Remembering 9/11: How God gave beauty for ashes
On this anniversary of September 11, 2001, a 9/11 survivor shares her story of faith and hope in the midst of a world ravaged by terror.
Peck Sim // September 11, 2023, 6:02 pm
"I understood America was under attack when I saw not one, but both, towers ablaze," recounts Peck Sim. Photo by Julien Maculan on Unsplash.
When the Twin Towers in New York City collapsed, my life fell apart.
That day forever changed the skyline of New York City and the landscape of my life.
I had arrived in New York just the year before. I was 28, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and I jumped right into the embrace of a city that seduced with both its sparkle and its grit. I started my journalism career in an office facing Central Park South with its changing colours.
September 11 forever changed the skyline of New York City and the landscape of my life.
I had no friends in New York and survived the first year on a supply of Prozac to carry me through my clinical depression. I eventually met a motley crew of people from different parts of the world.
We spent frigid winters in tiny apartments that held big dreams; we basked in the freshness of spring and the warmth of summers with the entire city as our playground.
New York was a wonderland where the perfume of the posh mingled freely with the pee of the poor and the pot of a people with a collective disdain for authority. The city became my best friend and the seasons a shifting canvas of my life.
Life was good despite my tiny pay cheque with giant taxes.
Until September 11, 2001.
Out of the ashes …
“WHAT?” the man in the subway car screaming into his phone jolted awake many morning commuters on their way to work.
Everyone on the 11th floor made a mad dash for the fire escape, steadily descending into what felt like the beginning of death.
“A plane just crashed into one of the twin towers,” he announced to no one in particular, eyes wide with a mix of bewilderment and unbelief.
Nothing registered with me at that point because I was only half awake and it seemed impossible. The towers were tall and magnificent and visible. “How blind is the pilot?” was the immediate thought that popped into my foggy head.
The train went underground at that moment and we lost network and any connection to the outside world. When I emerged on the street, I was horrified to see not one, but both, towers ablaze, thick clouds of black smoke billowing in the wind. I understood then – it was a terrorist attack.
At the office, news that another plane had hit the Pentagon confirmed that America, not just New York, was under attack.
When the first tower collapsed from the crash, our building trembled and threw us into a panic. Everyone on the 11th floor forgot all emergency drills and made a mad dash for the fire escape, steadily descending into what felt to me like the beginning of death.
TV screens interspersed among the blocks showed all major news networks declaring in bold text: “America Under Attack”.
Out on the streets, ashes from the debris rained like a winter blizzard on people running helter-skelter. Visibility was almost zero.
Every time the chop of a helicopter cut through the smog, hysteria ensued and people scrambled for cover – but where? I lost my co-workers in the pandemonium and kept heading north without knowing where I was going and what I was going to do.
The subway had stopped running by then and I could not get back to my apartment in Queens. So I trudged more than eight kilometres on foot from downtown Manhattan to a friend’s apartment on 72nd street.
Television screens interspersed among the blocks showed all major news networks declaring in bold text “America Under Attack”.
A few my friends congregated at the apartment, silent and shaken. Phone lines were jammed up. Family and friends told me later they had frantically tried to call for days but could not get through.
After the initial shock that numbed any emotion, I plummeted into a black hole.
Witnessing hate on such a massive scale sucked me into an abyss of despair and depression.
Witnessing hate on such a massive scale sucked me into an abyss of despair and depression that even Prozac could not take away.
I was choked by the lingering evidence in the smoke-filled sky from the wreckage, as well as the daily reminders in the news of desperate people jumping out of the towers and others who perished in the attacks during those dark days of terror.
The black wave knocking me down became a tsunami from which I could not emerge. I turned away first from television, then from friends, and sought solace instead in cigarettes, alcohol and bad relationships.
On May 23, 2002, just ahead of the Memorial Day holiday, I found myself slumped over the bathtub, bile dribbling down my chin, a heaving gut trying to eject the alcohol and nicotine in my body and the torment in my soul.
I whimpered without really believing He would: “God help me. Please.”
God met me in that bathroom that night and pulled me into His arms.
… Beauty arises
In the months to come, I found my way to a tiny church in the middle of a ghetto in the South Bronx.
I whimpered without really believing He would: “God help me. Please.” He did.
I was the only Asian there, apart from another fellow Singaporean whom I had contacted in a desperate search for a church.
The place felt wrong – I thought I would die of gunshot wounds before dying from suicide. The people felt wrong – there was a loud Italian pastor passionately preaching to a congregation of mostly black Hispanics and a white American lady who squeezed me with a hug so tight and so long the Singaporean in me felt imprisoned in discomfort.
I thought I would stay through the end of the very long service out of politeness. I ended up returning to that church for 14 years until I left New York. The people there were so real, the affections so raw and the love so unconditional, I felt I was home.
The Word of God opened the eyes of my heart to a hope I never knew and gave me light to sit by in the midst of my darkness. I never talked to anyone about my personal hell, but I felt I had found safe harbour.
In the days, weeks, months, years that followed, I found the answer to my wonderings and a home for my wanderings in Jesus.
Even though I had accepted Jesus as my Saviour since I was 17, the relationship had been a one-sided one with variations of the same conversation: “Dear God, please help me!” and “Thank you Jesus, see you later!”
The Word of God opened the eyes of my heart to a hope I never knew and gave me light to sit by in the midst of my darkness.
That church became my spiritual boot camp. It finally dawned on me how wretched I was in my mess and why Jesus had to die for me. My relationship with Jesus turned then – He was not a genie; He is God and flawless and powerful and important. And He loved me and wanted to be with me.
I learned to love Him back.
I learned to take God seriously and everything else lightly.
I learned in the drug-infested streets of the South Bronx that where sin abounds, grace abounds more (Romans 5:20).
I learned in that ghetto brimming with witchcraft that God is bigger and stronger than any demon.
I learned to talk less and pray more.
It finally dawned on me how wretched I was in my mess and why Jesus had to die for me.
Suspended between the poverty of the ghetto where I worshipped and the staggering wealth of some friends in New York, I learned I was rich beyond measure despite my small pay cheque because I have a big God.
I never wanted for anything – God was in charge of my housing in the outrageously expensive New York real estate. He was in charge of my job security in a company that had so many rounds of layoffs, I lost count.
I learned to fight every battle with the Word of God – it cut through lies I believed about myself. It cut through my addiction to cigarettes. It cut through clinical depression and brought mental fitness that had been elusive for many years. It cut through confusion in a world bombarded by smart-sounding words and well-meaning advice. I am free today.
Jesus not only grabbed me from the pit but taught me to use His Word as a sword to sever every bit of junk in my life.
I learned to love people.
Out of the ashes of horror and grief, God gave beauty beyond what my mind and my heart could hold.
I learned to stop running.
Out of the ashes of horror and grief, God gave beauty beyond what my mind and my heart could hold. God used that church in the South Bronx, the one to which I swore I would never return, to heal me and build me.
I made more friends, in the church and outside the church. They became my family away from home. I switched jobs within the company and started to fly around the world several times a year, living the five-star life. I moved a few more times and finally into a tiny studio on the fifth floor of a walk-up in Manhattan.
I developed a strong heart, a resilient spirit and powerful legs.
Life was good until I heard a voice in my heart say: “Time to go”.
Taste and see
I was not happy to be yanked off my steady diet of the Big Apple, but I knew the Voice. So I packed up and shipped out. The American dream was done and dusted and I returned to Singapore.
In the seven years I have been home, I have seen first my father, then my mother, both in their 80s, turn to Christ.
I have seen my seven-year-old nephew in children’s church grow into a teenager in youth church. I have seen my agnostic brother transform into a man after God’s heart. I have heard my baby niece declare “Jesus is the Son of God” – only the Spirit Himself could have revealed this to her.
I have seen my twin nieces blossom into twin pillars of righteousness in the house of God. I have seen things in my family torn down and built up. I understood then that God had brought me back to taste the fruit of the many years of prayers at my spiritual bootcamp.
I know now that the joys of subsequent September 11s can co-exist with the crushing grief of September 11, 2001.
It has been 22 years since that day of death that turned out to be the genesis of my new life.
Although the pain has lost its edge, and the tears have dried with the years, the sorrow stays.
It was a day when planes brought down – not just the proud symbols of financial force and military might of the United States of America – but also the dreams of somebody’s brother, sister, dad, mom, husband, wife, friend. A day when the ashes and dust of the calamity overshadowed any light.
With annual reminders in the news and social media and from friends, it was a day I was never allowed to forget.
But I do not have to try anymore – and I should not – because I know now that the joys of subsequent September 11s can co-exist with the crushing grief of September 11, 2001.
So, for the first time since that dark day, I am at peace saying “I will never forget”.
Today I remember September 11, 2001.
Today I celebrate September 11, 2023.
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