20 years after 9/11, a survivor reflects and prays for Afghanistan

by Tan Huey Ying // September 9, 2021, 7:08 pm


A US Navy videographer documents the crime scene where the World Trade Center collapsed following the September 11 terrorist attack. Photo by Aaron Peterson/Flickr.

“Though 20 years have passed, it still feels like yesterday,” Judith Francis-Wertenbroch tells Salt&Light. She is referring to the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001.

She had escaped after running down 102 floors from her office in Tower Two of the World Trade Centre in New York. The second plane crashed into the building even before Judith had even reached the 80th floor but she made it out minutes before the building collapsed. Many friends and colleagues did not.

That day, 3,000 others lost their lives.

The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) set up in 2011 just released a report on Tuesday, September 7, 2021, stating that more people have died from illnesses related to the attacks than were killed on the actual day.

On September 20, 2001, then-President George W Bush declared a “war on terror”. By October that year, US military and NATO allies were battling the Taliban on Afghan soil.

911 attacks September 11 2001

Film strip of the last photos taken by photojournalist Bill Biggart on September 11, 2001. His body was later found with three cameras and six rolls of film. Photo by Cliff Nostri Imago on Flickr.

Judith was eventually diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suffered from panic and anxiety attacks for many years, triggered by even the simplest of things like a ringing telephone.

“Unless it was another survivor, they could not enter my world and truly understand.”

She saw a psychologist twice a week and was treated for headaches, dizziness, abdominal problems and even internal bleeding that required surgery several months later.

“Everything was intense; it was always on your mind,” she told Salt&Light in an earlier interview.

“I felt disconnected. Unless it was another survivor, they could not enter my world to the degree that they would truly understand.”

Still, she sought refuge in God and would often retreat to a small quiet room to ask Him: “Do You really believe I can make it through this?”

A mist settles over Manhattan on the 8th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Photo by Dov Harrington on Flickr.

His answer was always a sense of overwhelming peace.

“Do You really believe I can make it through this?”

Eventually, with both professional and spiritual help, Judith has found herself more and more able to cope with the trauma.

The year 2019 was the first time she spoke about her experience publicly at a youth forum and vigil for victims of the terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

As the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached with the crisis in Afghanistan on the forefront, Salt&Light invited Judith, who is a psychologist by training, to share her thoughts on the crisis.

Does the 20-year mark hold any significance for you?  

For me, though 20 years have passed, it still feels like yesterday.

I have heard people argue about the validity of the Scriptures because too many years had passed, post-Christ, for the details to be true. 

I come back to simply being thankful for what and where I am at the moment.

From my experience – and I believe it is true of any person who has experienced something so life changing – the details of the traumatic event will never be forgotten unless forgetting helps the person(s) cope.

I have had a number of “what if” moments lately but in the end, I come back to simply being thankful for what and where I am at the moment.

Sometimes, when I hear certain things, I feel myself welling up in tears or I may sense a change in my body language.

At other times, I still wonder how it is that I am alive since I was directly in the line-of-fire. Why I am alive and what is my purpose for being here? 

What are some of your thoughts and prayers as the situation in Afghanistan plays out?

It is devastating to watch and hear stories about so many who fear so greatly for their lives ­– men, women and children.

Their struggles have been for decades, not just the past few weeks or months we’ve all witnessed recently. 

“The hate crimes many witnessed after September 11th, 2001, could very well arise again.”

As I watched the crisis in Afghanistan unfold, my husband and I have constantly prayed for the governments of countries which have people there to be guided and instructed in the way they should move forward.

I have prayed specifically for the women and girls to be protected, especially when looking at videos of women who were beaten by the Taliban over 20 years ago for showing even their hands in public.

Additionally, I feel for the people who were able to get out. Though they believe that where they are going will be a lot better than remaining in Afghanistan (and I’m sure it will be for most), I’m still concerned about the trauma and hateful acts which will be levelled against them.

Though many have helped America (and other countries) escape some major atrocities, they will be attacked and hated by people in their new environments. They will be hated for their race, religion and cultural differences.

The hate crimes many witnessed after September 11th, 2001, could very well arise again.

Having gone through trauma yourself, how does our faith give you hope? 

As I buckle down to write a book of my experiences, I have been speaking to my older sister about the experiences we each had that morning.

“The rest of us around the world need to recognise that tears and inner turmoil are not signs of weakness.”

She worked across the street from the World Trade Centers at Liberty Plaza so what she saw from her vantage point is significant for me (someone looking at what was happening inside Tower Two) since a few hours had passed before she and my mom were able to speak to me.

My sister seems amazed that I can face the questions and scenarios with such strength, despite my obvious pain as we speak.

Post-traumatic stress symptoms never go away. Those of us who have been traumatised, whether it is from a war-like situation or violence against our person, must learn to manage how to live and to do so fully and healthily.

For me, personally, my faith as a believer in Jesus Christ is what has taken me through the last 20 years, post September 11, 2001.

I also believe and know within that my faith has also helped me cope with the different crises which have arisen since.

Hebrews 12:1 tells us to “throw off everything that hinders…”. Then, it goes on to call us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

When I consider that Jesus “endured such opposition” to give me fullness of life, I truly consider my trials an opportunity for growth to strengthen parts of my life which may need to be fortified in one way or another.

“My faith as a believer in Jesus Christ is what has taken me through the last 20 years, post September 11, 2001.”

It takes self-reflection and time and the support system needs just to be there!

It isn’t a matter of telling the traumatised person what he or she must do.

Patience is needed. “Safe” people are a must. Sometimes the traumatised person simply needs someone to listen and give of himself or herself to help rebuild the broken person. 

The rest of us around the world need to recognise that tears and inner turmoil are not signs of weakness. That even though things hurt deeply, people can still rise and use their trauma to build.

To bounce forward and be better than before.

To be stronger in ways than we ever were.

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


A prayer for Afghanistan

Judith also shared a prayer for the aid workers and people in Afghanistan, adding: “May God bless you so you all continue to be a blessing.”

Father, in Your great mercy, please hear my prayers for the medical providers and others who have chosen to remain in Afghanistan to help the people who are there. 

Lord, instruct and guide them in the way they should go (Psalm 32:8).

I also pray for all those who are desperately trying to flee Afghanistan, for their lives and safety and success. Give them eyes to see and ears to hear as Your Holy Spirit reveals the actions they need to take to rescue individuals or to bring about Your will.

I pray a continual hedge of protection around each person – the helpers and the victimised (Psalm 34:7).

Lord, lead them to be keenly discerning and to know when You are speaking to them; Your ways are higher than our ways, Lord, and I pray for them to have godly wisdom in the choices and decisions before them. 

May your Shalom Peace be upon them in all of their decision making and collaborative efforts now and always.

In Jesus’ mighty name.


About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".