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Doug Robinson: Utahn in N.Y. knows to be prepared

Published: Monday, Sept. 5 2011 10:54 p.m. MDT

Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo) Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo)

Ten years later, Brent Belnap remembers the surreal events of 9/11 as if it were yesterday. The crystalline blue skies. The smell of burning rubber. A strange nudge in the back. A thick cloud of ash that turned day to night. Resumes falling from the sky. Apocalyptic scenes of ghosty figures walking like zombies through the desolation.

"I remember thinking as I walked to the office that it was a beautiful day — no haze, blue skies, a little cool," says Belnap. "Just a perfect day."

Like millions of others around the country, Belnap will reflect on the events of 9/11 this week as the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is marked Sunday. He was in the shadow of the doomed WTC that morning and exhibited the kind of quiet, unsung courage that came to definite the tragedy. Like a ship's captain, he didn't abandon ship until he had seen to the safety of his crew.

Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo) Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo)

Belnap, who grew up in Ogden and graduated from BYU, was working on Wall Street at the time as a lawyer for Citibank, his office just a few minutes' walk from the World Trade Center. He also was — and this is relevant to his story — president of the New York New York Stake for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which included nine wards and two branches in Manhattan.

Belnap was riding the subway when he felt a jolt during a stop at Fulton Street. The other passengers felt it, as well. What was that? He saw a panicked woman run onto the train, but she said nothing.

"As we were sitting there, there was the unmistakable smell of rubber," says Belnap.

He disembarked at the next stop, and as he walked out onto Broadway and Wall Street he smelled burning rubber again and noticed paper fluttering down out of the sky. It's only September, he thought to himself; the Yankees couldn't have won the World Series, so it can't be a ticker-tape parade. What else could we be celebrating?

Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo) Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo)

He looked up and saw a large gash in the side of the South Tower of the WTC; it was bellowing smoke and more paper — full-size sheets of paper. He picked one off the street; it was a contract. He picked up another one — someone's resume. A stranger told him that he had heard something about a plane hitting the building. Belnap noticed a long line of people trying to buy disposable cameras at an adjacent photo shop and hundreds of the curious were moving toward the WTC.

Belnap was tempted to follow the crowd, but felt compelled to walk the other way toward his office. "I had the most unmistakable push on my right shoulder to keep moving — a physical nudge," he recalls. Belnap was one of the few moving upstream in this river of people. "I passed all these faces going the other way," he says. "My natural inclination was to follow them." Again, he felt as if someone pushed him on the back. "By the time I got to my building I was running all out," he says.

Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo) Brent Belnap in New York City. (courtesy photo)

At his 15th-floor office, Belnap listened to the radio and learned that both towers had been hit by large airplanes in a terrorist attack. He called his wife and they talked briefly. At about the same time, a secretary screamed — one of the towers was falling. Co-workers moved away from the window, thinking the tower would fall sideways onto their building.

For some reason, Belnap went to the window. He felt a rumble and saw a mushroom cloud envelope the streets below. All those people who had bought the cameras and moved toward the WTC were now running the other way. He saw a mist of darkness, as he calls it, overtake his building. "You couldn't even see the buildings across the street," he recalls. "The street lights came on."

Belnap and his co-workers were told to abandon their office and report to the basement. When word came that the second tower had fallen, they were told to evacuate the building. They gathered their belongings and disappeared into the cloud outside, heading east, away from the disaster.

Not Belnap. He went back upstairs to his office on the 15th floor. Since arriving there in the morning, he had been calling local church leaders, trying to account for the well-being of 3,500 members of his stake. He also began arrangements to convert the stake center on the Upper West Side into a shelter. There were some 35,000 to 40,000 LDS Church members in the area, and like many who work in Manhattan they commuted 20 to 70 miles each day. With subways and tunnels closed, they were stuck on the island. Belnap, along with other local leaders, arranged to have the stake center stocked with provisions.

It was now 1 p.m., and Belnap had been on the phone for hours, long after everyone had been told to leave and the lights and power were out. A few days later the New York Times would print a map showing where the phone outages had occurred; Belnap happened to work on the one block in lower Manhattan that had phone service.

"That was providential," he says.

Belnap decided it was time to leave. He walked down 15 flights of stairs and encountered a security guard in the lobby, who was surprised to see Belnap. He gave Belnap wet paper towels to hold over his mouth and nose as he made his way north through the gritty air toward the stake center.

"The streets were empty and everything was covered with a couple of inches of gray powder," recalls Belnap. "I looked up the street and it was pitch black in the middle of the day. It was like looking into the jaws of hell."

After walking several blocks he emerged from the ash cloud into bright sunlight again. "It was like walking through a curtain," he says. As he left the darkness, he encountered dozens of cameras filming the spot where people emerged. Belnap stared at the scene before him.

"There were all these people leaving Manhattan, walking across the (Brooklyn) bridge in slow motion, heads bowed, covered with ashes, their arms limp at their sides," he recalls. "It was like the Last Days. Surreal. Nobody was talking or laughing."

As he continued north, shopkeepers offered food, water and use of a bathroom to passers-by. "Suddenly, New York was changed — it was a warm and nice place," he says.

Belnap finally reached the stake center, where he stayed late into the night, communicating with leaders in Salt Lake City and assisting efforts to track down church members. Within 48 hours, they had called more than 3,000 people. One man rode around on a scooter knocking on doors, but most of the contacting was done through a phone tree that had been established three years earlier.

In the coming weeks Belnap was bombarded with requests from people wanting to help, as people turned their attention to healing and returning to normalcy. But he has never forgotten the lesson of that day.

"It was a testament to being prepared," says Belnap.

Belnap said this while preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

Duct tape, batteries and flashlights were popular items again. There were long lines to get water and batteries. Belnap's office was empty.

"It's kind of happening again," he said.

Email: drob@desnews.com

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