September 11: Stung by Tragedy, Lifted by Faith
Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events
Brady Howell was working in naval intelligence at the United States Pentagon. Carolyn Beug was a children’s author, a filmmaker, and a producer. Mary Alice Wahlstrom was an avid reader and musician.
But Brady was also a son. A brother. A husband.
Carolyn was a sister. A wife. A mother.
And Mary Alice was a wife, mother, and grandmother.
When they were killed in the events of September 11, 2001, many of their family members held onto faith in the Savior Jesus Christ—something they say has been the only thing to get them through the last decade.
Carson Howell and Camille Mortensen: “Hope Isn’t Lost”
For several weeks, Brady Howell and his wife, Liz, had been planning a trip from Washington D.C. to Brady’s native Idaho, USA, so that they could spend some time with family. They were to leave on Thursday, September 13.
But two days before that, Brady was killed in the attack on the United States Pentagon.
Camille Mortensen, Brady’s sister and one of five children in the Howell family, remembers taking comfort in reports that only a small portion of the Pentagon had been hit. All of the Howell family members—scattered across Idaho and Utah—knelt in prayer that morning and asked that Brady would be okay.
“As the day went on, we continued to pray,” she said. “My parents’ prayers were that their children would not lose faith and that we would be strong.”
As soon as commercial flights resumed, Camille traveled from her home in Utah, USA to Washington, D.C., to be with her parents, who had already arrived in the nation’s capital. The family waited one week in a hotel near the Pentagon before the confirmation of Brady’s death. She remembers those days as among the darkest of her life.
“The Pentagon was still smoking,” she said, “and the family members [of possible victims] were kept in that hotel. We had twice-daily briefings where a captain came in and announced how many bodies they had found.” Most of their time was spent simply waiting.
One afternoon, to escape the pervasive “grief and hopelessness,” Camille went outside, only to find an armored anti-aircraft vehicle parked on the lawn of the Pentagon with missiles pointed at the sky and a sniper hiding in the bushes. Camille recognized that these things were in place to protect her and others, but she felt terrified. “My grief was compounded with fear,” she said. “I really thought we were all going to die.”
But amid that environment of tragedy, and even though she sensed that sad news would be coming for her family, she felt great peace. “I knew that Brady wasn’t lost forever and that we would see him again,” she said.
“I don’t know that there was questioning of ‘why me,’” said Carson Howell, Brady’s younger brother. “But I think there was some questioning on my part of ‘why him? Why did that need to happen to Brady?’”
Carson also held onto his faith in those dark hours. “That was what really got me through,” he said. “In that aura of hopelessness there in that briefing room and around D.C. at that time, the gospel was what gave us hope.”
The gospel continued to sustain the Howell family in the weeks, months, and even years that followed. Camille recalls being fortified by the messages of October general conference just weeks later and found comfort in identifying things she and her family could do to follow the prophet. She also came to better appreciate the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
She said that it’s helpful “not only knowing that we can be together forever as a family, but also knowing that Christ suffered for the hurt I’m feeling. He has felt it, and He can help me through it.”
Additional healing came through the kindness of other people. “There was a lot of concern, and people checked in on us to see how we were doing,” said Carson. “We were able to do some good with generous things people donated. We set up scholarships in Brady’s name, and there were service projects dedicated to him. Just trying to make something good out of something so bad was really healing for me and my family.”
“September 11 … changed my view of people around me,” Camille said. “People are really good and want to do good things for others.”
Camille said that Heavenly Father has blessed her family from the moment they uttered that first prayer together the morning of September 11. “From the very beginning, we prayed that we would be strong as a family. We weren’t going to lose faith. We were going to help each other through. And I’ve felt the Lord’s hand for the last 10 years blessing us with those blessings that my parents asked for from the very beginning.”
The Howell family realizes that although their loss has been quite public, many others also grieve, often more privately than they have been able to. Carson said that regardless of the nature of a tragedy, there is hope.
“I know that millions of people have suffered the loss of a loved one. Eventually, we all go through that experience. … I would tell [others] … that there are people who love them and care about them and want to support them and that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings hope. You can overcome it. That is a message that I would like to share—that hope isn’t lost, and life does go on.”
Margaret Wahlstrom: “The Lord Is Mindful of Us”
Carolyn Beug was living in California, USA, with her husband and their three children, whom she called her “little bunnies.” When her twin daughters received scholarships to design school in Rhode Island, she booked airline tickets to take them to school and settle them in before their first semester of college began. She invited her mother, Mary Alice Wahlstrom of Utah, USA, to join them for the trip.
Carolyn and Mary Alice were aboard Flight 11 on their way home when it was hijacked and flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Norman Wahlstrom, Carolyn’s brother and Mary Alice’s son, and his wife, Margaret, were to pick Mary Alice up from the airport later that day. When they heard the horrible news about what had happened in New York City, they were “in such a shock.”
“The reality of something like that happening is so overwhelming,” Margaret said. “You can’t believe a mentality exists to create such a horrible disaster and loss of life.”
Margaret recalled that although she did feel shaken by what had happened, she did not experience fear. “From the beginning I knew that everything was in the Lord’s hands,” she said. “For that reason, we had a lot of strength and purpose.”
One of the first decisions Margaret made that day was not to hate. “When a reporter put a microphone in my face and said, ‘Does your family want revenge?’ I realized that my family and I didn’t have the ability or capacity to hate someone else. Of course you want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. You want to correct the injustices of the world to the extent you can, but you don’t want to hate.”
Margaret attributed such a response to the preparation her family made long before the tragedies of September 11. She said her husband had done much to give his family a solid foundation in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“I am extremely aware of and thankful for the good husband and father to our children I have in my companion,” Margaret said. “We had a foundation before that day came that gave us a strength we never knew we had.”
Margaret said that she has gained new appreciation for the value of preparation. And not just the physical preparation—food storage or savings—that people tend to focus on. “We do things to prepare ourselves physically, but we all need to be preparing ourselves spiritually,” she said. “All of us will have challenges in our lives, and there are going to be times when we need to fall back on that preparation.”
For Margaret, the “first and most important part” of such preparation is “knowing and understanding that our Father in Heaven is in charge.”
“He loves us and He is constantly there for us. Whatever [we’re facing], we go to Him. He will make up the balance of the strength we need. He wraps you in His love in such a way that you can actually feel it.”
Margaret remembers feeling His love during Mary Alice’s memorial service. The days leading up to it had been hectic and full of heartache. But during the service, she felt “a very physical, amazing, warm blanket of love” surrounding her.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to leave here today,’ because I felt like I was in heaven,” she said. “That’s what I would want people to know: they can feel that. We just have to ask the Lord to be with us, and He will.”
His love is steady enough to remain with us even after the initial difficulty has passed.
“Right at first, everyone gathers around you,” she said. “And then comes a time when you have to stand on your own two feet, and you have to go on and live your life the best you can. But we have Someone who will be with us in the days ahead.”
She also realizes that such knowledge needs to be renewed and nurtured. “Testimonies are fragile, and they have to be worked on every day,” she said. “I hope that we as members of the Church can teach our children to have strong testimonies and look to the future with hope.
“No matter if the stock market crashes, if bad things happen, if your dad loses his job, if you have to go through a divorce or anything else, the Lord is mindful of you. He’s in charge, and if we have faith that everything is going to be okay, I think we can get through anything. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned over the last 10 years.”
Ronald Jacques: “I Came to Be with My Family”
Ronald Jacques was a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University–Idaho when the events of September 11 occurred. He was also an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer, which meant that whenever a catastrophe—natural or otherwise—occurred, he was on call to provide mental health services to victims of the disaster as well as to other volunteers.
As soon as Ronald heard what had happened, he knew it was only a matter of time before he received a call, so he made arrangements for a two-week absence.
He had gone on such trips—many of them—before, so he was “primed and ready to go” when he boarded a plane destined for New Jersey a few days after September 11.
“I was on autopilot,” he said. “But as we were preparing to land in New Jersey, I looked out the window and saw the smoldering and the smoke. Then it hit me that this was real. This was not a television drama. This was not a sound bite on CNN. This was a real, tragic occurrence that was happening in my neighborhood.”
Ronald said that he has always adopted the attitude of a disaster area being his “neighborhood.” Even though he lived 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away from where he was working in New Jersey, he saw himself as part of the community and the victims of the disaster as his brothers and sisters. “I came to be with my family for a while,” he said.
Sharing others’ burdens, Ronald said, is part of the opportunity that we have as followers of Jesus Christ.
“I hope we don’t remove ourselves from situations, saying, ‘Well, that happened on the eastern seaboard’ or anywhere else in the world. ‘Mourning with those that mourn’ (see Mosiah 18:9) includes caring about what’s going on in other parts of the world. Suffering goes on everywhere, and maybe we can find ways to mourn with everyone, not just a select few.”
Ronald’s primary assignment was to use government and hospital records to help identify people who might have sent a family or close friend to work the morning of September 11 and then provide mental health services to the surviving family members or friends.
Sometimes he made phone calls to families and discovered that a person in question was, in fact, at home and doing well and spending time with his or her family. Other times, even with repeated attempts, there was no answer at all.
The hours were long and the work was physically and emotionally exhausting, but there were lots of opportunities for Ronald to reflect on his faith and at times, share it with others.
“I’ve had many people—Red Cross co-workers and others—ask me, ‘Do you believe in God?’” Ronald said.
“And I say, ‘Well, yes, I do.’”
“‘How can you explain why He would let this happen?’ they would ask.
“It became almost an automatic response for me when they would say that—almost in an accusing way—to look back to them and say, ‘Why wouldn’t He allow it to happen? Why would we expect only good things to happen? Or why would we expect only bad things to happen to bad people? Because He is an all-loving God, He must allow for all things to happen.’”
He also explained that experiencing pain is part of a mortal experience and that it increases our capacity to see clearly and to feel joy.
“Everyone suffers. Everyone has problems. Everyone has tragedies,” he said. “Sometimes they make the news, and sometimes they just are written on our hearts. It’s up to us to decide what we’re going to do about it. …
“To be hurt, to be afraid, to be angry—that’s understandable,” he continued. “But the Atonement gives us the capacity to be resilient. The light, the resilience, the tenderness, and the consciousness are available to us if we partake, but the opportunity is never forced. We must take the steps in that direction to move on to loving and caring and joy and true happiness and what this life is really offering us.”
Editor’s note: In the April 2011 general conference, Elder Russell M. Nelson taught this:
“We live in a time of turmoil. Earthquakes and tsunamis wreak devastation, governments collapse, economic stresses are severe, the family is under attack, and divorce rates are rising. We have great cause for concern. But we do not need to let our fears displace our faith. We can combat those fears by strengthening our faith.”
For more on the role of faith in spiritual preparation, read, watch, or listen to his talk.