by Rebecca D. Higgins
Solemn anniversaries such as 9/11 cause many of us to reflect on where we were on September 11, 2001. My story is a bit different. I wasn’t on American soil on that beautiful September Tuesday morning. I was living in Vladimir, Russia where I worked at a small Bible college many, many miles away from family. There was an eight-hour time difference between New York and Vladimir. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. EST, it was already 4:46 p.m. in Russia. I was working in my office at our ministry center. We had begun a new school year at the beginning of the month, and I had paperwork and lesson preparations that kept me busy. There were no news headlines, television screens, or cell phones in that office to alert me as to what was happening half a world away.
My friend Katya stopped by to urge me to put my work away for a while to go to a party. Two young women from our local church were scheduled to fly to the U.S. the next day for an exchange program, and there was a going-away party for them that night at some friends’ apartment.
Rather than haul my book-laden heavy backpack with me to the party, I opted to leave it in the office and planned to run by to pick it up before I went on home for the night. I had no personal car in Russia, so Katya and I took the public bus as usual to the nearest bus stop and walked the rest of the way to the party location. Again, there were no phones or TV alerts to interrupt the party. I’m not sure how long I stayed, but it was dark by the time I headed back to the ministry center. My plan had been to pick up my backpack and head on home. Instead, I settled in to work once again in my office and was oblivious of time.
The only other people in the building were a few students who lived in some rooms upstairs. Normally, our ministry field director and his wife would have been in their apartment upstairs at the other end of the building, but they were out of town. For anyone trying to reach me by phone, it was impossible. While I had a phone in my office, it didn’t ring directly. Outside calls came in on another line and had to be directed to that phone. Since it was after hours, the main phone went to an answering machine.
It was probably somewhere around 10:00 p.m. that I was startled by a knock on my office door. I looked up and saw my colleague Tamara through the glass. As I let her in, she asked, “Did Paul get a hold of you? He’s been trying to reach you all night but couldn’t find you.” Paul was our Russian go-to guy that handled a lot of business arrangements for us.
“No. What’s wrong?” I asked, immediately concerned. “How did you know I was here?”
“I finally got through to Katya, and she told me that you were coming back to the ministry center from the party. Since I couldn’t reach you at your apartment, I decided to walk over to see if you were still here. I knew you needed to know what was going on.” (Tamara lived a short walking distance away from the ministry center.)
It was at that moment that I learned the horror that had been unfolding over the last several hours at home. I sat with my jaw dropped in disbelief as Tamara described for me the fate of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the damaged Pentagon, and the United Flight 93 plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania.
Incredulous, I know I kept repeating myself: “The towers are gone?!! . . . They collapsed?!! . . . Oh, my! How many lives have been lost?”
Tamara told me that as soon as Paul had called her she had turned on the TV. Normally, the only English news we could get was from the BBC, but a channel that was usually for foreign-language movies (including many American films) had changed their satellite to pick up CNN America that was covering the 9/11 attacks.
After Tamara and I talked for a bit, I was eager to put my work away and get home for the night. She left, and I called a taxi to come pick me up. Even though to most people I met in Russia it was pretty obvious that I was an American, I definitely tried to keep a lower profile by limiting my talking on taxi rides, especially when alone at night. That night was different, however.
When the taxi arrived, I climbed into the back seat and gave the driver my destination. As we pulled out and headed down the darkened streets of Vladimir, the driver asked me a direct question in Russian: “Where are you from?”
Having just been informed of the tragedy unfolding in my country, I knew why he was asking. I answered simply, “I’m from the United States.”
“It’s terrible what’s happened!” he declared.
I told him that I had just found out and was eager to make sure my family members were all okay. As he let me out, he again expressed how terrible the events of the day were.
I hurried into the apartment building. The tiny elevator that took me to the top floor where my apartment was located seemed to be so much slower that night.
As soon as I closed the apartment door behind me and dropped my bag on the floor, I headed straight for the TV. I pushed the channel buttons until TV1000 came on, and there for the first time I saw the pictures of the unfolding tragedy—videos that have become so familiar in the years since. I wept.
I honestly don’t remember when or how I contacted my family– whether I called or if I emailed. At that time my uncle traveled a lot by plane, and I was concerned about where he was. When I got in touch with my aunt, she assured me that he was okay. I later learned that my mom had been traveling home from South Carolina by herself when reports of the attacks came on the radio of her car. Having lived through World War 2 and remembering the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was terrified and eager to get home.
If I slept that night, it was only fitful dozing on the couch in front of the TV. I sat there most of the night with my eyes glued to the screen praying out loud that survivors would be found and for the families of those who had lost loved ones. Like everyone else, I was in shock.
As I saw the planes hit the towers of the World Trade Center and watched them collapse in voluminous clouds of dust and smoke enveloping Lower Manhattan, my mind flew back to my only “visit” to New York City. There was no sightseeing except from the window of an airplane as I had flown in and out of JFK just a little over a year before as I returned to Russia after flying home to attend my father’s funeral. Having never been to New York before, I had eagerly looked out the window for the familiar landmarks of Manhattan highlighted in the golden glow just before sunset. I could hardly fathom that what I was seeing on my TV screen was the same place.
The next morning I headed back to the ministry center where our school day was scheduled to begin with a chapel service. Knowing that not all of our students had televisions and might not have been informed of what was taking place in the United States, I shared with them. I knew that not just American lives were lost that day, that the 9/11 attacks had global impact. Our chapel service that morning became a prayer meeting.
Later that morning, I was working in the Bible college office when a woman who had attended our church on several occasions entered. She had since moved from Vladimir to an outlying village. That morning when she heard of the tragedy in the United States, she wanted to come to our ministry center because she knew there were Americans there. She handed me a single carnation and embraced me, exclaiming over and over how terrible she felt and that she wanted to give me that flower in remembrance. For her, I was the representative for my whole country, and she wanted all Americans to know how sorry she was.
As an American in the aftermath of a tragedy that cut deeply into the heart of my country, I would have loved to have gathered with family and many other Americans to embrace, cry, pray, and sing our collective anthems. However, my experience was different. I was far from home, far from my country. The tears that joined mine, the arms that embraced me, and the prayers that surrounded me were from my brothers and sisters in Christ who happened to have a very different passport than I did.
While my 9/11 memories incorporate the American Stars and Stripes and anthems, they go much farther than that. My 9/11 memories remind me that as a follower of Christ, my citizenship isn’t just in an earthly nation but in God’s kingdom; and I have brothers and sisters from every language and nationality. In Christ, the dividing walls are broken . . . or at least they should be if we are walking in obedience to Him. Today when I read the comments that flow across my social media –comments that are so divisive in nature even from people who call themselves Christians, I sometimes think we have forgotten who we are. On 9/11, I never want to forget the lives that were lost on that fateful Tuesday so many years ago and the impact that tragedy had on my country, but I also never want to forget who I am in Christ and who He calls me to be. NEVER FORGET!