The Soul and September 11
Tracking the spiritual fallout of 9/11 on three New Yorkers
Though the actual events lasted mere minutes, the fall of the World Trade Towers continues to reverberate in the lives of all Americans, particularly those who were in lower Manhattan that day and experienced the horror first-hand.
As the bright light of the late summer morning of September 11, 2001 was blocked out by thick plumes of smoke, a great deal of what Americans had always taken for granted was shaken to its foundation. While much has been made of how our sense of power, privilege and security were threatened on 9/11, the toll it took on faith lives of Americans—believed to be one of the most religious populations on earth—is seldom mentioned.
In the following, three New Yorkers who were there that fateful morning, talk about how their spiritual journeys were forever altered by the attacks and what steps they’ve taken to change their lives.
While participating in a conference call in his Goldman Sachs office three blocks south of the World Trade Center, Steven Fulop found himself watching the effects of the first crash unfold on CNBC when his building shook with the nearby impact of the second plane. Walking down 40 flights to the street, Fulop headed toward the waterfront to catch a ferry home to New Jersey. From a boat in the Hudson River, he saw the collapse of the second tower directly in front of him.
“It affected me profoundly,” Fulop, 29, said. “You go through soul searching. What was I doing with my life? I felt empty. I felt that I had not done anything to give back to the country or the community.”
A View of Ground Zero
With a direct view of Ground Zero from his Jersey City apartment, Fulop contemplated his life. With an eye toward reprioritizing, he reflected on his work at Goldman Sachs as well as his immigrant parents and his involvement with a children’s charity.
Fulop, who is Jewish, reconnected with his faith in the weeks following the attacks. He attended synagogue and prayed more often. His soul searching led him to take a leave of absence from his job and join the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.
The decision to leave the cushy confines of Wall Street for Marine boot camp at Parris Island was greeted with disbelief from family, friends and colleagues. They all thought he was destroying his career.
“My family came here with nothing,” Fulop said of his decision to join the military. “Everything we have is based on what this country offers.”
Nearly two years later, Fulop was a part of the first American forces to enter Baghdad. During his time in Iraq, he carried a Bible with him and attended religious services as much as he could.
Returning in 2003, Fulop wanted to continue the community service that had become important to him following September 11. He became more involved with several groups in his neighborhood and he entered politics. He now serves as a city councilman in Jersey City and donates his city salary to charity.
Just a half mile in north of the Twin Towers in his Tribeca apartment, journalist Dave Kansas was focusing on his new job at The Wall Street Journal when he heard a low-flying plane overhead and then the plane’s crash into the north tower. Kansas quickly grabbed his phone and headed outside to find out what was happening.
“I could see people jumping, that went on for a while” he said of standing below the towers in the time before the second plane hit. “Then I saw the fireball explode towards where I was standing. I was in front of a building with a hallway towards the north and I ran through it.”
Angry at God
In the weeks that followed, Kansas tried to come to terms with what had happened and started to suffer from nightmares that would plague him for several years. “I was angry, how does God let this happen?” he said.
Ironically, recognizing the fragility of human existence ultimately helped to strengthen his faith. Kansas, became involved with a Bible study group of journalists and was then approached by the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where he was a member, about becoming involved with the creation of a new Anglican church in Manhattan.
In helping to create the church, Kansas, now in his late 30s, was able to reconnect with his own faith and address his anger toward God. “Scripture talks about how it is hard to understand God’s purposes,” Kansas said. “Sometimes you don’t know why something happens. I made peace with that reality and moved forward.”
Tom Getzendanner was already hard at work in his 34th floor office in the World Trade Center’s south tower when the first plane struck. Instead of evacuating the building, Getzendanner, who worked in finance, continued to make phone calls and send e-mails to clients in Asia.
He finally left the building as the south tower began to shake. When he emerged several blocks away and was finally able to see the damage the terrorists wrought, he still believed that his sister, Susan, who worked on the 96th floor, was also able to get out. After running for cover in a bank vault when the towers collapsed and making his way uptown, Getzendanner realized that his sister, Susan, 58, wasn’t as fortunate as he.
“I was pretty well shaken,” he said. “You can lose hope; you can assume mankind is no good.”
Time in the Middle East
In the months following Sept. 11, Getzendanner, who had worked abroad in the past, decided to take a job for a bank in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the hope of better understanding the Arab world and seeing that Arabs were not all anti-American. His time in the Middle East helped him understand his Christian faith better.
While in Saudi Arabia, he had to worship on Fridays, with other foreigners in a secret church service, as non Muslim services were banned in Riyadh. He noticed that his Arab co-workers would take time out five times a day to pray, which he said was not productive from a business standpoint, but built a sense of community amongst his co-workers. He began to see that not all Arabs wanted to harm America and he experienced being a minority in the Muslim country. When he and his family returned to the United States, Getzendanner, who is in his 50s, decided to leave his career and pursue community service activities fulltime.
“I felt an obligation to restore the common good,” Getzendanner said. “I recognized that I had been taking more than I had been giving.”
Getzendanner had done some volunteer work in his children’s schools in the past but decided to serve his Summit, NJ community by running for the town’s Common Council. Since his election, he has dedicated himself fulltime to the post, which carries no salary.
“I am not trying to advance personally,” he said of his political career. “My goal is to give away things and simplify my life.”