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‘We are doing much better than anyone would have supposed’

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Like clock work, Stuart Smith can be found working at his desk on the 71st floor of New York City's World Trade Center every morning at 7:30. But on Sept. 11 — the morning hijackers commandeered two jetliners and crashed into the twin towers — he decided to stay home, spending the morning walking his son to the bus stop and eating a late breakfast with his wife.

Just before 9 a.m., he received a phone call from a friend alerting him of the strike on the adjacent tower. A few minutes later, as he was speaking with his boss on the phone, his tower was hit by a second jetliner.

Brother Smith, a financial clerk in the Plainview New York Stake, was among the more than 20 members of the Church who worked at the center and, for reasons of travel or illness, remained home that day.

Elder W. Craig Zwick of the Seventy and president of the North America Northeast Area said that it's estimated that as many as 1,000 members of the Church commute to work on Manhattan Island. Of that number, approximately 50 worked in the World Trade Center, while another 200 work across the street in the World Financial Complex.

Another 3,500 members live in the area of the World Trade Center in the New York New York Stake.

"All full-time missionaries are safely accounted for and it appears that there [are] no fatalities among our membership in and around New York City," said Elder Zwick.

An active telephoning system among leaders of the 10 stakes accounted for nearly all members by early morning Sept. 12.

"I'm impressed how stake presidents and bishops and Relief Society presidents know their flocks," Elder Zwick said. "It's an amazing network that identified every member. The Relief Society was deeply involved."

The three mission presidents of the area located all missionaries early that day, except two who were on a ferry bound for Ellis Island to participate in a service project when the terrorists struck. The missionaries reported by phone when they reached New Jersey.

While grateful that members were physically safe, Elder Zwick noted that emotional scars will follow — requiring time to heal. "But I believe that leaders will offer support and comfort," he said.

Despite the confusion and lack of transportation during the crisis, only 10 members were unable to sleep in their homes that night, Elder Zwick said. "And four of those were missionaries who lived within the 14th Street lockdown area and were unable to return home."

Emerging from the horror of the day, said Elder Zwick, are simple demonstrations of faith. He told of a counselor in the New York New York Stake presidency who is a banker and a volunteer fireman. On the morning following the disaster, he helped sift through the rubble undeterred by the prospects of danger.

Another member, Jonathan Hill, had just emerged from the subway beneath the World Trade Center when he looked up and noticed "huge hunks of metal coming down, big as cars." He ducked into the front of a nearby shoe shine stand. A second later and only several feet behind him, a man was struck in the head by shrapnel. Brother Hill helped drag the injured man inside where shoe shine rags were used to stop the bleeding from a six-inch gash.

Downtown Manhattan was "eerily silent" and Times Square was empty Thursday, Sept. 13, with only official rescue workers allowed in the area.

However, at midtown where the New York New York Stake center is located, those events seemed a world away, said stake President Brent J. Belnap. "It is almost normal here," he said.

Stake members spent the day checking on other members and accounted for most of them. They also canvassed the area for people who had no place to stay and invited them to stay at the stake center.

Members and those in the community "feel that this is one of the worst disasters to ever hit," he said. "The people are so desirous to help. We are doing much better than anyone would have supposed."

He spoke of his arrival on Wall Street the morning of the disaster. "I walked out of the subway just as the second plane hit the south tower." He then walked to his office across the street. "I was blessed; [had I waited] I would have been there when the south tower collapsed.

"We had a member who was on the 93rd floor of the south tower and she was able to get all of the way down. She saw people jumping out of the building.

"Two members from out of town, one from Salt Lake City and one from Las Vegas, were at the Marriott Hotel (located in one of the World Trade Center towers). It was horrific."

He said that many more members had accounts of not being in the towers as they normally would have been.

One, a visitor, "was on the 96th floor in a meeting. During a break in the meeting, he went to the 30th floor for food. When the building was hit, a security guard told him where to exit, and to 'go now!'

"Another sister went out to have a morning snack. When the building was hit, she wasn't allowed back into the building.

"One single mother who worked on the 79th floor woke up Tuesday morning and her son was sick. She chose to stay home with him. She was spared.

"Several lawyers [who work in the building] got a late start. One member from Harlem who works in the World Trade Center had a [Tuesday] schedule change. There are dozens more stories like these."

President Belnap said that "when we were set apart as a stake presidency four years ago, one of the visiting General Authorities said that the hand of the Lord is over this city. That is a phrase that has been repeated many times as other visitors have come to New York.

"I can't say that the people aren't shaken a little bit, given what has occurred, but it is absolutely miraculous that as many people who worked there did get out and did survive. It is amazing."

He said a lot of people who worked in the area no longer have jobs.

President A. Kim Smith of the Scotch Plains New Jersey Stake watched the disaster unfold from his office on the 27th floor of an adjacent building.

"I saw the first plane hit. It was hard to believe a plane had flown into the trade center; it is such a bizarre concept. Then we saw the second plane come and hit from the south side, the Statue of Liberty side, and that is when we could see damage, a huge gaping hole. Then the fire spread and the buildings imploded and downtown became like night. It was so dark from the smoke and soot and everything flying in the air.

"I've never been in a volcano, but that is the impression from pictures I've seen of what it would have been like."

He said no members of his stake were injured, but many stayed away from their workplace "for one reason or another on Tuesday."

"I am surprised at how many did get out. It must have been Providence, but I have a hard time separating why some were saved and some weren't.

"We have a lot of young families, and there were a lot of young mothers and families that just didn't know [of the fate of loved ones] for two or three or four hours. When they found out, it was pretty emotional; there was a lot of gratitude.

"One thing that was touching to me was how many people from the stake called, worrying about me. Some of them could hardly speak English. That was very touching."

President Bart D. Worthington of the Manhattan 7th (hearing impaired) Branch, said members of his branch in the area could feel the vibrations of the wreckage but didn't know at first what happened.

"A junior high school girl from the branch witnessed everything that happened and it shook her up quite a bit."

Missionaries scheduled to fly to their missions on Sept. 11 were returned to the Provo Missionary Training Center when the FAA canceled all flights. Other missionaries who departed earlier that morning from Salt Lake City landed safely within the United States and were welcomed and cared for by local mission presidents.

The 21 missionaries who were air bound for New York and landed in Denver, Colo., were assigned to work in the Colorado Denver South Mission until flights could be arranged.

Six missionaries serving in Newfoundland, Canada, spent the night helping accommodate in the branch meetinghouse 250 passengers who had been rerouted to St. John's from international flights unable to land in the United States. — John L. Hart and Julie Dockstader Heaps contributed to this article.