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Two decades later, how 9/11 experiences have bolstered faith for these Latter-day Saints

A mourner prays at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on Friday Sept. 11, 2020.
A mourner prays over the etched name of the deceased Emilio Pete Ortiz at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on Friday Sept. 11, 2020.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

It’s been 20 years since the Howell family received the heartbreaking news that Brady K. Howell — a son, brother and husband — died while working at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.

Brady Howell, a presidential management intern in Naval intelligence, was one of 188 people killed when American Airlines Flight 77, with suicide terrorists aboard, crashed into the Pentagon.

Two decades later, 80-year-old Jeanette Howell, Brady’s mother, continues to find meaning and comfort in knowing she will one day be reunited with her son.

“I know where Brady is and I’m at peace with that. I just know that I will get to see him again,” said Howell, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in Meridian, Idaho.

Jeanette Howell’s firm belief in eternal families is what has bolstered her faith the most in the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As Americans commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Deseret News spoke with Latter-day Saints who were in New York City at the time or who lost a loved one in the attacks, and asked the question: What has sustained or strengthened your faith the most in the last two decades?

Camille Mortensen: Following the prophet to find peace

Camille Howell Mortensen, Brady Howell’s older sister, was making breakfast for her three children and had the news playing on a television in the kitchen when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center tower.

When news broke that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, Mortensen called her parents. They hadn’t heard from Brady. She tried and failed to reach her brother’s wife, Elizabeth “Liz” Howell. Mortensen phoned area hospitals but with no luck.

Her parents decided the family needed to be together. They drove north from St. George where they were serving a Latter-day Saint mission. The family gathered at one son’s home in Centerville. Family members reassured each other with comments like, “Brady’s busy. He’s helping people. That’s why he hasn’t called.”

Camille Mortensen holds her children during a 9/11 service in 2005.
Camille Mortensen holds her children Collette and Cameron while attending a Sunrise Service on Sept. 11, 2005, at the Utah State University Botanical Center in Kaysville. Camille’s brother, Brady Howell, was killed at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When he hadn’t called by that evening, Mortensen knew her brother had died.

“As it got dark ... that’s when I knew he was gone,” she said.

Members of the Howell family have coped with the grief of Brady’s death in different ways. Mortensen was never angry about losing her brother but did struggle with sadness for a time.

“I was in a really dark place for about three or four months, but have been fine ever since,” she said. “I’m sad and I miss him, but I’ve been blessed that it’s been a relatively easy process for me.”

Mortensen flew to Washington, D.C., on the first available flight after the attacks and was there when her brother’s body was found in the rubble. She returned home with disturbing mental images of tanks and soldiers guarding the damaged and still-smoking Pentagon.

“I felt like I had been in Kosovo or something, it was just so traumatic,” she said.

As the October 2001 general conference approached, Mortensen prayed to receive a specific, special message as well as peace and reassurance that everything would be OK. She wanted to pull herself out of the darkness.

Gratefully, an answer came. Mortensen can’t recall who the speaker was, but someone mentioned the need to “get a little food storage and prepare yourselves a little better.” That was something she and her family could do.

“I just felt a lot of peace — not that I had emergency preparedness supplies — but that I was following the prophet,” she said. “It wasn’t having my basement full of food, it was like I’m following the prophet, and in doing so, there is peace, and I can deal with whatever happens. That was healing for me, to move forward with a little bit of faith.”

Liz Howell: ‘I want to serve others with all my heart’

In the years following her husband Brady Howell’s death, Liz Howell found healing in serving others. She served a Latter-day Saint mission to Portugal at age 30 and afterward worked in the church’s Humanitarian Services. A Deseret News reporter found her caring for people in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.

“I realized there are other people in the world who are suffering, and while I by no means am an expert on grief or trial, I’m acquainted with grief,” she said in the 2010 article. “I just realized at that point that I wanted to serve others with all my heart, with everything that I had, and I realized that I had been blessed so much after the loss of my husband and comforted so much.”

Liz declined to be interviewed for this story, but the Howell family reported that she is doing well, has remarried and found happiness with her new family.

Elizabeth “Liz” Howell carries 4-year-old Oresto Oclor to a hospital for surgery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Elizabeth “Liz” Howell carries 4-year-old Oresto Oclor to a hospital for surgery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 22, 2010. Howell’s husband, Brady Howell, died while working at the Pentagon on 9/11.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Matthew McConkie: Recording and remembering ‘spiritual mileposts’

Matthew McConkie moved to New York City in July of 2001. The Brigham Young University graduate was a brand new analyst at Goldman Sachs and his office was located in lower Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center.

Providentially, McConkie didn’t go into the office for the first time in months on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He was in the middle of taking a financial licensing exam at a different, safer location when a fire alarm interrupted the test.

“We were frustrated because we had spent months getting ready for this exam,” he said. “Then we looked out the window and could see the World Trade Center was on fire. ... I saw the big, billowing smoke. We didn’t know what had happened, but we knew it was serious.”

McConkie made his way on foot to his Latter-day Saint bishop’s apartment, where he and other leaders instigated a calling tree to check on each member of their Manhattan Latter-day Saint congregation. They also opened the chapel with a large gym as a place for anyone who needed a place to stay.

“We made sure everyone was accounted for,” said McConkie, who then served as his congregation’s elders quorum president.

McConkie was back at work the following week. He remembers walking by the piles of debris, the ash on his shoes and the smell of burning cement and steel.

“It was an eerie, kind of apocalyptic, ghost town type of feel,” he said. “Everything after that was just sort of trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy.”

The events of 9/11 changed social interactions in Manhattan. McConkie remembers people on the subways or the streets actually making eye contact with you and communicating an unspoken, “Are you OK?”

One day McConkie sat next to a construction worker on the subway. The man wore dirty clothes and a hard hat, carried a massive monkey wrench and appeared utterly exhausted.

“I knew he had been at the site going through the debris,” McConkie said. “I remember feeling a lot of gratitude for him.”

The Matthew and Shelley McConkie family in New York City.
Matthew and Shelley McConkie, with children Madeline, Matthew Jr., Spencer, Kate and Melanie take a picture in New York City in 2013, more than a decade after the events of 9/11. Since then the family has added two more children. The McConkie family now lives in Utah.
Matthew McConkie

One thing that has bolstered McConkie’s faith these past 20 years is recording and recalling his special spiritual experiences. It’s what he calls the “Oliver Cowdery principle,” referring to Doctrine and Covenants 6:22 — “Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.”

When powerful spiritual illumination comes, McConkie says, the Lord expects us to do like Cowdery and “cast our mind upon” that particular experience, and he holds us accountable for it.

“(The Apostle) Paul says we are to walk by faith and not by sight. I’d add, we are to walk by memory — memory of the sacred experiences the Lord has vouchsafed to us. So often, with time and distance, people diminish former spiritual experiences,” said McConkie, who now lives in Utah and serves as president of the church’s Salt Lake Big Cottonwood Stake. “I call these spiritual mileposts and they are what we must measure our faith journey by.”

Mark Johnson: ‘We can get through anything’

In 2001, Mark Johnson was working for American Express in the World Financial Center, which was across the street from the World Trade Center. Each day he rode the subway into downtown and walked through the basement of the north tower to get to his building.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Johnson emerged from the subway to find commotion and chaos. The first plane had just hit the World Trade Center. He was standing there moments later when the second plane crashed into the other tower.

Johnson walked around to the other side of the building, where he saw flames and people starting to jump from the building. As police and firefighters began to arrive at the scene, Johnson decided it was time to leave.

He caught the last subway ride away from the World Trade Center to Times Square, where it went out of service. Johnson then used a public phone in the subway to call this wife. Johnson, who served as a bishop at the time, also made a few calls to check on the status of members in his congregation. One sister worked in the World Trade Center but her husband said she was OK. From there he made his way back home to his apartment on the northern end of Manhattan.

Looking back, Johnson said it was hard to describe his experience. His thoughts turned to love of Jesus Christ and his power to heal all wounds.

“We believe and have faith that even though things might temporarily be in chaos that ultimately our Father in Heaven is in control and our Savior can make amends of things, even horrible things, even though your heart is sinking,” Johnson said. “It’s incredibly reassuring to have faith in the Savior like that, to guide and lift you and put you in a mindset where you know that things will be OK.”

Three things have bolstered Johnson’s faith over the years. First, the memory of all the people who came forward to help, first responders and other volunteers, who put their own lives at risk to assist others in need.

“That’s tremendously admirable, and something I’ll never forget,” Johnson said. “I hope I can react as a person who wants to run and see what I can do to help.”

Second, it was heartwarming to see how people came together in love and unity.

“When the chips are down, we need to take care of each other and find common interests,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat together and should have each other’s backs.”

Finally, Johnson referenced the words of Christ in a scripture verse from the New Testament, John 16:33, which reads, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

“In this world we will have tribulation and difficulties, but to know the Savior has overcome the world means that if we are on his side, his disciples, eventually we will be able to overcome as well,” Johnson said. “That means we can get through anything.”