The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, is indelibly etched in the memories of Americans everywhere. We quickly recall where we were when we first heard that the World Trade Center had been hit. And our next thoughts usually take us to our loved ones and how desperately we wanted to hold them, to reassure them, to cling to them as the world around us seemed so uncertain. The events of what would soon be known as 9/11 traumatized everyone who lived through them, even those who watched the terror on TV from thousands of miles away.
More than a decade later, the memory of 9/11 has had an undeniable impact on our nation and on our families. As a nation, we’ve seen lives destroyed by enemies we knew nothing about, and our innocence and sense of security have been shattered. As individuals and families, we have come to realize just how fleeting and fragile our own lives are, and this new perspective has inspired us to reflect on what really matters.
If the events of that day could so deeply move us, how much more profound has the impact been on the victims who survived the tragedy and on the families of those who died? Thriving Family caught up with four families who now testify to having seen God amid their suffering. They’ve wrestled with the big questions of faith, they’ve faced the reality of evil and the power of forgiveness, and they’ve emerged a decade later with a deep appreciation for family and a fervent love for God.
The McGuinness Family
Jennifer McGuinness depended on her dad’s faith to nurture her own.
“We always believed in God, but my dad did most of the digging,” Jennifer says.
But when she was 16, her father, American Airlines co-pilot Tom McGuinness, became a casualty of the 9/11 terrorist attacks when his hijacked plane flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
In that instant, 16-year-old Jennifer and her 14-year-old brother, Tommy, lost their father and spiritual leader. And their mother, Cheryl McGuinness, lost her husband of 18 years. Jennifer and Tommy had to embrace what their dad had taught them about trusting God and letting Him lead them. “We had to put what we had learned growing up into practice if we were ever going to survive this,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer had to choose not to allow the horrible acts of 9/11 to destroy her life, dreams and love for God. Watching her mom inspired Jennifer. “My mom has chosen to not let the challenges in her life harden her heart.”
The days following 9/11 were an immense challenge for Cheryl. The stress of single parenting, combined with the grief of being a widow, seemed unbearable. “In the beginning, there were some days when all I could bring myself to pray was, ‘God help me; please help me,’ ” Cheryl says. She had to take every decision, every thought and every problem to God‚ every day. “Many days, I didn’t think I would live to see another season … but [God] was my partner. I didn’t carry it alone.” God brought people and circumstances into her family’s life. They helped the family heal.
Jennifer recalls how God’s grace came in many different forms. “It wasn’t just one thing that helped me and my brother to thrive, but a lot of things: great friends, youth group, knowing who to talk to, staying involved in activities. We tried to fill up our lives with people and activities that would help us to grow up successfully.”
Ten years later, Jennifer describes her family’s story as one of hope, perseverance and deep abiding joy. They trust God every day and take responsibility for their faith.
Cheryl acknowledges, “Letting go of the past and pressing through the present takes an incredible amount of strength and perseverance. God is our rock — we know that now more deeply than ever before.”
The Birdwell Family
When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, who had been standing about 20 yards from the point of impact, was surrounded by destruction. As the flames engulfed Brian’s body, he thought of his wife, Mel, and their 12-year-old son, Matt, and wondered if he would ever see them again. This could be the day I die, he realized.
Searing pain, operations (more than 30) and therapy became a way of life as Brian recovered from second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body. Through it all, Mel cared for him, moving into the hospital and staying with him day and night for three months, reading the Bible and praying with him. She was torn between her duties as a wife and mother because she had to shield young Matt from Brian’s open wounds. Close family friends watched and home- schooled Matt, so he was in good hands, but at times Mel felt overwhelmed with guilt.
Brian says his marriage and faith in God created the foundation for his recovery. Mel was his primary caregiver for about a year. Even today, his disability makes it hard for him to reach the back of his neck to fix his collar. Mel fixes it for him and jokes that he’s her life-sized Ken doll.
Since 9/11, Brian talks about the tragedy and his recovery as part of God’s sovereignty. Brian and Mel believe that he survived the fire so he could tell others about God’s love. “Nothing has touched me or my family that hasn’t been sifted through God’s hands,” Brian says. “You have to treasure each day as a gift.”
Mel says the trauma of 9/11 taught her to never take her husband for granted. “We never walk out the door without saying goodbye,” she says. “You never really realize what a gift your spouse is.”
Brian retired from the Army in 2004 and serves in the Texas Senate. Brian and Mel founded Face the Fire, a nonprofit organization that helps burn victims, their families and medical facilities that specialize in their care.
Though Brian still struggles with anger toward the terrorists, he prays that some day he’ll be able to forgive them. So far, his strong faith and supportive family have helped him work through the suffering he’s endured.
The Sillcocks Family
Sept. 11, 2001, was Lt. Jerry Sillcocks’ day off from the New York City Fire Department. But when he heard the news of the attacks, he rushed to the World Trade Center and arrived just after the towers collapsed. Jerry hurried in to help, working with others in a frantic search for survivors. But as the soot and dust began to settle, it became clear that their rescue efforts would include the agonizing and exhausting work of searching for bodies.
For months, Jerry worked on the recovery and cleanup effort as rescuers dug through piles of burning debris. He also maintained a Firefighters for Christ (FFC) prayer ministry at Ground Zero.
Sadly, Jerry lost 29 friends on that one day. Jerry and his wife, Diane, were profoundly shaken by the tragedy that took the lives of so many of their friends. They’re quick to admit that after 9/11 there were many days when they thought the grief would never end.
“After 9/11, the first place I went was to God’s Word to find some comfort,” Diane says. “As a firefighter’s wife, my heart was broken to hear that so many firefighter husbands had died.” A few weeks after the attacks, Diane hosted a tea for 9/11 wives and widows. About 100 attended, and more than 80 committed their lives to Christ.
The Sillcocks were already well-acquainted with suffering. Four years prior to 9/11, they lost their 12-day-old baby girl, Hannah, to a hospital-acquired infection. Facing that loss, Jerry and Diane leaned on each other and grieved deeply together. This gave them the compassion and fervor to help others who lost loved ones on 9/11. Hannah’s death was a wake-up call, Jerry said, making faith in God their focus “every day, every hour, every minute.”
After Hannah’s death, Jerry started a local chapter of FFC, and by 2000 the group had placed a Bible in every firehouse in the city. FFC made presentations to each new class of firefighters and always used the opportunity to share the Gospel. One of those presentations was on Sept. 7, 2001. Ten who heard the salvation message that day died in the line of duty four days later.
Jerry often reflects on the fact that he could have lost his life on 9/11. It makes him realize how precious time is with his wife and two children, Matthew and Elizabeth, and he understands the importance of leaving a lasting impression on their lives. Jerry is committed to attending recitals and games with his kids, and each night before bed, the family reads Scripture and prays together.
The most important message from 9/11 is that “life is a vapor,” Jerry says. Firefighters know that any day could be their last, but the same is true for everyone, no matter their occupation. “The most important thing you can do,” Jerry says, “is share the Gospel with people and spend quality time with the Lord and your family.”
The Moody Family
The powerful blast of hot air forced Sheila Moody to shut her eyes. When she opened them, a fireball ripped through her office in the Pentagon, and everything went dark. Sheila had worked for the Department of Defense for two decades, but this was her first day on the job at the Pentagon. She heard screams and moans — then silence.
Burning embers dropped into her lap, and panic struck. She cried out, “Jesus! Please help me!” and even though she was certain she would die, calmness overtook her. Trapped, she thought she would never again see her husband, Vincent, or their three children, Vincent II (20), Qiana (19) and Jonathan (15).
I will never get to be a grandmother, she thought.
Doubled over, unable to speak because of the smoke, Sheila clapped her hands together to get the attention of rescuers, who eventually pulled her from the burning rubble. Surrounded by confusion and mayhem, she noticed the contrast of a beautiful blue sky. Sheila fell to her knees.
“There is no earthly reason that I should be alive,” Sheila says. “We know God showed me unmerited favor.”
Her marriage to Vincent changed after 9/11. “We can laugh at small things that used to be big rifts in our relationship and at our shortcomings, which would have caused us to be defensive years ago.” Throughout their marriage, points of contention included chores such as laundry and dishes. Now they laugh about these things. When the dishes start piling up, they say to each other, “You want to go have fun and some laughs?” Even finances and overtime hours at work take a backseat to God and family. “Knowingly taking on work just for financial gain is of no spiritual benefit; God provides all of our needs,” Sheila says. “9/11 changed our focus.”
Through the horrors, the burns and the loss of life, God has revealed himself to each of these four families, strengthening the bonds between husbands and wives and parents and children — and most important, with Him. Their stories of hope offer a small glimpse into how our nation has changed over the last decade and serve as a reminder of what’s really important in life: cherishing our spouse, taking time for our kids and making faith the foundation of our family lives.
Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to help you and your family. You can contact us during normal business hours at:
(800) A-FAMILY (232-6459)
Or you can find resources, referrals and articles to help you right now.