The Only American Who Was So Far from Home, Part 1

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On the morning of September 11, 2001, my father-in-law was watching the Today Show in his room in our home. I don’t remember exactly why I stopped by his room at the moment I did that morning, but I remember well what I saw happening on his television. The first plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. Like other Americans, I wondered why it had happened. Then I experienced the shock of another plane hitting the other tower and then another plane hitting the Pentagon and then another plane crashing in Pennsylvania. Like other Americans, I wondered what life was going to be like after that horrible morning.

I recently read a moving 9/11 story that I had never heard of before. One lone American astronaut, Frank Culbertson, was in the International Space Station that morning. The other people at the station with him were Russian cosmonauts. Someone from NASA told him about what was happening in New York and Washington. One of his two Russian companions sensed something very seriously wrong and came to him. Culbertson got the other cosmonaut to come into his module and tried to explain to them how very serious an event this would be in New York and at the Pentagon.

Culbertson quickly looked on the world map inside the space station and saw that the station was above southern Canada and would soon pass over New York. He rushed around to find a window with a good view of New York. He grabbed the camera that was closest to him which happened to be a video camera and began to record. This is a frame of what he saw as they passed over Ground Zero. Culbertson later realized that they must have passed over the area about the time that the second of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center collapsed.

New York City from the International Space Station, morning of September 11, 2001. Image courtesy of NASA.

As hard as it was for people on Earth to face what had happened, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the lone American high over the Earth in the space station. On September 11, Culbertson had an overwhelming feeling of being isolated and he worried that perhaps some of his friends had died.

On September 13, NASA gave Culbertson a thorough briefing of what they knew about the events, and Russian ground support sent news to him as well. NASA assured Culbertson that they would make sure he got back home safely at the end of his mission. His two Russian cosmonaut companions were very kind to him. One of them even fixed him his favorite Russian borscht soup for dinner that evening. Both were sympathetic. Still, he worried about his friends.

That day Culbertson learned that he had known the captain of American Airlines Flight 77. He was someone Culbertson had gone to school with. They had had many classes together. That was the plane that hijackers had crashed into the Pentagon.

Culbertson felt sad that he was so far away and wasn’t at home helping in some way. In a letter he wrote that day, he said “be certain that my heart is with you, and know you are in my prayers.” He signed it: “Humbly, Frank.”

I was deeply touched to think of an American astronaut praying on the International Space Station during that terrible tragedy. Tomorrow I plan to share with you what Culbertson wrote on September 14, 2001, the day that President George W. Bush declared to be a Day of Prayer and Remembrance. That letter is sure to touch your heart, as it did mine.

Therefore know today, and take it to your heart,
that the Lord, He is God in heaven above
and on the earth below; there is no other. 
Deuteronomy 4:39



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