Monday marks the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in this deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil. The tragic events of that day was the Pearl Harbor of a generation. Seniors graduating from college earlier this year were born in 2001. Many of them may not remember the events of that day. Nonetheless, the 9/11 attacks significantly shaped their childhood and the world they grew up in.
The horrific events of that day also reveal a story of heroism, hope, love and sacrifice. On that very day and the weeks that followed, New York became a city of quiet heroes. Tim Brown was one of them. Although he doesn't consider himself a hero, he is one.
Brown, who is now retired, is a decorated 20-year FDNY firefighter. He survived the attack on the World Trade Center and was a first responder to the 1993 terrorist attack at the building complex in lower Manhattan. He is also a veteran of the task force that responded to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.
As a result of 9/11, Brown lost over 100 of his colleagues, including his two best friends: Captain Terry Hatton and Captain Patty Brown.
Brown found his calling in sharing his story of 9/11. He currently serves on the board of the September 11 National Memorial Trail and volunteers for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
The first time this reporter heard Brown’s story was at the Steamboat Institute’s Freedom Conference in picturesque Beaver Creek, Colorado. After his speech, we had the opportunity to talk for a few hours. At first sight, he gave the impression of a tough New Yorker. However, one could quickly conclude that Brown is a soft-spoken and warm-hearted man.
A lifelong New Yorker, Brown lives and breathes the Big Apple. His life is inseparable from the destiny of New York City. Brown spoke with Religion Unplugged in time for this year’s anniversary to discuss the attacks, healing and faith in the aftermath of the attacks.
Jovan Tripkovic: Last time we talked, you told me that 9/11 wasn't only an attack on America, but also on the ideals of the free world and Western Civilization. Could you provide further insight into this perspective?
Tim Brown: You'll hear people say that on 9/11, 2,977 Americans were murdered by radical Islamic terrorists and that's not factually correct. What is factually correct is 2,977 innocent human beings from 90 countries were murdered by radical Islamic terrorism. When you think about that, 90 countries, right? This is what New York is! This is the melting pot! And this is the World Trade Center! People from all over the world who believe in freedom, and, in this case, capitalism come to New York. So that's who was in the building that day. Those were the folks that were in the building.
When you ponder on it more, it becomes clear that this was truly evil attacking innocent people.
The kind of the clash of civilization. People come to America because of our freedom. People come to America because of our diversity and we're better for it. We're a better society for that. People come here because they want to live in freedom.
Tripkovic: You are the man of faith. How did 9/11 and the aftermath change you and your faith?
Brown: I have a couple of stories that confirmed my faith and my belief that have to do directly with 9/11. The Friday night before I was in New York City working at 7 World Trade Center. When I got off work at 5:30 or 6 p.m., I was very lonely. I was not in a really great emotional place in my life. I just went out to the promenade on the Hudson River and sat down to have a beer. My body started decompensating, which means I was just sweating from everywhere in my body, including soaking my socks and my pants and my T-shirt. I was cold and I was shivering! I thought something was wrong with me.
At the time, I didn’t know what it was, but I felt this extreme cold. It scared me so much that I didn’t drink my beer. I left it there, and I walked five miles home. And then 9/11 happened on the following Tuesday. I kind of forgot that that had happened to me.
I found out later what happened to me from a man I met, when I told him that story. He opened the book. The book was highlighted with pink and blue highlighters, and very well worn. He goes right to a page, and he says read this and I read it. It describes what happened to me on that Friday before Tuesday. The book was the Bible! The part he pointed out to me talked about spiritual discernment. When you are in a vulnerable place: personally, emotionally, sometimes you are able to sense other realms. I believe that's what happened to me that night.
I had no idea that was in the Bible, I didn't know what spiritual discernment was. However, I did experience that evil gathering a few days before 9/11. I am no conspiracy guy or anything, that stuff really happened to me the Friday before the Tuesday. It confirmed to me that there is good and evil. That we need to fight evil. And that we need to call evil evil!
The second story is about my survival. When the South Tower collapses, I am in an adjoining building in the Marriott Hotel and it collapses around me. I am holding on to this vertical column and the wind is trying to blow me out on the street because as the Marriott Hotel collapsed around me, all that air had to get pushed out somewhere and it was getting pushed where I was.
My legs were up in the air. It was trying to push me out into the street. I was holding on to this column with all my might. It blew the helmet off my head. It stopped within; I am guessing 30 seconds. I was able to hold on to that column and it saved my life.
Now later they did a study, a scientific study of that space, because they wanted to know why us the group of people who survived there, why we survived, what was the difference there as compared to the 16 acres. We were the biggest group of survivors in the 16 acres. They brought in a volcanologist. He proves scientifically that the wind where I was, was 185 miles per hour.
If you think about it, there's no way that I could have held onto that column with just my own human strength. There's just no way! It would have ripped me off that column and blown me into the street. The only way I was able to hold on to that column was with his strength!
Tripkovic: You lost countless friends on 9/11 and saw things no one should. What was the role of faith in your healing process?
Brown: I have always had a quiet, but very strong faith. I've only really started letting it out publicly in the last few years. But I always did have a strong faith inside of me. I lost over 100 friends, mostly firefighters, a few police officers, including my two best friends, Captain Terry Hatton and Captain Patty Brown. They were my world here in New York. We all lived in Manhattan. We hung out every day together. We were great, great friends.
Every time in the days afterwards, I heard a new name, my brother Chris and my friend Paul were at my side. They would know that someone was going to come, tell me another name and my legs would go out. This happened dozens and dozens of times. I would just collapse, and they would hold me up. They knew it was coming again and would be like getting hit in the gut every time with a baseball bat.
I had to make the decisions. The hardest part in making these decisions was not the funerals. I got to go to. It's the funerals and wakes that I didn't get to go to because there were so many in one day.
And feeling the guilt that I wasn’t able to make it to everyone's funerals or wakes to say goodbye to them. To show my love to their families. If I were a man who would have considered suicide, it would have been back then. But I am not, and never will be! It’s up to God when to take me!
He’s always been my strength and my rock. Even when I veer off his path, he’s gracious with me and he brings me back. If you listen with your heart, you’ll understand the path he has for you, and you will follow it.
My life makes more sense. It’s not always easy, but it makes more sense. Sometimes I don't understand what he has in store for me, but I accept it graciously and figure out that at some point I’ll understand. I don’t understand why he chose me to stay alive, when he took so many others. But I am grateful to be alive. I've built a new, very successful, very happy life.
I'm grateful that I have another chance at having a happy life. I've watched some of my widowed friends who lost their husbands or fiances find love and laughter and children and happy life again and that makes my heart burst with pride and graciousness.
Tripkovic: Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
Brown: Bad things happening to good people is very difficult to explain or understand. It’s not God doing to them, it’s evil. You know that Friday night, before Tuesday, I felt the evil gathering there. Plotting and planning for this! I believe evil did that. God helped us recover! God helped us grieve. God helped us forge a new path. God helped us find new happiness and love.
I have a little bit of a funny story. I moved out of New York for a couple of years. When I moved back in 2004, I came back to a very lonely place. All my guy friends were dead. Quality men, good men who I had become great friends with. When I came back here and I was very lonely, I thought what I needed to do was to find other quality men like my friends. That wasn’t easy to do. It took a long time.
I started hanging out at this little Italian restaurant. These two Italian brothers who owned the place, became my friends. I started playing soccer with them and I would go and sit at the bar by myself. I would always have a big frown on my face. I would eat my pasta and drink red wine by myself. Very lonely.
There was this beautiful, young, olive skin woman behind the bar named Debrah. She was always happy. She wouldn’t walk. She would skip. She was just full of life. I loved her so much for that. I needed some of that in my life. One day, she asked me: “What are you doing when I get off work?” I said: “I am going to do whatever you are doing.” She took me to her friend’s house, and I wound up sitting on the couch with all these beautiful women, who were dancing and drinking. It turns out that they were a group of Brazilian women who couldn’t really afford to go out to bars. Instead, they would all go over to each other’s apartments, dance, drink and have a good time.
These women, when they found my story, took me on as one of their own. They loved me exactly where I needed to be loved. They took me to Brazil twice. I went to their homes, where they grew up. I am a big fan of Bossa Nova music, and my friend Alessandra took me to Rio where Bossa Nova music was born.
I tell you that story because I thought I need some quality men, but what God said is how about eight beautiful Brazilian women who are going to love you, with all their hearts. Brazilian people have big hearts and God has that sense of humor. But it healed me in a way that I needed to be healed.
I could never have predicted that. I could have never even prayed for it. He gave me that love that I needed, in a way I didn’t expect. He brought me back. I talk more about my faith now, when I go around doing public speaking. I had kind of avoided it because I didn’t want this story to be about that. I wanted the story to be about heroes and my friends. I found that now that I am letting God into the story and speaking about my faith publicly, many people come to me afterward to thank me for talking about my faith.
Tripkovic: You said in one of your interviews, “There was a lot of evil that day, but there was a lot of good, too.” You risked your life more than a few times and survived. Do you think that was Divine Providence?
Brown: My survival on September 11 is unquestionably divine Providence! He wanted me to survive that collapse and I believe he wanted me to survive so I could be the voice, which I'm honored to be of many of the innocent people and many of my friends who were murdered that day. That’s why 22 years later, I speak out as much as I can and as often as I can about all the innocent people: the heroes of the day, the firemen and the cops who lost their lives that day. I told you the story about holding on to that column in 185-mile per hour wind. That defies reality. The only way I could hold on to that column was with His strength. When I was holding onto this column and my legs were up in the air, I had that quick conversation with God. I said, I'm not afraid of dying. We will all die at some point. I'm not afraid of that. I just thought it was unfair that I was being taken at that moment. I just wanted to hold my brothers and sister one more time. And tell them I love them. I made that deal with God during those 20 seconds. I said to Him: “Please let me tell my family that I love them one more time and then I will come to your side whenever you ask me to.”
He granted me that! I have spent a lot of time with my family, a lot of time with my new friends and they tell me every time that I love them. Because I never want to feel that moment again. It’s a lesson for all of us. It’s a lesson for all humanity. We need to make sure that people understand how much we love them and care for them. That’s what God commands us to do. Love your neighbor as thyself! These are not just words. It’s not just rhetoric. It’s something we have to demonstrate every day.
Next door to where I live is a hotel. They have a doorman there. I’ve been walking by that hotel for over 30 years. Those guys are my friends. I always stop and spend time with them and talk to them. One of them is dying of cancer. I’ve known this guy for 30 years. They know I love them. I share their hands. I give them a hug. They know how much I love them and care for them.
Tripkovic: Why do you think it’s important for people to hear your story about what you saw and did that day?
Brown: I was directly involved and survived one of the greatest events in American and world history. There are people out there who would tell inaccurate stories for whatever reasons they do it. I want people to hear it from me. I was there. I want people to hear the whole truth. We tend to shy away from the hard stuff. It is important that we call out Islamism, we call out radical terrorism. We have to point at it and say that’s evil. We have to be able to point to Islamists and say you are evil. We need to teach our children that evil exists.
We also need to tell of the love that day. We need to tell how love overcame evil, in the long run. It is important to tell the story of over 400 firefighter and police officer heroes of the day. And civilians who became heroes that day. How very simple gestures inside the towers, where people were not running and panicking and pushing each other out of the way. In fact, where every person who was injured or obese or disabled or pregnant, there were four or five civilians helping that person. Every gesture of goodness that day helped us overcome evil. Even in the midst of this attack, people were demonstrating their love for their fellow humans. They were demonstrating goodness. They were demonstrating love; the way God commands us to demonstrate it.
It was happening all day that day, and certainly in the days, weeks, months and years afterwards. We need to speak about all those lessons there. Every firefighter in New York City had a bumper sticker on his car: “Never forget!” That means never! I have the blessing now of mentoring the children of my friends, who are 25, 26 and 30 years old. Most of them don’t have a dad to help them in their careers. To help them decide what a good career path is and with other life decisions. It’s our responsibility not to be the dad, but to step in there and help these young people with this kind of mentorship. I probably mentored 20 or 30 young people in the last five years, with career advice, with relationship advice and all kinds of things their dad would have helped them with, except their dad was murdered.
Tripkovic: America became unified after the attacks. Do you think the country would be able to achieve that if a similar attack happened today, God forbid?
Brown: Exactly! God forbid that happens again! I work in the federal government now. I am in the middle of trying to keep this country safe. I know people who go to work every day with the purpose of keeping America safe from this type of attack. The command center in one of these places before you go into the command center, there's a big sign that says: “Today is September 12th, 2001. Never forget!”
If the people in the command center don’t adhere to that and work very hard every day, they have gone to a different job because they take it very seriously. One of the things that I know for sure because I’m in it, different agencies are talking to each other very well and sharing information with limited ego. From that part of it, hopefully we’ll prevent it from happening.
This country has never been so divided since before 9/11. We’ve gone down that bad path of being divided again. I really wish that we could find our way back to unity and tolerance. Being able to call good good and evil evil. I hope we don't have another attack to test it! But I'm not sure that we can get back to what we saw after 9/11 here in New York and as a country.
When President Obama announced to the world that America had served justice on Osama bin Laden. I remember those images of young people in Washington, D.C. outside the White House fence, yelling, chanting: “USA, USA, USA, USA, CIA, CIA, CIA.” When did you ever think you’d have a group of young people cheering on the CIA?
When we got [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri a year ago, it was less so, but it did bring America together again, in some ways. I think the spirit of patriotism, the spirit of being proud to be an American is there. It's underlying. It just gets attacked. It's heartbreaking that it gets attacked so much. Our values as Americans get attacked all the time. I’m disappointed, but I think that these are just some loud people. The majority of the people are still very proud to be an American and they have American values. It’s the quiet majority!
Tripkovic: You serve on the board of the September 11 National Memorial Trail, you volunteered for the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, and you've spoken at numerous colleges across the country. Do you think the country's K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and media have done a good job in preserving the memory of 9/11 and creating a national culture of remembrance? What else needs to be done?
Brown: We have not done a good job as a country of preparing to teach our young. And that’s a bold statement. I am talking about the big picture. The 9/11 Museum has been doing virtual programming for K-12. That’s virtually in hundreds of thousands of classrooms.
Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation has started some K-12 educational stuff, which I'm a part of. Gary Sinise Foundation just began bringing high school students to the 9/11 museum and sponsoring those trips.
It is so important because there are people out there now, who would prefer that the narrative be that America should be ashamed of itself for treating one group of people badly after 9/11. That America is intolerant. That’s what they want the message to be. That's not the message of the truth of September 11th. The message is the story of the heroes of September 11th. The love that was shown, the bravery, the courage. And, like I talked about before, radical Islam and evil visited America that day. If we don’t talk about what Islamism is, then we’re burying our heads. It’s doomed to repeat.
Every state should require educational program around 9/11 and what happened that day as part of their history classes! The sweet spot is the eighth grade history class. It should be required throughout the country that 8th graders get a true historical lesson on what happened on 9/11 and not just cherry pick stuff about Americans being Islamophobic. We need to tell the whole truth: about the good, the evil, the love, the terror. … Some states have passed legislation already. However, the history lessons they’re giving are not up par of what we should be teaching.
Tripkovic: We met a few years ago during the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. That year was also the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I remember that you were involved in the mission of rescuing American allies from the country, which makes you an active participant in this historic event. Looking from this time distance at 9/11 and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, what are your thoughts?
Brown: I'm embarrassed about the way America pulled out of Afghanistan and left people who were counting on us. People who fought side by side with our military heroes. We just picked up and left them. We had promised them that we would always take care of them. I am embarrassed as an American that we did that.
Now, I am seeing these grassroots movements of good Americans working hard to rescue those people out of Afghanistan before they are killed by the Taliban. I’ve witnessed this across many groups that I’ve worked with. Many groups are doing this work in secret and getting the job done. I am very proud of some Americans! I am not proud of the American government and the administration on how we pulled out and how we lost 13 military heroes when it was unnecessary. I want to continue to help where we can, getting our friends and allies out. Congress needs to do a better job of betting and getting these people into America and helping them survive.
There’s a group called the Civil Support Team. It is made of 40 Afghan women, who made it to America. They were trained by our special forces, and they fought alongside our soldiers in Afghanistan. And we are giving them a hard time being in America. It’s just embarrassing! I hope that we can correct some of this.
Tripkovic: Besides teaching future generations about the horrific crimes that occurred on 9/11, what else can we do to prevent similar attacks in the future?
Brown: My biggest concern right now is the southern border and the number of unknowns who have crossed into America. We have caught some who are on the terrorist watch list. But who knows how many have gotten through. I understand that now we are chasing a bunch of Uzbek individuals who were brought here by ISIS, through the southern border. This is very concerning.
I am confident that our FBI and CIA and other intelligence agencies are working together and sharing information, holding their egos in check when it comes to sharing information. That was a big problem that led to 9/11. It was one of the places where we could have prevented it from happening and we failed. I am confident that at least for now, that has been corrected. I watch every day, the FBI and the CIA sharing information.
Americans know the mantra: “See something, say something.” That’s really important. I am cautiously optimistic. We’re doing a good job of preventing at least a large-scale attack like this from happening again.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jovan Tripkovic is an editorial fellow at Religion Unplugged. Follow him on Twitter @jovan_tripkovic
This story originally appeared at Religion Unplugged and is republished here with permission.