Former Wall Street Journal editor Melanie Kirkpatrick escaped 9/11 to witness New Yorkers learning to rebuild physically and spiritually
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When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers 10 years ago, Melanie Kirkpatrick watched firsthand as the attacks brought New Yorkers to their knees.
Kirkpatrick, editorial page deputy editor at The Wall Street Journal, wore high heels and a navy blue suit that morning when her subway train halted one station short of its destination. A perplexed driver announced that something was clogging the World Trade Center stop and that commuters must exit at Chambers Street, a stop several blocks north of their destination.
Kirkpatrick climbed the steps out of the station and headed toward the Journal's office in one of the World Financial Center buildings, a few hundred yards from the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. She saw heads around her turned skyward, and heard one onlooker say, "It can't be right, but I think I saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center." Another said, "May God have mercy on their souls."
Suddenly Blackberries and cell phones weren't working, and the curious crowded around a car radio on the street. A policewoman wouldn't let Kirkpatrick close to the Journal office, so she decided "I better just start walking," she recalls. "It became clear I wasn't going to get any public transportation."
Kirkpatrick, now 60, kept walking and reached Chinatown, nearly two miles north of the Wall Street area, as the first tower collapsed. People on the crowded streets let out a collective gasp. Around her, Kirkpatrick heard fellow New Yorkers praying out loud. Several blocks later, the second tower collapsed, to the further shock of everyone around her. Stunned herself, Kirkpatrick watched also as the collapsing structures demolished the Journal's World Financial Center offices.
By some accounts, The Wall Street Journal was the first to report, via its Dow Jones wire service, a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. But the proximity of the newsroom to the destruction meant that it also suffered most among prominent New York media. While most employees, like Kirkpatrick, escaped or remained on streets below, John Bussey, then the paper's foreign editor (now its Washington bureau chief), was holed up in the ninth floor Journal office, phoning in live reports to television networks and writing a harrowing account of the destruction that helped win a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper's coverage of 9/11. But he narrowly escaped injury and possible death when the South Tower collapsed, shattering the Journal's newsroom windows and blowing dust and contamination throughout its offices.
"I lost almost everything that had been in my office," says Kirkpatrick. But Journal editors that day worried more that for the first time in the paper's 112-year-old history, they might not be able to publish a paper. To get out the next day's edition, some writers relocated to a makeshift office at an editor's home, while others took up reporting from an office complex in New Jersey, where Dow Jones had established an emergency newsroom after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Kirkpatrick, disconnected from her colleagues and still in high heels, said she could only keep walking-dozens and dozens of city blocks northward to her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But through the chaos, the dust, the tragedy, and the frantic people, she noticed a theme. Walking from Wall Street to Chinatown to Central Park, people were praying-publicly-all around her. "As I walked, I began to notice the open doors of the houses of worship that I passed," she says. "A few had hand-lettered signs saying they were open for prayer."
"At times the quiet, orderly exodus seemed more like a prayer vigil," she wrote in a Journal column three days later, describing her walk uptown and the "countless people with heads bowed and lips moving."
She noticed ministers opening doors of houses of worship, praying and counseling the hurting. She saw clergymen rushing to hospitals, and some to lower Manhattan itself. She later learned that the same phenomenon of people turning toward prayer and faith was happening nationwide. That night when President George W. Bush quoted Psalm 23 in his speech to the nation, Kirkpatrick noted that the line "I will fear no evil" became particularly meaningful to her. When she arrived-in a state of shock-at her own apartment uptown, she says she kneeled to pray and felt a spiritual awakening from all she had witnessed.
"To those who don't know this city, New York may often seem a modern Sodom and Gomorrah," she wrote. "But to those of us who do, it is a shining City on a Hill, a city of magnificent churches, synagogues, and, increasingly, mosques and shrines and temples."
The theme she saw in New York was "that religion and people's reliance on God in a time of crisis was very evident." It became a time when strangers cared for strangers, residents wanted to express resilience rather than retreat, and the city displayed its emotional and spiritual side much more publicly than in the past. "I think New Yorkers had a sense of how we behaved would represent to the world American strength," she says. "And American compassion, too."
Many believe that 9/11 brought a transformation in the city that's contributed-along with expanded law enforcement-to a significant drop in crime. Major felony offenses in the city have dropped from over 162,000 in 2001 to 105,000 in 2010-a 35 percent decline.
Alongside that decline has been growth in the number of evangelical houses of worship in the city. The majority of evangelical churches in Manhattan today began in 1988 or after, but an acceleration in church growth was most noticeable after 9/11, according to the online magazine A Journey Through NYC Religions. Almost 40 percent of evangelical churches in Manhattan started since 2000. In September and October 2009 one new evangelical church opened its doors for worship every Sunday.
Kirkpatrick's life also has changed in a decade. She retired from the Journal in 2009 after nearly 30 years at the newspaper. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, serves as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and is completing a book about 20,000 Christians in North Korea who have escaped their oppressive regime through an underground railroad through China and other countries in Asia.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp purchased the Journal in 2007 and moved it to midtown Manhattan near the Rockefeller Center in 2009. The paper continued to figure prominently in the unfolding war on terror. In Afghanistan, a Journal reporter in late 2001 bought a pair of looted computers that turned out to have been used by leaders of al-Qaeda to plan assassinations and chemical and biological attacks. Shortly after that, al-Qaeda kidnapped the Journal's South Asia bureau chief, Daniel Pearl, and later beheaded him.
Kirkpatrick often wrote about national security and military affairs for the Journal's editorial page. The events of 9/11 made "the dangers we face as a nation" more clear to her-and she says she's surprised that the Obama administration so far has continued in the broad framework the Bush administration established for fighting a war on terror as 9/11 forced the nation to realize that "we need to do more to protect ourselves." Overall, she believes Bush's actions will be regarded favorably: "History will look more kindly on him than how people left of center have viewed him."
Her own path mirrors what she says is a more religious New York City than it was 10 years ago: "When there is a crisis in a family-or the urban family of New York City-people turn to their religion in a way that they might not" normally. Kirkpatrick attends a church in Manhattan's Upper East Side, Park Avenue Methodist, as well as a Methodist church in Barkhamsted, Conn.
But she believes the feuds and delays over rebuilding the World Trade Center site are "a national disgrace." The way city, state, and other interests have fought, she says, "was a big contrast to the way the city came together in the days after September 11."
The terrorism attacks transformed the nation's bustling financial center into a war zone, with the acrid smell of concrete dust, ash, and remains blanketing the air. Today dust fills the air again, but it's accompanied by a symphony of jack hammering, dump trucks rattling, and workers yelling amid the tenor of clanking metal. Sixteen construction cranes loom over Ground Zero, their long necks bobbing like doting giraffes. Everywhere, dusty workers in fluorescent yellow vests lumber in and out of buildings and mix with the flow of tourists toting cameras and shopping bags. Overhead, workers in hard hats are slowly dressing the raw steel and concrete bones with mirrored glass.
Only one tower will replace the twin towers. Tower One, known as Freedom Tower, is more than halfway on its way to the symbolic 1,776 feet, and to becoming the tallest building in the nation. Worries about businesses returning to the area are subsiding as publishing powerhouse Condé Nast signed a 25-year lease for 1.1 million square feet-a third of the space in Freedom Tower-for its global headquarters. All construction is expected to be complete by 2012.
"It is such a complex project that you don't have time to stop and think about it," said Steve, a construction worker who said he was not allowed to give his last name to reporters. "But most of the guys are taking this more personally."
Meanwhile, the plaza at the center of the five skyscrapers that will form the new complex will have a new heart. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum reflecting pools, in the footprints of the former twin towers, are slated to open for the 10th anniversary commemoration on Sept. 11. Every weekend, workers fill the 30-foot-deep cascading pools, which run 24,000 gallons of water a minute, in preparation.
"I think it will heal some people and becomes a constant reminder: You don't want that ever to happen again," said Angelo Alvarez, a postman with a delivery route in the area. He hopes that visitors from around the world who tour the site will ask, "What can we do to change, to learn and prevent it from happening again?"
-with reporting by Elbert Chu in New York
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