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“I believe God prepared me”: A 9/11 survivor remembers the day that changed the world

On the anniversary of September 11, 2001, Salt&Light speaks to a 9/11 survivor who shares her story of faith and hope in the midst of a world ravaged by terror.

by Tan Huey Ying // September 11, 2019, 12:01 am

jphillipobrien on Flickr

A photo of the evacuation underway when the South Tower collapsed on September 11, 2001. It was the very tower from which 9/11 survivor Judith Francis-Wertenbroch escaped after it was hit by the second hijacked plane. Photo by J Philip O’Brien on Flickr.

“Please return to your offices, the situation is under control. Please return to your offices, the situation is under control.”

Around her, fear and panic.

Above her, the sounds of chaos and destruction.

Overhead, the public announcement system broadcast an automated recording on replay.

Out of her mouth, the words of Psalm 91 were also on repeat: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High …” (Psalm 91:1)

And amidst the growing fear inside, a moment of epiphany when Judith Francis-Wertenbroch finally understood the meaning of a nightmare that had plagued her for the last 20 years.

Francis is one of the survivors of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. That morning, nearly 3,000 people died.

The attacks left an indelible mark, not just in history, but also on the lives of those who survived it.

Psalm 91

Francis, who now lives in Singapore and is the regional director of Roffey Park Institute Asia Pacific, grew up in church but never really understood what it truly meant to be a believer in Jesus Christ.

Not until one Friday night in January 2001 which marked her return to Christ.

“I needed to try and understand why I had this nightmare, and why it changed. What did it mean?”

She remembers the day clearly. It was raining as she came home from work that last Friday of January. Somehow, she felt compelled to read her Bible and, for three hours, she reread the Scriptures that she grew up memorising.

“I was on the floor – just bawling – until about 10.30pm.”

Two months later, Francis woke up one morning to find that a recurring dream had changed. Since she was about eight, Francis had always dreamt of being chased by a large herd of cows.

“The whole sense of stampeding … it felt like a nightmare because it had been going on for so many years,” she recounts.

But that morning in March 2001, she realised that the “stampede” she used to run away from was now a herd of different shapes, sizes and colours running with her.

Francis recalled a story in the Bible where Joseph, a man of God, comforts two fellow prisoners who were perturbed by their dreams: “Do not the interpretation of dreams belong to God?” (Genesis 40:8)

“I can’t explain it, but I needed to memorise that psalm.”

With that revelation, Francis explains: “I needed to try and understand why I had this nightmare, and why it changed. What did it mean?”

As Francis continued to learn to live according to God’s Word, sometime in April 2001, she was in a friend’s car headed into downtown Manhattan when she noticed a small Bible that was opened to Psalm 91.

She asked for permission to see it. In his car, Francis read through the whole psalm of protection. “In that moment,” Francis pauses, as if searching for the right words. “I can’t explain it, but I needed to memorise that psalm.”

So, every day, in the morning and evening, she read Psalm 91. She kept a small Bible in her bag and even during her commute, Francis would be poring over this psalm.

Within two or three months, she had it memorised word for word.

The day the world changed

8.46am on September 11, 2001:

From her office a hundred floors up in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York City, Francis was looking out of the window when she saw the first hijacked plane crash into the North Tower.

Seventeen minutes later, at 9.03am, the second plane hit the South Tower in an upward trajectory between the 77th and 86th floor of the building.

Shaken by the impact, but left with no alternative, they continued 80 floors down in the flow of panicked humans.

At that exact point in time, Francis and her colleague were running down emergency stairwell B in the middle of the building. Shaken by the impact, but left with no alternative, they continued 85 floors down in the flow of panicked humans.

“As my colleague and I were running down the stairs, I’m reciting Psalm 91 …” Francis’ voice trails off.

“Over and over. These were the Scriptures, the prayers that were coming to me.”

And in those moments, her dream suddenly made sense: “These were the people running with me.”

Francis and her colleague escaped that day with their lives intact.

But for Francis, the days that followed were plagued with panic and anxiety attacks, triggered by even the most innocuous of things such as the ringing of a telephone.

Photo of Judith Francis with her nephew when he visited her in Singapore.

Judith, who now lives in Singapore, with her nephew when he visited in 2017.

“Everybody’s world changed. Everything was intense; it was always on your mind,” she says. “I felt disconnected. Unless it was another survivor, they could not enter my world to the degree that they would truly understand.”

Francis adds: “Those closest to me, my nephew and nieces, would look at me with caution. When my therapist looked at me, I could see – in her eyes – how traumatised I was. But I had no idea, I had no sense of me.”

“God had prepared me”

At work, a semblance of normalcy soon returned. Francis, a psychologist by training, recounts how colleagues were sounding boards for each other amidst appointments with doctors and therapists.

“I was functioning,” she remembers. “But when I got home, I dove into the Bible.”

“Before September 11, He was guiding me. I believe God prepared me for this.”

“I was a very fragile, shy and timid person,” Francis explains quietly. “In seasons when we are really ravaged by the brokenness of the world, and what seems like senseless things are happening to us, there’s definitely a place to hide in the Lord.

“You have to run to God, not run away from Him, right?”

The purpose of the terrorists was to destroy, not just the physical buildings but the hope that people have living in America. But you’re not going to destroy what is in here, Francis points to her heart.

“And if my relationship with Christ is truly a relationship, whatever you do will not destroy that. So I will walk in the strength of who He calls me to be.”

At home, Francis often retreated to a small quiet room to ask God: “Do You really believe I can make it through this?”

Each time, His answer to her was an overwhelming sense of peace.

In March 2017, Francis relocated to Singapore with her husband. Photo of Judith Francis with her husband taken in New York City.

Judith with her husband in New York City. In March 2017, they relocated to Singapore.

And soon, she recognised that, yes, God had already equipped her. “Before September 11, He was guiding me,” she said to her therapist. “I believe God prepared me for this.”

How could you say that? No one could ever be prepared for this, was the reply.

“If you read Psalm 91 in the New Living Translation version, in every verse, my life is being lived out.”

Even today, 18 years on, Francis still suffers the occasional panic or anxiety attack as a result of her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But hers is a life that is held secure in the refuge and fortress of God (Psalm 91:2).

The shalom of God

In July 2012, Francis broke her neck after a fall. Three vertebrae in her cervical spine had been smashed and she was at risk of being paralysed from the neck down if she did not undergo a complicated, high-risk surgery.

As the doctor explained the procedure of replacing the broken bones with donated vertebrae from a cadaver, her close friends who were accompanying her in the hospital glanced at each other before venturing: “Judith, aren’t you afraid?”

How can you praise God? “For me, it is, ‘How could I not?’”

But Francis says emphatically: “I felt such peace; total, total, total peace.

“If I had been told this before September 2001, I would have been a basket case. Fear would have enveloped me to no end.”

To her, it boils down to the love of God and, in response, her perspective of the crises that come her way.

“I simply see it as His hand on my life, and that He’s trusting me with something that is going to reveal His glory, His power,” says Francis.

A glory that is revealed in God taking someone from pain and despair to a place of peace and rest.

My deepest desire is to be so closely aligned with the will of God that I will continually praise him whatever He brings – whatever He allows, she corrects herself. “If He allows me to go through this, what is the purpose of this so that He will be glorified in it?”

How can you praise God when He allowed you to go through something like this?

“‘How can I?’ That question has been asked a million times over,” Francis says.

“For me, it is, ‘How could I not?’”

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About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Salt&Light writer Huey Ying is a millennial with a résumé to prove it – she was a plankton-sized part of the finance industry before serving in a Christian organisation. She loves the sea and you will find her somewhere near the water during her holidays.