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NJ remembers


"There was nothing to do but pray at that point."

—Rev. June Stitzinger-Clark

On a clear day, it doesn't look that far from Atlantic Highlands, NJ, to Manhattan.

"That day, when I looked at the harbor, there was not one cloud in the sky and it looked like New York was right there," said the Rev. June Stitzinger-Clark of the Atlantic Highlands-Navesink United Methodist Church.

But something sinister clouded the view on Sept. 11 -- when terrorists forced two planes to smash into the World Trade Centers -- and Stitzinger-Clark wanted to help.

"My husband and I saw the second plane," she said. "When we pulled into the harbor, we didn't know anything except that a plane had gotten into the building. To me, it sounded like a horrendous accident had happened, maybe some kind of mechanical error. It was clear people were dying...it was a terrible, terrible, thing."

As Stitzinger-Clark prayed with other clergy and volunteers who arrived at the harbor, she feared the country was at war.

"There was nothing to do but pray at that point," she said.

Soon, the ferry that transports commuters between New York and New Jersey floated into the harbor, volunteers arrived to organize help, and survivors from Manhattan were bussed into the evacuation point.

"The effort was totally reactive," said the Rev. Robert Tynski of St. Agnes Catholic Church. "We saw what had happened, and within an hour, everything in town in Atlantic Heights was set up in response."

Tynski said more than 200 people from the community arrived to help: doctors, nurses, clergy, police, fire fighters, and a diverse number other helping-profession workers.

Around 10:30 a.m., the first busload of survivors arrived at the harbor.

"They had these horrendous stories of having seen people jump from the building and bodies exploding and horrendous types of experiences they were going through that day," Stitzinger-Clark said. "But the fact is, they lived and they had this initial sense of euphoria that 'I'm alive, I've made it through!'"

Tynski said the survivors were in absolute shock.

"From what I understood, many of them saw bodies in the water as they were leaving the city and they also were witnessing people jump from the buildings, and you don't forget that," he said.

Some who had run from the collapsing buildings had broken ankles, some had no shoes and other had glass embedded in their feet. Almost everyone was covered with dust, asbestos and other chemicals and had to be sprayed with water to clean the asbestos and other chemicals on them.

After decontamination teams cleaned the survivors, volunteers from churches and the community provided them with towels and clean clothes.

"The volunteers were extraordinary -- a lot of them were from my church or our community churches -- while lots of people came down to the harbor ready to do whatever needed to be done," Stitzinger-Clark said. "It was quite moving at the number of people who pitched in and did what they could."

Since people from the disaster site didn't pay attention to what bus or ferry they had gotten on, several volunteers drove people to their homes or offered the displaced survivors a place to rest.

"It was a response of love," Tynski said. "Some of them (the volunteers) were just holding hands and giving them hugs."

Stitzinger-Clark circulated among survivors, offering words of encouragement, a listening ear or the use of her cell phone. At one point, she even became a message carrier, sending messages between workers at the harbor site.

"I felt my role was to be there and to do what appeared to be needed done at the time," she said.

A middle-aged, pregnant woman who had lost her shoes touched Stitzinger-Clark's heart. After the woman had received medical attention, she spoke with the Methodist minister.

"She wanted to talk to her husband," she said. "She talked about her experience for the day, and about how she was not getting hold of her husband. It was her first pregnancy, and she was a woman of faith so we prayed together. I did a lot of reassurance and told her her husband was probably out looking for her. She had laid down and went to sleep."

Later that day, as Stitzinger-Clark and her husband were headed to dinner, they spotted the woman walking hand-in-hand with a man.

"She had found him," Stitzinger-Clark said. "She looked over and saw me and lifted up her hand in victory and smiled and pointed to him, as if to say, 'everything's okay now, I'm with my husband, it's gonna be okay.' To me, that was such a symbol of hope for the day."

Throughout the day, and the following weeks, spontaneous prayer services were held and church attendance rose.

"Initially, it was quite strong in the sense that people were retuning to church and asking for some sort of answer for why something so despicable could happen in life," Tynski said. "As time goes by, people are still processing this event. I don't think that really anybody has dealt with it. It's in our face everyday ... and people kind of shut it off and distance it in their minds."

Stitzinger-Clark also witnessed a complex emotional reaction to the events of that sorrowful September day.

"It's sad that initial response to 9/11 drove people to churches and that that lasted only a few weeks," she said. "Part of that is denial. We're getting used to it...it's almost as if there's a sense of denial back in place. Most people say, 'we've dealt with that, let's move on.' Maybe it's me, but I don't think we've moved that far yet."

Nearly everyone in Atlantic Heights knew someone who perished in the World Trade Centers collapse, Tynski said. He expects healing will continue to take time.

"We're all in some way affected," he said. "A lot of times people choose not to think of it but still they find some strength in faith and religion because it helps them. It was so devastating to the human soul."

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