Andrew Kaishian of South Milwaukee was living and working in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
When Kaishian heard a loud bang that morning, he initially thought it must be forklift running into a wall on the docks below where he worked at 360 Furman St. in Brooklyn Heights.
He happened to lean back in his chair and saw out the window something that arrested his attention.
“The Twin Tower’s on fire!” he said to his supervisor in the shipping department at the world headquarters complex of Jehovah’s Witnesses at that time.
At first, he and the rest of his co-workers thought it must have been an accident.
“But then as we were all watching,” he said of the view that faced the World Trade Center Complex, “the second plane – saw the explosion and it shook.”
Kaishian and his co-workers gathered so that everyone would have a chance to calm down and regroup.
“As they were trying to comfort us, the tower went down,” he said. “Everyone was pretty shaken up.”
Kaishian’s wife, Anja, also worked nearby at an office that had a view of the World Trade Center complex. She and her co-workers debated what was happening. They initially thought a small plane had flown into the first tower.
“I remember seeing something like a black bird going through Manhattan. Then all of a sudden it crashed into the second tower,” she said. “It stressed me out so much, I left. I could not stand there and watch. I just went back to my cubicle and sat.”
The couple walked home that afternoon in shock and disbelief. “There was dust everywhere and a horrible smell,” Anja recalled.
To cope, Anja said prayer helped her deal with the events of that day, as well as those that followed.
“Prayer helps you everywhere and anywhere you are,” she said. “That really helped.”
The ministry that they had shared in for years as Jehovah’s Witnesses also took on a new role for them and many others.
“Helping other people always helps you,” Anja said. “Going out and not just sitting at home and wallowing in your own anxieties helps.”
Helping others has long been linked to better emotional well-being in psychology research. The book “The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others” describes “powerful” effects, even for helpers who’ve experienced trauma themselves.
Within days of the attacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses set up teams that spent hours each day in Lower Manhattan, Bible in hand, consoling everyone from the families of victims to first responders battling physical and emotional exhaustion. It was a work that changed how the organization approaches disasters, with an organized comfort ministry now being an integral part of its response to natural disasters and even the pandemic.
Recalling the gut-wrenching days he spent as one of those volunteers near the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers still stirs deep feelings in Robert Hendriks.
“It was very emotional and extremely difficult for me, but the faces of those I passed on the street said it all,” said Hendriks, now U.S. spokesman for the Witnesses. “They needed comfort, and the best thing I could give them was a hug and a scripture.”
Andrew and Anja Kaishian’s personal experience with 9/11, though traumatizing, helped them relate to their local community in a unique way.
As the Kaishians went door-to-door to comfort others using carefully chosen scriptures, Andrew said that “people were very open” to sharing their thoughts and feelings. That led to many good discussions.
“People asked ‘why’ right after 9/11 – ‘why did this happen?’ It’s important for them to understand the reasons why this happened, and that it wasn’t our Creator,” Andrew said. “People were extremely appreciative.”
Anja recalled thinking, “They all have stories. Just let them talk about it and try to understand people.”
For Brown “Butch” Payne, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, tore open old wounds, bringing back vivid wartime memories the Vietnam veteran had tried to forget.
From his East Village apartment, Payne recalled the crowds of frantic people streaming north from Lower Manhattan. “That sight stirred up a lot of emotions in me,” he said. “It shook me to the core.”
Payne found relief in rendering aid the best way he knew how. “Sharing the Bible’s message of hope softened the blow for me,” he said.
In 2016, after 50 years of marriage, he lost his beloved wife to cancer. On days when his grief feels overwhelming, Payne writes heartfelt letters that lift his neighbors’ spirits — and his own. He shares scriptures and resources that have helped him, like articles on coping with trauma and loss on jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Encouraging others to look to the future helps me to do the same,” he said.
Two decades later, Andrew and Anja Kaishian continue to find comfort from reaching out — this time in talking with and writing letters to pandemic-stressed neighbors.
"I'm always finding opportunities to talk to people," Andrew said.
More information on the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including resources on coping with trauma and emotional distress, can be found on their official website, jw.org.