Peace which surpasses understanding: A 9/11 tribute

By Andy Christian Castillo

Originally posted on my blog,

Radio transcript from FDNY, September 11, 2001.

0847 Hours

BATTALION 1: Battalion 1 to Manhattan.

DISPATCHER: Battalion 1.

BATTALION 1: We just had a - a plane crashed into an upper floor of the World Trade Center. Transmit a second alarm and start relocating companies into the area.

DISPATCHER: Ten-four battalion 1.

BATTALION 1: Battalion 1 is also sending the whole assignment on this box to that area, K.

ENGINE 6: Engine 6 to Manhattan, K.


ENGINE 6: The World Trade Center - tower number one is on fire. The whole outside of the building. There was just a huge explosion.

DISPATCHER: Ten-four. All companies stand by at this time.

UNKNOWN UNIT: Transmit a second alarm on that box immediately.


ENGINE 10: Engine 1-0 to Manhattan.

DISPATCHER: Engine 1-0.

ENGINE 10: Engine 1-0 World Trade Center 10-60. Send every available ambulance, everything you've got to the World Trade Center now.

1898171_10151879401631353_196593538_nWhen I was 11 years old, my hair was much blonder than it is today, my eyes a little bit bluer, and my spirit was slightly more rambunctious. When I was eleven, I played baseball at every available chance, ate too much ice cream, and didn’t care about the future. Memories from around that time linger in my mind’s eye sporadically, coming and going at random.

I remember, for instance, diving for a fly-ball sinking fast while playing right field, my favorite position. I can vividly recall how the ball rose up above the tree line, backlit against the evening sky, as adrenaline pumped up my heart, before it dipped down sizzling toward earth.

I remember not thinking but reacting, sliding on the grass, the permeating scent of the field, the slap of the ball into my glove, a stinging hand, getting up and wiping dirt off of my left arm.

All of those tangible sensations are contained in that memory. What I don’t remember is if we won, what day it was, or any other details; and that goes for my entire existence to this point. I remember life in snapshot moments of drama, emotion and, in the case of September 11, 2001, of tragedy.

“Where were you when the towers fell?” That question will be posted on every social media platform today, or asked in coffee shops and around dinner tables, as it's posed to billions of people around the world. It’s the defining question of my generation, and has forged an entire social identity of patriotism, influenced wars and rallied a nation to unity, violence, hate and peace.

We’ll ask it because we’re still traumatized, still trying to make sense of it all, and still trying to figure out where we fit in relation to the attack. Personally, I wasn’t affected by the attacks in that I didn’t know anyone who was killed, and I think that goes for the majority of people in America; however, as a nation, we experienced a blow that we’re still reeling from.

The attack was on our turf, carried out in the capitol of the free world. Everyone in America was affected, and traumatized, in one way or another. Because of that, today, like every anniversary since that day, we’ll personalize the tragedy; conjure forth recollections that have been seared into our brains of where we were, what we were doing, what we saw, what we heard, what we experienced.

0903 hours

MARINE 6: Be advised. You have a second plane into the other tower of the Trade Center, major fire.

0958 hours

MARINE 3: One of the buildings is partially collapsed and the whole entire area is (dead?)

1000 hours

CIVILIAN: I'm a civilian. I'm trapped inside of one of your fire trucks underneath the collapse that just happened.

UNKNOWN UNIT: Standby. There's people close to you.

CIVILIAN: I can't breathe much longer. Save me! I'm in the cab of your truck.

DISPATCHER: Person transmitting a mayday. Where are you, K.

CIVILIAN: I just told you. It's north of the world trade center; there's the north pedestrian bridge. I think it collapsed when the partial building just collapsed. I was on the street. I don't have much air Please, help me!


1028 hours

DISPATCHER: 10-4. Attention all units. We're receiving reports that number 1 and number 2 World Trade Center collapsed. All units at the scene receiving reports number 1 and number 2 World Trade Center, both towers collapsed.

Where were you when the towers fell?

I remember it like it was yesterday. When I was 11 years old, I, along with my brothers, was home-schooled. During those days, my mom often put on radio station WHYN 560 in the morning as we settled into the day. Schoolwork was pretty flexible, and we had ample chance to finish what we had to do before bedtime.

That day, my brothers and I were around the lego pile, left out from the night before, building something extravagant, I imagine -- the details escape me through the distant haze of memory. At that time, there was blue carpeting on the stairs, and the linoleum floor wasn’t quite as worn.

There’s something about the spoken voice that dramatizes events more than seeing moving images. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, I heard it on the radio, and silently jumped for joy ecstatically around the kitchen at 11:30 p.m. so as not to wake my younger brothers. When the first plane exploded into the towers at around 9 a.m., I remember radio silence -- a vivid portrait of what what the entire nation felt in those moments.


There was just nothing. No response, no emotion, just stunned silence.

Then, and I don’t remember his name, the talk show host’s building, which was a few blocks from the towers, was evacuated. Sirens went off, panic ensued, and the broadcast ended. I was sitting on those carpet stairs, staring at the lego pile, when it ended. After that, I started pacing, as the local broadcast picked up coverage and tried to make sense of what happened.

Perhaps the strongest memory I have of those moments is the feeling of legos digging into my feet, which, at the time, I didn’t notice. Then, the host crackled back to life on a remote backpack. He was down amidst the chaos street-level, dutifully reporting everything he saw: white ash, panicked people, first responders, people jumping from the 100th floor, all of it flooded to me through static over the radio waves. In retrospect, perhaps what made the host’s reporting that much more powerful is that usually, his show wasn’t all that heavy, he was a bit of a comedian -- ordinarily, he didn’t let emotion seep out during the show. But this time was different: this time, his voice was raw, unchecked, sobbing, and shocking.

fireman-81876In the days, weeks, months and years following that broadcast, I tapped into those emotions the talk-show host related for strength and grounding. In the broader culture, patriotism rose like a tidal wave; country artists’ flooded the music industry with red, white, and blue battle cries. Political enemies became allies calling for blood, American flags snapped in the breeze outside every house, vigils were held, and our nation cried, united, and, blinded by pain and filled with vengeance, we went to war, without fully realizing what that would bring.

Nine years after the attacks, I signed my name on Uncle Sam’s roster and, filled with patriotism, joined the effort. I became a firefighter, in part to honor the 343 firefighters who instantly died when the towers fell, and the thousands of others who are suffering disease, or have succumbed to disease, as a result of the attacks.

A few years after my enlistment, I boarded a plane and flew to the Middle East, where I saw sunsets more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen, heard evening prayers chanted by prisoners in the jail next to our compound, felt the burning desert sun hot on my face, and drove through the streets of a culture vastly different than my own. Over the course of six months, I began to understand why we, as a nation, turned to violence so quickly after the attacks. 

And why we continue to seek violence today, instead of peace.

Middle eastern culture is, in many respects, the anti-west. For example, Islam, a religion that holds the same amount of religiosity by its members as does Christianity, accepts that Jesus was a man, but doesn’t say he’s the Son of God. In contrast to western ideas of feminism, middle eastern women must cover up and be subject to men. Sexuality is thwarted, and freedom is suppressed, in comparison to America. The cultural differences are striking, and beyond reconciliation without a lot of critical thinking and open mindedness. Middle eastern culture accepts western culture, and then discounts it as wrong, in the same way, I think, that western culture says that middle eastern culture is wrong.

The two are at fundamental odds with each other.

Because of that, it'll take a lot of humility by everyone affected by the attacks, both to forgive the violence that has happened, and to accept that the cultures are different in order to move toward a brighter future and to honor the lives of those who were killed in the attacks.

But, and I realized this while deployed, I don't think anyone wants to forgive anyone. All we, as a culture want, is a primal revenge that I believe is intrinsically human nature. We, as humans, want 1,000 eyes for one eye -- and we won't rest till our thirst for revenge, which is unquenchable, is satiated: that's why the pain of the 9/11 attacks still feels so raw.

We are unwilling to forgive our aggressors. The irony of that is that we call ourselves a Christian nation; not forgiving is a very unchristian thing to do.

If I had perished in those attacks, I know I wouldn't want my name to be remembered in blood; rather, I'd want peace, forgiveness and grace, to be my legacy.


15 years later, what is our response?

15 years after the September 11th attacks, the world is still chaotic, U.S. troops are still in the middle east, and people are still dying in terrorist attacks. 15 years later, America is still traumatized, and still wants blood. We’ve beaten our plows into swords, and don’t know how to respond to what we believe to be injustice in any other way besides hate and violence.

Yesterday, I posted on a friend’s status, who was condemning the actions of Collin Kaepernick’s anthem protests as unpatriotic and disrespectful to the men and women who have given their lives for our country. I wrote that, while people can disagree with his motives (which I fully believe are justified, systemic racism exists), I served our country so people don’t have to stand for the national anthem -- so that people could protest without fear of reproach. A former service member responded to my post, very angrily, and said that while I might think I was righteous, the fact is that Kaepernick isn’t grateful, isn't justified, doesn't have a reason to protest, and should be punished.

Later, after deleting my post so as not to get into a heated Facebook argument, I realized that former service member only knows how to wield a sword; further, he doesn't want peace. 9/11 is still his rallying cry, because he hasn’t yet processed the trauma of what he, and our nation experienced that day.

In contrast, I interviewed the widower of a woman who was killed in the attacks. She was on the 96th floor of North Tower when it fell. In direct opposition to the hate and anger related by that man who replied to me, this widower called for peace and unity in the name of his lost wife. Instead of violence, he asked the nation to unite in the same way it united following the attacks. He said that now, more than ever, we need each other, and must respect each other in order to work toward a better future.

I wholeheartedly agree, and to take that thought a step further, I say that we must beat our swords back into plows.

It's fitting that today, September 11, 2016, is the last time I’ll attend military drill as a service member. It is, perhaps, the last time I'll wear the United States Air Force uniform as a service member. There's a lot of emotion to that for me, and I'm not unaware of its significance, given that much of the reason why I joined is because of September 11, 2001.

After six years, my term of service in the Air Force will end in a few days, on September 16th.

Also on this date, while thinking about milestones, 15 years after September 11th and a few days after the start of the 2016-2017 school year, kids and teenagers will learn about the terrorist attacks we lived through as history -- of an event that they don’t remember, and can't relate to. The next generation is rising and beginning to form opinions. Their perspectives on violence, pain and trauma, will be influenced by the men and women who lived through it, by us.

Peace, which surpasses understanding

new-york-77639These are defining days, which will mold the course of history and the social climate of the next generation. And we must decide what environment we want our children to grow up in. Do we wish to continue violence, spread hate and allow bigotry and anger to flourish in the minds of our youth? Or should we put aside our differences, release our anger, seek the forgiveness God has called us to, and work together to make a more peaceful, enduring and, dare I say it, more successful future? Should we not reflect the grace that Jesus has extended to us, His enemies, to our enemies?

One of my favorite Bible verses is John 16:33, which I think is a very fitting thought to share today.

John 16:33

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

In honor of the men and woman who died in that tragedy, and the soldiers, airmen, seamen, marines, civilians, and every other person killed in global conflicts since then, I pray that the peace of God, through Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, will dwell in our hearts and minds both today, and every day. And that we'll take heart that Jesus has already overcome the world, and in so doing, infused it with peace, extended through His people, us.

And through that peace, I sincerely pray the world will see salvation.


Published by Andrew Castillo


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