunday school superintendent at Bethel Assembly of God in Queens, N.Y. "Over and over I said, ‘Lord, cover me and all my loved ones with Your precious blood.’ "

Stanley Praimnath and family

Fifteen minutes later, he is retrieving phone messages when a red-orange flash catches his eye. Outside his window, flames cough black smoke as a result of American Airlines Flight 11 plunging into the WTC north tower next door. Praimnath puts down the phone.

Watching fireballs fall to the ground, Praimnath tries unsuccessfully to call his boss in the north tower.

"Go, go, go," he says to Delise, a temporary worker, the only other person around. "Let’s get out of here."

They rush to the 78th-floor sky lobby to catch an express elevator down and are joined by three top Fuji executives. At ground level they are met by a security guard. "Don’t leave the building," the guard says. "A plane accidentally hit the north tower; you’ll be safer inside because of falling debris."

Praimnath and the executives return to the elevator, but Praimnath, sensing uneasiness in his soul, sends Delise home. The three other men head off to their departments. Praimnath will never see them again.

As Praimnath enters his office, his phone is ringing. A friend from Chicago asks Praimnath if he heard about the north tower being hit. He assures her all is fine.

But all is not fine. It is 9:03 a.m. and United Airlines Flight 175 is staring him in the face.

"Suddenly I see this big gray airplane with red letters on the wing and tail filling my window," Praimnath says. "It’s coming right at me."

Praimnath drops the phone and tucks under his desk in a fetal position as the plane obliterates the wall. The impact is a prolonged, gut-wrenching screech, a hideous, metallic roar. "It sounded like a huge steel cage being ripped apart," Praimnath recalls. Intense smoke and soot punctuate the agonizing explosion.

Then silence.

A flame interrupts the awful blackness, revealing a protruding aircraft wing blocking the exit only 20 feet away. I’m going to die, Praimnath thinks. Yet he cries out to God.

"Lord, help me," he prays, trying to stand. "I can’t do this by myself. I don’t want to die. I want to see my two little girls." Tears spill from squinting eyes as he realizes he is buried shoulder deep in debris. A nail pierces his right hand. Pain sears his body.

"Lord, You take control," Praimnath says aloud. Struggling to his feet, he is instantly showered by dust and debris anew as the ceiling gives way. Hands claw; legs thrash. Mercifully, his desperate plea seems momentarily answered.

"God gave me so much power in my body that I was able to shake everything off," Praimnath says.

Now standing, he begins to scream. "This is Stan from loans operation! Can anybody hear me? Help!"

Sparking electrical wires are the only sound in return. He must get out fast. Crawling away from the burning plane, Praimnath knows he has little time to escape. Cuts and bruises emerge as he crawls through hundreds of feet of the newly created war zone that had been his company a few moments earlier. Tearing off his bloodied, shredded white shirt to cover his nose and mouth, Praimnath focuses on breathing and finding an exit.

Miraculously, a light pierces the haze. "I see the light!" Praimnath screams, crawling toward what he thinks must be his guardian angel in these surreal surroundings.

"Come toward the light," a voice answers. "I’m here to help you."

A wall separates him from the stairwell and this unseen helper. "I can’t breathe," Praimnath says, the smell of jet fuel burning his nostrils. In desperation, he calls out to the voice with the flashlight. "Do you believe in Christ?" Praimnath asks.

"I don’t miss a Sunday going to church," the voice answers.

"Do you believe in Christ?" Praimnath presses.


The voice on the other side tells Praimnath that he must break a hole in the plasterboard wall to escape. Now Praimnath is certain he will perish.

"I’m going to write down my name and number," he tells the would-be rescuer. "Call my wife and daughters, and tell them I love them."

"No," comes the reply. "You are going to break through this wall."

Praimnath draws from his karate lessons and his Lord, rising with newfound determination. "I punched and punched until I saw a hole big enough for my arm and head," he says.

Praimnath’s deliverer turns out to be not a guardian angel but Brian Clark, a man in his early 60s who works at a brokerage firm on the 84th floor. Clark pulls him through the wall, and the men collapse in an embrace. Now it is Praimnath’s turn to be the strong one.

"I don’t think I can make it," Clark confesses.

"You saved my life," Praimnath says. "I owe you mine."

Arm in arm they descend, stopping on the 77th floor. A man with a broken back lies twisted in a pool of blood. A security guard tells Praimnath to send help. "This building is going to blow up," Praimnath replies.

"Steel does not burn," the guard says.

Praimnath and Clark continue their twisting descent, shrouded by dust now caked into mud by sprinklers as they near the bottom. They reach the concourse level. Eerie moans of building fragments falling are replaced abruptly by shouts of emergency workers and others scurrying about.

"Are there others?" a firefighter yells at Praimnath.

"Yes," he replies. The firefighters push past in a frantic ascent to find survivors. Glass is exploding; flaming debris is flying everywhere. Worse, human carnage carpets the floor, and more screaming bodies plummet to fatal crimson thuds outside ground-level windows. Fire surrounds the concourse. Praimnath knows he and his new friend are still in danger, but he is determined to survive.

"You’re going to have to soak yourself under the sprinklers," he informs Clark. "The only way out is through the fire."

Drenched and ready, the men burst through a flaming revolving door, stepping through a horrific spread of body parts and broken glass as they dash across the street toward historic Trinity Church two blocks away on Broadway.

"I have to get to the first church I see to thank God," Praimnath says. As he grasps the gate of the Episcopal church, the tower he just escaped collapses.

Praimnath hands Clark his business card as he pushes the older man into a passing vehicle, instructing the driver to take him to safety. Praimnath flags down another vehicle and is driven to the Brooklyn Bridge, where he joins a human tidal wave out of Manhattan. He is safe, and soon is reunited with his wife, Jennifer, and daughters, Stephanie, 8, and Caitlin, 4.

Praimnath’s account is but one example of how the terrorism that struck the United States on September 11 has impacted Assemblies of God churches and members throughout the country, both directly and indirectly. As with Praimnath, some inside the 110-story Twin Towers miraculously escaped before the buildings collapsed. Others felt led by the Lord to go to work later than normal. Several woke up ill that morning and phoned in sick.

Still more people have worked heroically and valiantly in rescue and relief efforts. Nationwide, churches opened their doors for services and prayer vigils. While some deeds of goodwill may never be known, this issue of the Pentecostal Evangel tells how some Assemblies of God believers played a role in facing the most widespread disaster in United States history.

Saved from disaster
God’s providential hand includes delays that seem inconvenient at the time, but turn out to be a blessing.

David Hee-Don Lee

David Hee-Don Lee customarily boards a 7 a.m. flight on Tuesdays from Washington, D.C., to attend World Trade Centers Association executive board meetings in New York. Normally he arrives at his 77th-floor office around 8:45 a.m. to prepare for a 10 a.m. board meeting on the 85th floor.

But September 11 is a different routine. The night before, Lee’s wife, Sun Song, has an allergic reaction to coffee that convinces Lee she should stop drinking the brew. Rather than drink his normal cup of coffee in front of her the morning of September 11, Lee decides to go to a coffee shop at LaGuardia Airport. Yet when he arrives, all the coffee shops have extraordinarily long lines. Lee goes to a soft drink stand and purchases a strawberry juice concoction mixed in ice cubes.

The effect is immediate. Lee runs to an airport restroom.

"Suddenly I felt stomach pain like I never felt before," says Lee, 42. "It was the first time I’ve ever had to spend 15 minutes in a restroom."

Those 15 minutes save his life. As he emerges from a taxi and heads for the WTC south tower entrance at 9:03 a.m., Lee sees the jet crash into the building.

"If I had not been late I would definitely have been killed," says Lee, who attends Washington Christian Church, a Korean Assemblies of God congregation in the nation’s capital.

For Lee, who is also vice president for regional development and education for the World Trade Centers Association, it is not the first time he has escaped chaos at the building. He had been in the lobby when the 1993 truck bomb exploded in the parking garage below.

"We should be ready as Christians for whatever happens," says Lee, who believes that intercessory prayers offered by others spared his life. "We don’t know what will happen in the next minute."

Daniel and Preetha Jesudason

That same morning, Daniel Jesudason of Hackensack, N.J., chats online with his brother a little longer than expected. That puts him behind schedule and he can’t catch his normal 7:45 a.m. train into Manhattan’s financial district, where he is a senior information technology auditor. Had Jesudason, 31, followed his typical schedule, he would have arrived at 8:40 a.m. at his Morgan Stanley Dean Witter office on the 56th floor of the World Trade Center south tower. At 8:55, he reaches for his cell phone to let his boss know he will be late.

But the train he catches, the 8:15, comes to a screeching halt before reaching its destination. An intercom announcement explains there has been an "emergency situation" at the WTC. After he exits the subway, Jesudason, a member of New Life Assembly of God in Hackensack, sees for himself.

A second plane strikes the south tower above the location of Jesudason’s office.

The tragedy subsequently has given Jesudason opportunities to evangelize receptive listeners. "Most of the people I work with are not very religious," he says. "But I tell them [my escape] has nothing to do with luck; it is God’s divine will. God still wants me on this earth for something."

Assault on the Pentagon
Just before 9:40 a.m., Air Force Col. Gary West receives notice from the Pentagon command post that a hijacked plane appears to be headed toward Washington, D.C. Seconds later, he feels a vibration as American Airlines Flight 77 crashes into the opposite side of the headquarters for the U.S. military.

Col. Gary West

Alarms begin to sound. Smoke fills the complex. Most personnel are ordered to evacuate. But as executive assistant to the Joint Chiefs’ J-3 staff headed by a Marine three-star general, West moves into the command center situation room where the military’s top brass determine how to respond to the crisis. The J-3 staff is responsible for the Joint Chiefs’ planning, policies, intelligence, manpower, communications and logistics functions being translated into action. It is the hub for synchronizing and monitoring worldwide military operations and activities.

The conflagration grows in intensity. As West, a member of Manassas (Va.) Assembly of God, hurries down a hallway he ponders reports that a fourth hijacked jet is en route to the nation’s capital, perhaps as a second assault upon the Pentagon. The colonel, a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm, has experienced such defining moments before.

"At such times you have absolutely no control over the events around you," he says. "You must put your total trust and faith in God because you don’t know if you’re going to live or die."

West has peace. He has been buoyed by God’s mighty protective hand in the past, but he is ready to be called heavenward if necessary. As the apostle Paul expressed, for him to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Eventually, the fourth plane crashes into a rural Pennsylvania field. The Pentagon fire is brought under control. West works late into the evening. In crisis-management mode, he participates in meetings where the nation’s highest leaders, including President Bush and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark, a fellow Assemblies of God member, make important decisions. During the next several days he sometimes sleeps on a cot in his office, catching only three hours of sleep a night. Yet his walk with the Lord sustains him.

"These are difficult times that we find ourselves in," West says. "I don’t know how people carry on without Jesus as their personal Savior."

Laboring at ground zero
"It’s worse than Vietnam," says an exhausted rescue worker near the World Trade Center ruins on September 15, four days after the terrorist strike. Rolling up his sleeves, he displays the Social Security number printed in large numerals on his forearms. He wants to be identified if killed during the dangerous rescue and clean-up operations. While several pastors lay hands on him praying for God’s comfort and protection, he asks Jesus to forgive his sins.

The devastation is inconceivable. Mountains of smoldering twisted metal, glass and pulverized concrete hide thousands of bodies. Windows are blown out of surrounding buildings plastered with debris. Many appear beyond repair. "It’s like walking through hell," a police official says.

Thick globs of white soot and crumpled business memos cling to tombstones in the cemetery behind St. Paul’s Chapel, a historic Episcopal church near ground zero. Portable morgues arrive on flatbed trucks. Anxious families affix pictures of missing loved ones on buildings all across New York City.

Yet in the midst of this carnage and suffering, God is moving through Assemblies of God pastors and churches. They bring comfort, spiritual support and practical aid to rescue workers and families of victims. It is an unexpected opportunity to share the love of Christ.

Carl D. Keyes, pastor of Glad Tidings Tabernacle, a 600-member Assemblies of God congregation in midtown Manhattan, sees a ball of fire shoot from the north tower while riding on the Long Island Railroad. "It was incredible," says Keyes, a nationally appointed home missionary. "I rode the last train into the city."

Rushing to his church, he immediately sets up a command post for a relief effort. The church has 20 emergency phone lines installed. Hundreds of members volunteer to assemble critical supplies for the rescue effort. Before the Red Cross arrives on the scene, Glad Tidings furnishes vital support.

Glad Tidings provides food, 1,000 gallons of water, saline solution, towels and other necessary items via ambulances. The church spends $22,000 in the first four days. When local stores run out of towels needed by the rescue workers, Keyes buys 500 T-shirts at a dollar apiece from street vendors. He also purchases 500 pairs of boots for rescue workers. The church pays for paper and pens at the victims registration centers.

Keyes doesn’t sleep for 63 hours. He spends time at St. Vincent’s Hospital triage center counseling grief-stricken family members searching for relatives. He prays with them and distributes Christian literature.

In addition to relief efforts, Glad Tidings collects funds to aid members who have lost their jobs as a result of the catastrophe. Most of those employers are out of business, leaving middle-income families without essential weekly paychecks. Because of this, the church pledges to provide 60 percent of a member’s wages.

Mark T. Gregori, pastor of Crossway Christian Center (Assemblies of God) in the Bronx, helps coordinate a network of pastors and churches. They organize the Ground Zero Task Force to provide financial aid, relief supplies and long-term counseling for the victims’ families and rescue workers. Everything revolves around evangelizing by meeting practical needs. "Now is the time," says Gregori, who is a home missionary and sectional presbyter for Manhattan. "We can really reap a harvest."

The opportunity for individual and collective evangelism is ripe. People are hurting. Fear reigns.

"When we see one of the greatest things that man has ever built collapse before our eyes, we realize that there is nothing on this earth that will last," Keyes says. "Christians have got to unite and proclaim the gospel. We can’t sit back."

Fellowship at prayer
The morning of the tragedy, Assemblies of God General Superintendent Thomas E. Trask in Springfield, Mo., dismisses 1,100 Assemblies of God Headquarters employees, instructing them to go home to pray and fast. The Fellowship sends messages to its 57 district offices, urging officials to ask members to pray and fast. None of the dozen Assemblies of God churches in the Manhattan area sustain damage from the WTC towers collapsing.

"There are many, many people who have lost their lives or loved ones this morning, and probably many more who are injured and in need of medical attention," Trask tells workers. "We need to pray — and pray right now — that God intervenes in the lives of those suffering, as well as for our nation’s leadership."

The day after the disaster, Convoy of Hope, an international compassion organization and cooperative ministry of the Assemblies of God, begins to ship more than 150 tons of food and supplies to assist the wounded and relief workers. In Washington, D.C., Convoy of Hope supplies food and materials to Dennis Nissley of Manassas Assembly of God in Bristow, Va., who has established an on-site feeding center at the Pentagon. The supplies provide meals for hundreds of rescue team members stationed there.

Within the first five days, Convoy of Hope, based in Springfield, Mo., dispatches 44 tons of food and supplies to a former naval base on Staten Island. The contents, delivered by the military, include baby products, breathing filters and water.

"Nothing that’s shown on TV paints the real picture," says Mike Ennis, Convoy executive vice president, who rushes to the disaster scene to assess needs. Four days after the calamity struck, hot steel still sizzles. Burn marks leave imprints on buildings six blocks from the WTC.

Weary firefighters, some sleeping only three hours a night, sift through the debris. The more they dig, the more gruesome the task as they uncover severed body parts. One rescue worker, who had helped construct the WTC in 1973, falls weeping into the arms of church workers, overwhelmed. They lead him to commit his life to Jesus.

Several Assemblies of God chaplains spring into service after the terrorist attacks to help emergency workers continue to function without succumbing to stress. Chaplains encourage the relief workers to become involved in church. "I help them through a process designed to debrief them from what they saw," says Gary Evans of Danbury, Conn. "We get emergency personnel to share what happened and express reactions to it."

Convoy of Hope also transports ready-to-cook items outside the Pentagon four days after the tragedy. The patriotic fervor of the aftermath of the wreckage is evident. As the semi trailer – embossed with a huge American flag – arrives, relief workers stop to salute. Convoy of Hope volunteers leave Bibles with flag covers on the tables at lunch. Several top military officials pick them up.

The long haul
Around the nation, Christians immediately stop to pray at churches, both for organized and spontaneous gatherings. Churches open their doors to allow grieving people to cry out to God. At Glad Tidings Assembly in Manhattan, 6,000 people flock to six services at the church on the day of the terrorist attacks.

On September 14, three days after the attack, Christians across the country gather in lunchtime services at the urging of President Bush, who himself speaks at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Many congregations participate in community-wide events, demonstrating unity that had been so elusive only the week before.

Employees at the Fellowship’s headquarters in Missouri fill the 650-seat chapel for a noon prayer service on the Day of Prayer and Remembrance declared by President Bush. Many weep as Fellowship leaders pray.

Trask believes the tragedy provides a wake-up call for complacent Christians to recommit themselves. "There will be those who have moved away from the church due to prosperity and the affluence of our nation," Trask says. "But they will realize that life is fragile, and we don’t know when the call will come for us."

As with many disasters, the effects will linger. The WTC cleanup alone is expected to last through the winter. Meanwhile, Convoy of Hope is sending an additional 500 tons of relief supplies. "We’re committed to helping our churches reach out to their cities over the long haul," Ennis says.

"The many people who no longer have an income will be the focus of our fund-raising efforts," says New York District Superintendent Saied Adour, who has been sleeping on the floor at Glad Tidings Assembly when not helping with relief efforts. "Many people have lost their livelihood."

David Auterson, senior pastor of El Bethel Assembly on Staten Island, says Convoy of Hope’s presence has given credibility to area Assemblies of God missionaries and opened doors with city officials that had been shut.

"We’re in a strong position to minister to families who are impacted by this," Auterson says. "We’re seeing an openness to the gospel that has not been evident for many years."

In the aftermath of the disaster, resistance to the church has dissipated, he says.

"Rescue workers at the site don’t want to talk to psychiatrists or psychologists," Anterson says. "They want to talk to pastors. They want someone who can pray with them and help make sense of all this."

To give money to relief efforts, click here.

John W. Kennedy is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel. John Cockroft is a staff writer. Peter K. Johnson is a free-lance writer from Milltown, N.J., and reported from ground zero in Manhattan. Staff writer Isaac Olivarez and Dan VanVeen, of the Assemblies of God Office of Public Relations, also contributed to this story.

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