Experiencing 9/11 From Afar
By Deacon Tom Aumen
Diocese of Harrisburg
I was on sabbatical from my job as a social studies teacher at New Oxford Middle School in New Oxford, Pennsylvania. My family has been doing mission trips abroad since 1997. At this particular time, I was returning from a mission trip (with Medical Ministry International, Texas) to Darkhan, Mongolia. My role on this mission was to assist with construction of a "halfway house" for men whose alcoholic problems brought them into prison.
We flew from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, into Beijing, China. Seven of us from the team had decided to spend a few days as tourists in Beijing. Our brief stopover was in its last day. I was in bed at 10 p.m. because we would be leaving early for the airport to fly home. A phone call came from a team member who was in the military.
He had received a call from the embassy about the attacks on America. “I don't think we're going anywhere in the morning,” he said.
We turned on the TV—BBC, the only English-language station. We saw the tragedy unfold, and we heard the rumors that the Congress and State Department buildings were also attacked. We went to the airport in the morning, only to find the United Airlines counter was closed—the order had been issued to close the airspace over the U.S. One of our team, a Canadian, eventually flew out aboard another airline. United Airlines agreed to put us up in a hotel, with two meals per day, until permission was given to return home.
I sat the whole day in front of the TV watching the video of the tragedy and listening to the commentary. Though concerned about my family and their safety, it wasn't until late morning that I was able to contact my wife and let her know that I was safe, and so were she and the kids. Our group had no idea when we might be able to return home.
To kill time, we traveled downtown toward the U.S. embassy. Each day, barricades were extended farther away from the embassy as the threat of another attack heightened. We shopped just to keep busy. We were told to “lie low,” as Americans could become targets almost anywhere. People would look at us and for the most part offered condolences (even some Russians we met in the elevator).
On the sixth day after the attacks, United Airlines notified two of us that we would have seats on the next day’s flight home. It was unsettling flying the long trip to Chicago, knowing that the terrorists had used airplanes as weapons.
Obviously, prayers were the order of the day, along with trust in God to deliver us safely home to our families. Upon arrival in Chicago before flying on, the agent said, "Welcome home." She didn't realize how truly wonderful it felt being back on home soil. As a teacher, I don't let a year go by without using September 11 to discuss the attacks, why there is evil in the hearts of man, etc. I read stories of people who were directly impacted.
I use the occasion to discuss how God created man to be good (yes, I teach in a public school) but that man’s free will brings on the evil deeds. It is a wonderful opportunity for my seventh-graders to face the reality of life and hopefully to begin the journey to make the right choices.
Deacon Tom Aumen is a deacon of the Diocese of Harrisburg.