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Manuel Chea: From the 49th Floor

By Jennifer Jones Producer

CBN.comWhen Manuel heard the blast from his office in the World Trade Center, he had no idea that the world suddenly changed. The months afterwards took him on an emotional roller coaster that nearly stopped at a dead end.

Jennifer E. Jones: Take me back to September 10th. How was life for you before all this happened?

Manuel Chea: September 10th was a Monday; it was just a regular day. My life seemed in order – at least I thought. I’d just taken the kids out to the World Trade Center during Labor Day weekend to show them around the towers. Work was interesting. I enjoyed my job.

Jones: What is it that you did?

Chea: I worked on computers. I was a systems administrator. Professionally, things were exciting. At home everything seemed fine. Life couldn’t be better.

Jones: One of the most interesting things I’ve found when talking to people about their 9/11 experiences is that everyone felt like it was a normal day – nothing out of the ordinary. How did you wake up that morning?

Chea: I usually get in about 8:00 in the morning. That wasn’t any different. The only thing different that day [was] it was primary day in New York City. People were going to vote. I was thinking to myself, When should I cast my vote: in the morning before I go to work or after work? I decided to go after work. That morning was a clear morning, blue skies. It was very comfortable. I picked up my breakfast, and I just came into work. It was just like every other day.

Jones: How did things start to unfold? Did you even know what it was when it hit?

Chea: I had no idea that a plane had just hit the building. I was on the 49th floor of the North Tower. I just finished a conversation with a co-worker. A minute later the building began to shake and tremble. Now I’ve been in earthquakes before, and this initial trembling resembled an earthquake because the foundation moved. The building began to sway back and forth. In the past we were told that the World Trade Center was designed to flex when there were high winds or an earthquake. So that’s what it felt like. Subsequently I heard an explosion above. It was very loud. I still had no idea it was a plane. When the building stopped rocking back and forth, that’s when I got up from my desk and headed to the nearest emergency stairwell.

Jones: At what point did you realize this was not an act of nature?

Chea: Hearing the explosion already told me that it was something other than an earthquake. I assumed it was a bomb. I didn’t find out it was a plane until later in the stairwell when some people in our group received messages on their cell phones.

Jones: Describe the 49 flights down.

Chea: The initial descent was fairly quick but it began to slow down as people began to pour into the stairs. There wasn’t really any panic. There were a couple of people who were crying. The best thing was that people helped and comforted each other. The descent was orderly and not chaotic. As orderly as we were, there was of course some anxiety knowing that something not normal had just occurred.

Jones: How did you get out of the building?

Chea: The whole way wasn’t that bad getting out. It was slow at times. At one point we hesitated going down because the people below us had smelled some smoke. We stopped for a while. I took that opportunity to go back into the office areas and call my wife. I couldn’t reach her but I called my dad… Another point that slowed us down considerably was when we reached the 30th floor, and the first wave of firefighters reached us. We had to move to the right and walk down single-file while the firefighters walked up to our left. It was from those firefighters that we realized that the second tower had also been struck by a plane. They told us the rest of the way was okay. As we exited the stairs, there was emergency personnel stationed outside guiding us through. By the time I reached street level, it was one hour later. I walked east of the towers about two blocks. After that I stood in a corner to rest a bit, and within 5 to 10 minutes, the South Tower began to collapse.

Jones: How did you get home?

Chea: The building collapsed, and I ran from the corner I stood. I reached 32nd Street, which is close to midtown Manhattan. My first instinct was to get to my wife’s office [which was on 32nd Street]. By late afternoon, the city had resumed service on public transportation, so my wife and I were able to take the subway home.

Jones: Once you were home and safe, how did you feel? What did you do?

Chea: I don’t remember too much of it, except I was sitting on the couch and not doing anything else. I was either watching the news or just staring blankly. It was a stunned silence; kind of like a mini-shock that this had happened and it happened to me. My wife later told me that I looked like someone who had just retreated into a shell. To be honest, that was a shell that I didn’t get out of until six months later.

Jones: How were you able to come out of that? I mean, is there ever a "getting back to normal" after something like that?

Chea: The definition of normal changes. The first six months in the aftermath of the attack was more of denial – not a denial that the events occurred but a denial of what my mind and my heart was experiencing. I went back to work the next morning. I’ve always been a happy, go-lucky person, and I felt that I had confidence in myself that I was able to overcome the situation. But that in itself is a sin because your own pride becomes your own downfall. It was a denial that I was experiencing the trauma of the attack, and it was the denial of God’s sovereignty in my life.

Jones: How did your faith help you heal?

Manuel CheaChea: Six months later my wife confronted me about the whole situation. She told me that I had become more withdrawn. I became distant from my wife. I was easily irritated, and I began to snap at my kids -- losing my patience very quickly. I was distant from God Himself. It took her confronting me, and God convicted my heart. I had to analyze myself and realize what I’d become. The trauma of 9/11 had gotten to me to the point where I couldn’t deny that I was affected by it. I had to accept the fact that it did. It all comes back to remembering God’s promises in His Word. God began to work on me and strengthen my faith again to deal with the situation.

Jones: Is there anything that you can see now that it’s five years later that you didn’t see before?

Chea: I see a greater purpose. One of the things that you always ask yourself is why did God allow this to happen. You begin to look for God’s plan. One thing I learned from the people of the Oklahoma City bombing is that the weight of the experience is something you carry with you forever. It doesn’t go away but it doesn’t have to weigh you down. You gain the strength to carry it. You carry it in such a way that you learn to live your life, to cherish life, to laugh, to cry, and to enjoy your loved ones even as you carry the weight of the experience.

Five Years Later

After our interview, Manuel sent the following letter of his reflections.

For me 9/11 is now more than just about the day or about myself. Ultimately it is not about any of that but it is about the Lord Jesus Christ. In the aftermath of the tragedy, God in His infinite wisdom allowed me to trust more in myself and my own ability to face the trauma, the stress of the disaster, the stress of work and the pressures of family only to finally make a mess of things. As hard as it was for me, God had to let me go through it and learn the lesson. But as we know from Scripture, God does not allow us to suffer trials beyond our own ability to endure. So it was in this case for me. As I faced the situation six months after the event and as my wife confronted me about what I had become, I realized I had to repent. I had to repent of my own pride. I had to repent of replacing Christ as the central figure in my life because I chose to be my own master. I fell on my knees and asked for forgiveness and pleaded with Him for help.

I praise Him and thank Him for strengthening my faith and for helping me to see that I truly depend on Him for everything. We all know the poem “Footprints” where the person seeing only one set of footprints during the most trying times of his life questioned Jesus as to where He was during those times. Jesus replied that during those times it was Jesus who was carrying him. In my case, even during those times when I thought I didn’t need Jesus and felt that I could walk alone without Him, He was there for me and carrying me through the hard times.

As I mentioned, I share my story not to focus on the dark times of 9/11 but to focus on the hope and the strength that faith in Jesus can bring in the face of trials. I want to share with everyone that it is not always a big event such as 9/11 that can overwhelm you. The worries of daily life, work, home, and all kinds of stress can weigh heavily on anyone. Yet as we are reminded in Isaiah 40:28-31 that God does not grow weary or faint and that He Himself will give power to the faint and to him who has no might he increases strength.

Finally, hope and strength also come by giving all of our cares, sorrows, and worries to Him who suffered and died for us. And as Christ promised us in Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” That to me is where it is all about, giving Him all our cares and to let His yoke be placed upon us. Like the farm animal guided by a farmer using a yoke, we need to put on Christ’s yoke and let Him direct and guide us where he will… and as the passage says, we will find rest for our souls.

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