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Remembering Sept. 11

Pastor recalls that a pre-empted doughnut run kept her from being in the World Trade Center at the time of terrorist attack.
Liz D. Rios lugged a stack of books she planned to share with her women in ministry class at Nyack College in Manhattan.

But the heavy, bulky load prompted her to alter her routine morning doughnut run. First, she decided, she would head to her office to drop off the books.

That snap decision on Sept. 11, 2001, kept her from the being in the doughnut shop in the lower level of the World Trade Center when Flight 11 hit the north tower.

Around the time Rios made it to the office 14 blocks away, she could see flames from the gaping hole in the building’s northern façade.

“How could somebody bang into the World Trade Center?” wondered Rios, who leads The Passion Center, a nontraditional Assemblies of God faith community in Miramar, Florida. “None of us thought it was a terrorist attack. None of us thought it would end up being what it did.”

Those in the office gathered in the school auditorium for prayer before returning to work. That’s when her husband, Hiram, called. He saw police cars, ambulances, and fire engines with sirens wailing.

“As I'm talking to him, I'm looking outside the window and I see this giant plane coming my direction,” recalls Rios, 53. “It looked like a slow-motion B-movie with the plane so low.”

The plane banked sharply. It crashed into the south tower. The phone connection cut off.

That morning 18 years ago, 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial flights in carrying out suicide terrorist attacks that unfolded in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died and more than 6,000 suffered injuries.

Upon witnessing the terrorist act, the school’s vice president,
David Turk, immediately sent everybody home. Rios decided she needed to pick up her 4-year-old son, Samuel, at a nearby school. She asked office assistant Betsy Rivera to give her a ride.

Outside on the street, Rios found utter chaos. Debris fell everywhere amid the smoke. Dust-covered people ran, crying as they tried to reach loved ones on cellphones.

“I remember the sounds of crying, sirens, shouting of the first responders, cars honking because everybody was trying to get out of the area,” Rios says. She picked up Samuel at school. As Rivera drove away, Rios looked back toward the World Trade Center.

“That’s when I saw the first tower fall,” she remembers.

At Rivera’s apartment, the women watched the horrid events on television.

“That’s when we knew the severity, that there were multiple attacks in various places, that this was indeed a terrorist attack,” Rios says.

Her thoughts raced to her husband and their younger son, Daniel Jeremiah, whom Hiram had taken that morning to a doctor’s appointment. The telephone grid had shut down. It took until that evening for the couple to get a signal, work out a meeting point, and connect. Like tens of thousands of other stranded New Yorkers amid the mass transit stoppage and road closures, they started walking. They lived miles away in the Bronx.

Soon Rios, an AG minister since 1991, left the school to lead a faith-based mental health effort via The Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) House of Healing that helped New Yorkers deal with the aftermath of 9/11. The center, with church-based hubs in each of New York’s five boroughs, came about after city officials awarded LPAC the largest mental health contract to a faith-based agency ($4 million) to provide crisis counseling.

AG churches providing ministers for the program included Primitive Christian Church, where her brother-in-law Marc Rivera then served as associate pastor and a police chaplain. Rivera was among the first clergy to arrive on the scene, with Primitive being the closest AG church to Ground Zero.

“You could sense that evil had been deposited even in the concrete of the sidewalk,” Rivera says.

That gruesome day of death and terror remained etched in Rios’ brain. For years she had difficulty sleeping. Seeing images from Sept. 11 instantly prompted her to cry. Only in the past couple of years has she been able to talk about that day without tears and see photographs without reacting to them.

Nearly two decades later, Rios reflects on the presence of God throughout the ordeal.

“Sometimes when tragedy strikes, we forget that while this Christian journey is resurrection and hope, it’s also suffering,” she says. “God never left. God was very present.”

No matter what the crisis, people still seek the Church for solace, she says.

“In the end, people are looking for hope,” Rios says. “We are the people who carry hope every day.”

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.