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Residents reflect, cope with 9/11

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was like watching a movie,” recalled Franco Sees, a Johnstown resident who was living in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001.

Sees was working in construction on an office building in Brooklyn and had a clear view across the Hudson into Manhattan that morning. “One of my coworkers had a pair of binoculars. I’ll never forget what I saw that day. People were jumping from the Twin Towers. The streets were filled with New Yorkers running for their lives.”

As events unfolded, the shock was felt in Johnstown too. “We heard about the plane in Somerset County and at the Pentagon. We thought we might be next,” remembers Franco’s wife, April. “I was afraid to go anywhere.”

Within days of the attacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses set up teams that spent hours each day in Lower Manhattan. With a small Bible tucked in their pockets, they consoled everyone, from the families of victims to first responders battling physical and emotional exhaustion.

It was a work that changed how the organization approaches disasters, with an organized comfort ministry now being an integral part of its response to natural disasters and even the pandemic.

Sees was among one of the groups that went to Ground Zero. “I never anticipated that just one day would change our lives the way it did. People were desperate for hope and reassurance. Rescue workers would just ask us to pray with them. I remember one fireman who stopped and specifically asked me to use God’s name, Jehovah, as I said a prayer with him.”

Recalling the gut-wrenching days he spent as one of those volunteers near the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers still stirs deep feelings in Robert Hendriks.

“It was very emotional and extremely difficult for me, but the faces of those I passed on the street said it all,” said Hendriks, now U.S. spokesman for the Witnesses. “They needed comfort, and the best thing I could give them was a hug and a scripture.”

Helping others has long been linked to better emotional well-being in psychology research. The book “The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others” describes “powerful” effects, even for helpers who’ve experienced trauma themselves.

Like Sees, many Jehovah’s Witnesses coped with the trauma of that day by helping others. The international religious group was headquartered in Brooklyn at the time. Charleroi resident Melanie Lopez was working at the headquarters then and remembers this outreach.

“Refreshments were set up in the lobby of the 90 Sands Building, located at the bottom of the Brooklyn Bridge. The doors were open for residents, volunteers, policemen, or anyone else to receive food and drink, as well as hear an encouraging scripture.”

Lopez resumed her public ministry soon after the tragedy. “We went into the heart of the city, people living near Times Square,” she said. “New Yorkers really wanted to know how God felt about what happened. Answering their questions and offering a message of hope not only made me happy, but gave me peace. It calmed me down.”

Brown “Butch” Payne was also part of Sees’ group who went to Ground Zero. From his East Village apartment, he saw crowds of frantic people, bringing back vivid wartime memories for the Vietnam veteran. “Sharing the Bible’s message of hope softened the blow for me,” he said.

Two decades later, Sees and Payne are among millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses who continue to find comfort from reaching out — this time in talking with pandemic-stressed neighbors.

“Trauma changes people,” Sees said. “We need to talk. We need each other. It makes me feel good to be able to give people in the Johnstown community hope, even if it must be done through letters and telephone calls instead of going door to door.”

Payne feels the same. In 2016, after 50 years of marriage, he lost his beloved wife to cancer. On days when his grief feels overwhelming, Payne writes heartfelt letters that lift his neighbors’ spirits — and his own. He shares scriptures and resources that have helped him, like articles on coping with trauma and loss on www.jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Encouraging others to look to the future helps me to do the same,” he said.

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