Campus Pastor Bernie Cueto and Justin Girard, who was in the World Trade Center when it was attacked. Click here to view video of Girard's talk.
On September 11, 2001, most Americans learned through a special TV news report or via a phone call that the World Trade Center towers in New York City had been struck by commercial airliners as part of a coordinated terrorist attack. However, that defining moment for a generation came first-hand for Palm Beach Atlantic University alum Justin Girard, as he looked through a window in awe from the 61st floor of one of the World Trade Center towers.
Girard earned his bachelor’s degree in business management from PBA in 2001. He visited campus Friday to share his story of survival during an 8 a.m. prayer service in the DeSantis Family Chapel commemorating the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Shortly after graduating, he wed Amanda Girard, a ’02 PBA grad, and began a training program with Morgan Stanley in West Palm Beach, Florida. Trainees across the country were required to attend a two-week session at Merrill Lynch offices in Manhattan’s 2 World Trade Center.
“I flew up on Sunday, September 9, and started working Monday, September 10,” said Girard, who now is an assistant vice president, financial advisor for Merrill Lynch Palm Beach. “Monday I had lunch with another employee at the World Trade Center Plaza. The natural inclination is to look up as the buildings are so tall. But, we didn’t want to look like tourists.”
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
During a break from morning meetings, Girard stood with colleagues at a window on the 61st Floor of Tower 2 watching smoke rise from fires burning after the impact of a plane hitting Tower 1 at 8:46 a.m.
“We had no idea what we were supposed to do,” he said. “We sat there for five or six minutes watching events unfold.”
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Girard and his colleagues began to evacuate, which he said was orderly, “much like any fire drill.” The group of 30-40 people he was with, now in the stairwell, descended 10 or so floors, and waited as the public address system assured them Tower 2 was secure. And it was, until 9:03 a.m. when the second airliner struck Tower 2 between the 77th and 85th floors.
“By far that was the most serious element of my experience,” Girard said. “It felt like the building was made out of rubber. It took us about 20 minutes to get out of the building, a long time to talk and have prayer. There certainly were no atheists that day.”
Girard praised the evacuation plan of the fire and police departments, and vividly remembers them saying, “Run to Church Street, and don’t look at falling debris.”
When safely at Church Street, Girard watched the fire devour the upper floors of the building like a “living creature.” But after feelings of discontent and awkwardness overtook him as he watched people coming toward the burning towers and taking photos, he started to make his way back to his hotel. “I can only attribute that (decision) to God,” he said.
When Tower 2 collapsed, Girard was about eight to 10 blocks away -- far enough away that he was not in direct contact with debris.
Everyone was in the streets
Walking from the lower end of Manhattan to midtown, where his hotel was located, traffic was at a standstill and everyone was in the street, he recalled. As he walked he studied face after face that he encountered.
“Complete, utter hopelessness in the faces of people was so apparent,” he said. “I remember feeling differently having faith in Christ.”
He finally reached the hotel between 11:30 a.m. and noon, and now with phone service, he was able to contact his wife.
In the months following September 11, Girard said he became much more aware of purpose and destiny in life, and knowing not to be concerned with trivial things. “As we remember the tragedy 10 years later, focus on things that matter, more frequently,” he said.
"A cut finally heals, but there’s always a scar ..."
Dr. Ken Mahanes, special advisor to PBA’s president, shared he was preparing for the start of Christival in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church on September 11. Services did continue, and were extended. Large amounts of students made their way to the altar to pray. Many wept and consoled one another.
“A cut finally heals, but there’s always a scar that remains with us, that keeps us remembering what took place,” said Mahanes.
Campus Pastor Bernie Cueto read a letter from the book, “The Legacy Letters: Messages of Life and Hope from 9/11 Family Members.” The letter was written by a son to his father 10 years after he perished during the attacks. Following the moving letter, the tolling of the bell took place.
Dean of the School of Music and Fine Arts Lloyd Mims then led the audience in a rendition of “God Bless America”; and Interim President William M.B. Fleming Jr. concluded the service asking attendees to exit the chapel in silence to “honor those fallen, those harmed, those who serve us by putting their lives on the line -- those who lead by example.”