9/11 and the myth, reality and miracles of New York City missionaries

From the scrapbook of Carol R. Stoker, a photo shows Elder Joseph Seymour and Elder Seth Fillmore in the dust cloud of 9/11 in New York City. Credit: Provided by Carol R. Stoker
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The two collapsed following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Credit: Provided by Carol R. Stoker
People flee the falling South Tower of the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta) Credit: Amy Sancetta, Associated Press
An American flag at ground zero on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) Credit: Mark Lennihan, Associated Press
Police officers and civilians run away from New York's World Trade Center after an additional explosion rocked the buildings Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001. In unprecedented show of terrorist horror, the 110-story World Trade Center towers collapsed in a shower of rubble and dust Tuesday morning after two hijacked airliners carrying scores of passengers slammed into the sides of the twin symbols of American capitalism. (AP Photo/Louis Lanzano) Credit: Louis Lanzano, Associated Press
People make their way amid debris near the World Trade Center in New York Tuesday Sept. 11, 2001. In one of the most horrifying attacks ever against the United States, terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center in a deadly series of blows that brought down the twin 110-story towers. (AP Photo/Gulnara Samoilova) Credit: Gulnara Samoilova, Associated Press

On Sept. 11, 2001, life changed dramatically in and around New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks — as it did for full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their work there.

The leaders of the Church’s two New York City missions at the time witnessed divine preparations for, protections during and comforting after 9/11.

“The Lord knew what was happening, and He prepared for it,” said President G. Lawrence Spackman, who with his wife, Sister Flora E. Spackman, oversaw the New York New York South Mission in 2001.

And today, just as he told the Church News 20 years earlier, President Noel G. Stoker says missionaries then felt they were sent by the Lord to help in the time of crisis. “The Lord knew we needed to be here at this time,” he said in 2001, presiding over the New York New York North Mission with Sister Carol R. Stoker.

Today, both couples are service mission leaders — the Stokers in Fresno, California, and the Spackmans in Calgary, Alberta. With the hindsight of two decades, they continue to underscore the miracles and mercies against a backdrop of death and destruction — and discounting an oft-repeated rumor from 20 years ago.

Manhattan Island and the World Trade Center were in the North mission’s boundaries. But just like the massive clouds of smoke, dust and debris, the harrowing impact carried into the neighboring South and New Jersey Morristown missions.

“Only a million people actually live on the [Manhattan] island, but that many more go in every day to work,” President Spackman said.

Missionaries on 9/11

Police officers and civilians run away from New York’s World Trade Center after an additional explosion rocked the buildings Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001.
Police officers and civilians run away from New York’s World Trade Center after an additional explosion rocked the buildings Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001. | Credit: Louis Lanzano, Associated Press

Sept. 11 was supposed to be a transfer day for the New York New York North Mission — departing missionaries having breakfast and a testimony meeting in the mission home before leaving for the airport to return home, and new missionaries flying in to start their orientation and service.

But President Stoker had sent the 18 returning missionaries home a week early, thinking it helpful in their pursuing educational opportunities.

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After the attacks, the FAA grounded all flights, with the one the incoming missionaries were on redirected to Denver, Colorado. The 21 missionaries were temporarily hosted by a Denver mission until finally arriving at the North mission on Sept. 17.

The first of two airliners striking the Twin Towers occurred at 8:46 a.m. Eastern time, well before missionaries were to leave their residences for the day. “We dispersed the word through leadership to have every missionary stay in their apartment and call their parents immediately,” President Stoker said.

Added Sister Stoker: “Just one hour later, and they all would have been out.”

That includes the dozen missionaries who resided near ground zero and had to stay in their apartments for three days.

The three missions in and around New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, were able to locate and contact all missionaries early that day — with the exception of two.

Under the Twin Towers

Elder Joseph R. Seymour of Huntington Beach, California, and Elder Seth Fillmore of Murray, Utah, were riding the subway to a preapproved service project on Ellis Island. At the stop under the World Trade Center, passengers were alerted of police activity above. With no one allowed to get off or get on, the subway continued on its route.

Credit: McClatchy-Tribune Services

The companionship got off at the Battery Park Station and emerged at the south end of Manhattan Island, seeing crowds running toward them before noticing billowing smoke to the north. A Latter-day Saint couple saw them and had the elders accompany the couple to their nearby apartment building.

Upon arrival, the South Tower collapsed, burying everyone in a huge, dark cloud of dust and debris. The elders gave their handkerchiefs to mothers with children in strollers and went back out toward Battery Park, using their neckties to cover their noses and mouths.

There they met a young Latter-day Saint woman visiting New York and separated from her parents. They used their ties as leashes to stay together when the North Tower collapse resulted in near-zero visibility.

At 2 p.m., the elders finally managed to call in and report their status.

The three eventually were evacuated by watercraft to the New Jersey side, where Morristown missionaries spent several hours avoiding jammed freeways and turnpikes and using back roads to reach and collect them. Eventually, the three passed to the Stokers at about midnight on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Myth and reality

If all one seemingly knows about missionaries in New York City on 9/11 is about a supposedly missed mission conference in the World Trade Center that fateful morning … well, that’s a myth.

Long before the advent of today’s social media, a fabricated story started circulating on the Internet detailing a missionary conference planned to be held in the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11 — but all missionaries miraculously failed to make the conference due to a variety of circumstances.

“The story is such a disservice,” President Stoker told the Church News in September 2001. “It’s a malicious kind of thing to destroy credible stories of faith.”

The fabrication contains a fraction of truth — half of the New York New York South Mission was meeting together at 9 a.m. on 9/11, not in Manhattan. President Spackman said he had felt impressed earlier to schedule large, multizone conferences then — half of the missionaries on Sept. 11, the other half the next day.

With the conference starting just minutes after the initial attack, mission leaders knew the day would present problems. But the Spackmans provided meaningful reassurance to missionary families — although reaching parents in Pakistan, Russia, Japan and nearly every country in Central and South America stretched beyond the first day.

“I was able to say to every family, every parent, ‘I have seen your missionary; I have personally hugged your missionary,’” President Spackman said. “And that was comforting to them — they didn’t want to hear that I just heard their missionary was OK.”

One ‘missionary’ fatality

In the minds of the Spackmans, Stokers and others, a “missionary” did die that day in the World Trade Center.

Ivan Carpio was a 24-year-old from Peru who worked at the Windows of the World restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower.

People flee the falling South Tower of the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
People flee the falling South Tower of the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. | Credit: Amy Sancetta, Associated Press

A member of the Church for a year, he was hoping to become a missionary. But because he was in the United States only on a work permit, documentation issues precluded his full-time service.

In the meetinghouse where Carpio was meeting in late August with his district president about mission possibilities, President Spackman was asked to join and help explain the restrictions. After a brief chat, the mission president said: “Brother Carpio, you just remain faithful and you will be able to serve a mission.”

President Spackman recalled: “He was so relieved and so happy, and he went away rejoicing. I went out to the car and said to my wife: ‘I just made a huge mistake. I told a young man that he was going to be able to serve a mission, and he’s not going to be able to. I don’t know why I said it — and I feel terrible.’”

Carpio was supposed to be off work on Sept. 11, but he volunteered to cover another’s shift and perished in the 9/11 attacks, the only Latter-day Saint fatality from those working in the Twin Towers.

“Two weeks later [after the interview], we found out why that happened, and he was taken.”

But the late young man’s missionary work was more than just sharing the gospel on the other side of the veil.

Carpio’s parents attended funeral services in New York a month later. His father approached President Spackman and, while clasping a copy of the Book of Mormon to his chest, said in halting English: “The last thing my son said to me is that I should read this book and pray about it. And I tell you, Presidente, I will.”

The father returned to Peru soon thereafter, but Carpio’s mother remained, was taught and was baptized.

Post-9/11 work

Soon after 9/11, missionaries in and around New York City helped at Red Cross centers as volunteers, coordinators and interpreters. And they continued to share their message of peace and hope.

They usually found softened hearts — although some had been hardened by the attacks, trauma and deaths.

An American flag at ground zero on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
An American flag at ground zero on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. | Credit: Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

Sister Spackman liked to describe New Yorkers as M&Ms — like the candy, hard on the outside but sweet on the inside. “And after 9/11, that all melted away, and everybody was sweet outside and inside,” President Spackman said.

It became easier for the easily recognized missionaries to approach people, even on the streets. “We just stopped people and asked, ‘How are you doing?’” he said.

Sister Stoker recalls that political or socioeconomic distinctions among the people quickly disappeared. “We were all Americans — and everyone smiled. Suddenly everyone was warm and kind to each other” she said, adding that about nine months later, “slowly, it went to the way it had been before.”

The plan of salvation — the purpose of life and the eternal nature of life — became a starting point in teaching the gospel. President Gordon B. Hinckley directed a video on that topic be produced that New York-area missionaries could share with those who had lost loved ones in the tragedy.

Post-script ‘what-ifs’

An oral, mouth and facial surgeon by profession, President Stoker was well experienced with trauma. Setting up the North mission office as a command center for communications, he was anxious to send missionaries out to assist with any emergency efforts at or around the attack site. “I had that mindset, but the Lord just wouldn’t let me send the missionaries to ground zero.”

He later understood why, watching many of the first responders and others working at the attack site suffer long-term and often fatal effects, such as pulmonary disease, due to inhaling so much contaminated dust.

As president of TransCanada Energy and having made multiple trips annually to the Twin Towers for several years prior to his mission assignment, President Spackman feared the worst when he watched not one but two fuel-loaded jets fly into the Twin Towers.

“When I saw that happen, I said to myself that 50,000 people just died. And if things hadn’t gone just about as perfectly as possible, it would have been that many people. But it turned out to be less than 3,000 who passed away.

“And one of them was sent on a mission.”

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