New York religious leader reflects on 9/11 20th Anniversary

Am American flag flies near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. Planes crashed into each of the two towers, causing them to collapse.
REUTERS/Peter Morgan

Before joining the clergy in 2010, Rev. Jeanine Owens spent more than two decades as a cop. Of her 23 years on the job, the one day she will never forget was when the towers fell on 9/11.

Owens, now in her 60s, was a detective assigned to a building on Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan not far from the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was sitting at her desk when she heard a loud boom.

“It almost shook the building, and someone walked in and said that a plane had crashed in the street,” she told the Bronx Times. “I went down the hall, went to the back and everybody was looking out the window.”

At first, she figured it was just an accident, but then she saw the second plane strike the towers shortly after and knew it was real. It was the most terrifying moment of her life. As she sat watching the horror of 9/11 unravel, Owens witnessed people jumping — to their deaths — out of the buildings.

“Even talking about it brings back memories,” Owens said. “It’s hard to put into words, but it was unbelievable that we actually saw it happen.”

The Rev. Jeanine D. Owens of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in the Bronx reflects on her time as a cop in New York City on 9/11.Photo courtesy Rev. Jeanine D. Owens

Immediately after the attack she and her colleagues were sent to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan to debrief survivors. But they soon came to the realization that there were none.

She was then assigned to a missing persons task force, where she manned the phones and spoke with family members who were looking for loved ones. Talking with them was emotionally draining and difficult, she said.

Owens, today a pastor at Abiding Presence Lutheran Church at 1672 E. 172nd St., would take down their information, but often their son, daughter, husband, wife or mother was never found.

“There was nothing they could really do,” she said. “People were in shock.”

According to Owens, it was pure and utter chaos. On 9/11 no one cared about race or ethnicity, it was simply people helping people recover and survive. “People were just walking around feeling like we were under attack,” she said. “A lot of us felt helpless that we couldn’t do more. It was a very difficult and trying time.”

When she finally arrived at Ground Zero, Owens saw a big gaping hole in the street and everything and everyone was covered in ashes. Something like that never gets erased from your memory, she said.

And after the longest day of her life, Owens finally made it home to her family in Queens.

“After all that adrenaline I couldn’t really sleep that night,” she said. “My mind was in overtime.”

For the next couple months, she worked from 4 a.m.-4 p.m. in Staten Island helping to sift through transported debris from the attack, finding Metro Cards, identifications and more.

Her life along with many others changed after 9/11.

She eventually began to feel a calling to God and church. So, during the last few years on the force she enrolled in seminary and in 2007, retired.m However, she told the Bronx Times that she never envisioned herself being anything other than a cop.

“I never imagined I would be a pastor and have my own church,” she said. “That was never on my radar.”

Owens, who lives in Long Island, typically does not talk about 9/11. While it’s something she will never forget, she said it’s quite painful to speak about.

But her time with the church has made it easier for her to look back on those times, she said. Now, 20 years later, she knows this year the anniversary will be emotional.

“Every September I try to focus on how grateful I am to be able to serve in the church,” the pastor said. “When I look back to when it happened, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.”

Reach Jason Cohen at or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes. 


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