September 11: A freshman, a front-page story and a fearful day

At 11:00 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I sat down in my Western European history class. I was one of a handful of freshmen in the class and one of the few students to show up that day. I’d torn my eyes away from the nonstop news coverage and gone to Gambrell Hall out of some mixture of good-student obligation and a loss for anything else to do besides watch my country bleed on live television.

I took my assigned seat in the middle of the auditorium, roughly 12 rows back. The large screen at the front of the room was displaying CNN’s live coverage; my professor stood in front of it, the orderliness of the class before him juxtaposed with the chaos behind. He explained that today we’d put our lesson on the French Revolution on hold to discuss the tragedy unfolding before us in real time.

As he spoke, the tall, red-haired upperclassmen assigned to the seat to my right sat down, pulling off his headphones. He was usually late, but always friendly and quick to inject a witty comment into the lecture. But today he was silent, his eyes wide as he stared at the smoldering New York skyline screen before him.

“What’s going on?”

I wanted to ask how he could’ve missed this. Had he just woken up, put on his headphones and run straight to class? Had he not seen the delivery trucks parked in the middle of campus, doors thrown open, radios blaring? Had he not heard the inescapable nervous chatter that filled the hallways? Had he not seen his red-eyed classmates wandering out of the student union?

“Planes flew into the World Trade Center,” I replied. Surely he knew.

“What? What part of the Trade Center?”

“Both the towers — they collapsed. They’re gone.”

He started to stand up and then seemed to change his mind, sitting back down in his seat. “My parents work there,” he finally whispered. A moment later he stood up and he left.

That’s my most vivid memory of 9/11.

As everyone who talks about that day will say, it started out like any other day. I woke up at what I thought was an ungodly hour, showered, threw on clothes and grabbed a granola bar to munch on while I rushed to my 8:00 class. I was on my way to University 101, a seminar for freshman transitioning to campus life. I was 18 and a print journalism major at the University of South Carolina.

I couldn’t tell you what we discussed in class that day — my mind was wandering, undoubtedly calculating how much of a nap I could get in before my history class — but I remember the professor from next door bursting into our classroom and announcing that the World Trade Center had been bombed. At these words, our professor dismissed us early, but most of the students and I lingered outside the next-door classroom, watching the small TV suspended in the corner.

Smoke was billowing from the North Tower, debris was blowing in the wind, and we couldn’t look away. Reports were coming in that a plane had hit the WTC — we weren’t bombed — but this didn’t make sense. How could a plane accidentally run into a building? I was about to walk back to my dorm, figuring I could turn the TV on there, when the newscaster’s voice became frantic, and as we all watched a plane hit the second tower.

It wasn’t an accident.

Some of my classmates were crying, others were hurriedly dialing cell phones — waking up their roommates, calling their parents, checking up on friends and family in New York. I hurried back to Columbia Hall, and as I passed students, it was easy to tell which ones know and which ones were still blissfully unaware. But they wouldn’t be for long. Maintenance and delivery trucks parked outside the Moore School of Business had left their doors open and radios on, and the lobby of my dorm had its tiny TV blaring. For the first time since I’d moved into the building a few weeks ago, the girl working the front desk didn’t greet me with an obligatory “good morning.”

When I reached my dorm room, my roommate, Stefanie, was sitting up in bed, staring wide-eyed at the television. Her mom had called and woken her. We watched in silent horror as the towers burned, rubble tumbling from the building, and then we both gasped — we were almost sick — as we realized that what we’d mistaken for falling debris were actually human bodies. The heat and the smoke were too much to bear, so people were throwing themselves out of the windows and plummeting to their deaths.

I’ll never be able to erase that image from my mind.

Within minutes reports were coming in that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and it’s at that moment that I realized it wasn’t over. It wasn’t just an attack on New York — it was an attack on America — and we didn’t know who was going to be hit next.

Stacey Armstrong, me, Stefanie Parker and a friend a month later in October 2001

Sure, the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., is an unlikely target for a terrorist attack, but that didn’t make us any less fearful. The year 2001 was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-smartphone — I didn’t even have a cellphone — but we had Internet. My roommate and I were reading local news reports, which were being updated every few minutes, and we were chatting with friends and classmates on AIM.

“Lindsey said the Statehouse and government buildings are being evacuated, and that’s just two blocks from here!” (This was true.)

“Katie says the police are welding manholes shut all over the city! Why would they do that?” (This was true.)

“My uncle says the planes are probably heading to Shaw Air Force Base. It’s one of the largest bases in the country and it’s just 30 miles away!” (This was never proved to be true.)

So, yes, we were safely in South Carolina’s capital city, but we were terrified. Our state leaders were leaving, the city felt it necessary to weld our manholes shut, and we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. Pack our bags and head home? Go to class? Watch the horror unfold on TV? We opted for the latter.

We saw the South Tower come crumbling down in a magnificently horrifying display. We heard screams of terror and people calling for friends and loved ones. At one point the scene was completely engulfed in thick black smoke, and we were taken back to the newsroom where a shaken news anchor looked back at us. He was used to fluff pieces, human-interest stories. Not this. When the camera came back on, New York City was unrecognizable. It was coated in ash and debris, people were covered in thick gray powder. They were running and bleeding and scared, but they were also pausing to give the fallen a hand; they were pulling together amid the nightmare.

Moments later the anchor said a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania and my stomach twisted. Seconds later he said it might have hit near Pittsburgh. I grabbed the phone and begin frantically dialing my brother’s number, but I couldn’t get through. The network was overloaded with everyone calling friends and family.

I continued to hit redial over and over and over again while reloading the CNN.com homepage, but it hadn’t even mentioned the Pennsylvania crash. Stefanie and I were both crying again.

United Airlines Flight 93

I called my mom at the hospital where she worked. She knew about New York and the Pentagon, but she hadn’t heard about Pennsylvania. She told me to calm down and that she was sure Jarrod was fine. But I could hear the fear in her voice.

For the next few minutes, I sat and watched the news unfold, waiting to hear something about the crash in Pennsylvania and hoping the next report would be a retraction. After all, the media had been making announcements — about bombs and more planes — and retracting them all day. Finally, they confirmed the crash was in Somerset County, which I’d never heard of. I hurriedly pulled up Mapquest and discovered that it’s 80 miles from Pittsburgh. I breathed a sigh or relief, knowing he was OK.  Still, I needed to hear his voice so I kept calling my brother. None of my calls would go through.

Then the North Tower began to collapse. It was almost 11:00 now, and the university hadn’t canceled class so I knew I had to go. I took the time to wipe the mascara from my eyes before shutting the door behind me. It seemed wrong to be cut off from the news, to not know the second something else happened. I was terrified it wasn’t over and a list of potential targets went through my head: The White House, the Capitol Building, large East Coast cities like Atlanta and Charlotte where I had family.

Luckily, my professor told us to leave if we wanted, to call our loved ones, and I left not long after the red-headed upperclassmen.

Back in my dorm room again, I dialed Jarrod’s number again and again. Finally, the call went through and he picked up. He was fine, but just hearing my brother’s voice had the tears welling up again. I was so relieved. When I hung up, I noticed the light blinking on the answering machine. It was the editor of the student newspaper, The Gamecock — they needed reporters and they needed them now. I’d attended a recruitment meeting for new staff the week before, but I wasn’t supposed to start yet. I was a freshman with only a couple years on the high school newspaper under my belt. I was supposed to write stories on tailgating, student activities and teacher profiles — not terrorist attacks.

Still, I was being offered the chance to do something useful, something more than just being yet another terrified observer, so I headed toward the student union, which housed USC’s student media. I’d had to search the university website to even find out where the newsrooms was — I’d never been there. When I arrived, it was chaos. I didn’t know who the editor was, but eventually someone pointed me in the right direction. She barely had time to talk to me.

“We need to know what kind of grief counseling is available for students, where to make donations, what students can do to help. And find those numbers people can call about missing people.”

That was it. She went back to work, and the seasoned staff members around me were busy — they were either on the phone or typing furiously. I sank into an empty chair, pulled a phone book toward me and started calling student services and nearby churches, the best bets for student grief counseling. No one answered. I searched their websites, scouring them for updates on recent events. Nothing. Say what you will about technology, but sometimes it’s faster and more effective to just hit the street.

I fancied myself a shoe-leather reporter  — although I was wearing ridiculous platform sandals (hey, it was 2001) and merely pounding the pavement for blood drive locations. Still, I was doing something and having a sense of purpose was exactly what I needed that day. Campus was surprisingly silent except for the inescapable sound of news reports drifting out of dorm windows — even the Russell House’s theater was overtaken by CNN on the big screen — and it was eerie and frightening, but I felt the knot in my chest loosen as I knocked on the door to the counseling center and entered the calming sanctuaries of Columbia’s churches in search of ministers and priests.

It took me hours to collect all the information I needed, and I was drenched in sweat by the time I returned to the newsroom to type it all up. (If you’ve been to Columbia, then you’re familiar with the heat and humidity that subsists in the city well into the fall.) When I returned to the dorm again, Stefanie and I picked up dinner in the cafeteria next door — lunch had been forgotten — but we found it difficult to eat.

We watched Peter Jennings’ 17-hour reporting marathon and saw most of it. He was our connection to the events of September 11, the trusted face we relied on to keep us informed. When he left the camera for a well-deserved break, we missed him. It probably sounds absurd, but we’d come to rely on him — he delivered terrible headlines over the next few days, but we somehow found his presence comforting. He died four years later of lung cancer.

That first night was the worst. We were sick with grief for the men and women on TV, especially the ones walking the war-torn streets of New York with photos of loved ones clutched in their hands, asking anyone and everyone if they’d seen their husband, child, co-worker… You couldn’t even escape the fear and the grief in a dorm hundreds of miles away from the World Trade Center. That night, the sounds of crying echoed along the halls of the sixth floor of Columbia Hall.

Days later I had friends from other countries — Brazil, South Africa, Lebanon — ask why September 11 was just so hard on Americans. After all, they were used to the occasional bombing or war breaking out — this was one event in our history in comparison to their many incidents. I don’t think they meant to demean our grief; they just wanted to understand. Why was it so shocking and painful? Why is it so hard even 10 years later to see images of burning towers and crashing planes?

Here’s what you have to understand: We’d grown up believing — naively, yes — that America was safe. We were an impenetrable force. We were invincible. It was the rest of the world and us. But that changed on 9/11. It’s a difficult thing to grasp, losing that feeling of security. Suddenly, anything can happen and threats are everywhere, and it was those feelings of fear that made us willing to give up so many of our liberties and allow legislation like the PATRIOT Act to pass.

Yes, people in other countries may have grown up fearing a terrorist attack could occur at any moment, but we grew up believing that could never happen to us. Just because one group might experience a bombing or other horrific event several times in their lives, doesn’t mean the most recent act is any less frightening and painful than the first. And just because 9/11 was the first such large-scale attack on American soil, doesn’t mean we’re not entitled to our grief. It’s unfair to demean anyone’s feelings or experiences. It was a terrible day that those who lost loved ones will never forget. And even for those of us who lost no friends or family, we still lost something, too.

The following morning, September 12, wasn’t much better for any of us. We were still shocked, scared, horrified and a million other things — the networks were still playing nonstop news coverage. To return to afternoon game shows and syndicated sitcoms might have been a welcome return to normalcy for some, but it would’ve been an insult to those we had lost. Days later when regular programming resumed, it still felt too soon.

When I picked up a copy of The Gamecock that morning, I received two shocks. The front page was jarring, but beautifully designed. Our student newspaper would later be commemorated in a national collection of top front pages. And I had a front-page byline. It was a small one, yes, but it was my first story published in The Gamecock, and it was the biggest day in U.S. history I’ll probably ever experience.

It was an interesting time to study journalism. My professors were posing questions to us we’d never considered: Is it ethical to show video of people leaping from buildings? Is it appropriate for a journalist to convey emotion during a national tragedy? Is it even possible to be objective when reporting such a story? Some journalists, Jennings included, came under fire because of these issues in following days, and these are questions that are still debated today. I watched a 9/11 special last week and was moved to tears when I saw a man leap from the North Tower, but I was also angry. Furious even. I was unprepared for that image and felt the network should’ve warned me that the program contained such video. I can’t deal with it. I don’t know how anyone can.

This past Friday, The Daily Gamecock (the name changed when the paper began publishing daily issues instead of just three a week) came out with its 9/11 anniversary issue. I’m briefly quoted in the front-page story, but the back page is what’s most amazing. They reprinted the entire breathtaking front page of our September 12, 2001 issue.

By December 2001, 9/11 was no longer something I thought about on a daily basis, but over winter break I attended a Muslim friend’s wedding and dressed in traditional garb — hijab and everything. It was an amazing event that I’m lucky to have witnessed, and on the way home I stopped for gas, still reveling in the beauty of the wedding. But as I swiped my credit card, I noticed a couple of men at the pump next to mine staring at me.

“White girl’s dressed like a fucking terrorist,” I heard one mutter.

At that moment I realized it wasn’t just New Yorkers, airline pilots or even Americans who were suffering. Muslims worldwide were facing daily prejudice; they were people who shared a religion with the terrorists, but not necessarily the same beliefs. I could go home, take off the “terrorist” clothes and just be another WASP, but other people — including my newly married friend — would be dealing with suspicious glances, ignorant comments and unfounded hatred for years to come.

Jamie Hoffman and me at King Abdullah Mosque in Amman

In 2006, I was offered the chance to travel to Jordan with a few journalism professors and some fellow graduate students, and I jumped at the opportunity. However, I did have some reservations. It was less than six months after the Amman hotel bombings that killed 60 people and injured more than 100 others — the bombings occurred on November 9, 2005, which in most nations outside the U.S. (including Jordan) is written with the day followed by the month, or 9/11.

I had nothing to worry about though. Yes, I had to have my bags searched and walk through a metal detector before entering my hotel. Yes, there were armed guards at hotel entrances, state buildings and religious landmarks. Yes, there were probably Jordanians who weren’t thrilled to see a pale, blue-eyed American girl snapping photos of every Arabic sign, but honestly, there are probably plenty of Americans who aren’t too psyched to see me sometimes either. I grew up in the Bible Belt of the red states — not ideal for an Obama-T-shirt-wearing vegetarian without an NRA membership.

Jordan, however, is a gorgeous country full of friendly people who are quick to distance themselves from the 9/11 attacks. The people I met wanted us there and went out of their way to prove it. We couldn’t even walk into a store without being offered tea.

We did a lot of amazing things on that trip — from interviewing government officials to hiking through Petra and riding camels across the desert at sunrise — but what stands out most in my mind was meeting the imam at the King Abdullah Mosque. He sat down with us and talked for more than an hour about how differences in culture, nationality and religion shouldn’t prevent mankind from making peace and living in harmony. He condemned the 9/11 attacks and offered his condolences almost five years later.

On our way back to America, my fellow grad students, professors and I had a 14-hour layover in New York. Some checked into a hotel to sleep off the jet lag, but the rest of us took the subway into Manhattan. We had dinner in Times Square, glimpsed the Empire State Building and lingered at Ground Zero. People were still leaving letters, ribbons and flowers in the fence encompassing the tragic area.

It’s now been 10 years since the World Trade Center crumbled, the Pentagon came under attack and a group of American citizens on board Flight 93 showed unimaginable heroism and patriotism. I’m still working in journalism, but I’m in another state and my bylines now appear on the Web.

I work on the 40th floor of one of Atlanta’s skyscrapers in an office surrounded by glass walls that provide a breathtaking view of the city. Once a year we have a fire drill where the buildings’ thousands of employees take to the stairwells and begin the laborious, calf-wrenching trek down flight after flight of stairs. We complain about our choice of shoes that day and the pointlessness of the exercise, but when I’m walking down that stairwell, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be fleeing down those stairs or what it would be like if that cramped space were filled with fire and smoke. And what would happen to all the people in wheelchairs who aren’t required to participate in the drill? What would become of them in the event of a true emergency? Would we all safely make it down so many flights of stairs?

When you work that high up in a building — especially one whose glass displays the whole cityscape before you — it’s impossible not to notice the planes flying past. After all, the world’s busiest airport is just 10 miles away. And there’s always that collective gasp of breath when the plane sounds just a little too close for comfort.

Yes, there are stricter safety regulations now, but in 2004 I flew from Atlanta to Denver to Los Angeles to Sydney with a pocket knife and a bottle of pepper spray in my carry-on. (They were on my keychain — I didn’t think about it and security didn’t notice.) Last year, Las Vegas airport security found the snow globe Cody had bought for his sister and told him he technically wasn’t allowed to bring the object onto the plane; however, they relented. I guess they figured he was unlikely to attempt a hijacking with just a glass ball of water.

As for the boy in my history class, he never returned to the seat next to me, but I caught a few glimpses of him around campus the next semester. I never spoke to him again and never asked what had happened, but I think of him every September 11. Sometimes I wonder if I ever cross his mind, and I hope that I don’t. I’m the girl who delivered terrible news, probably some of the worst news he’ll ever receive. I hope that he disappeared that semester for some other reason, and I pray that his parents were some of the lucky ones, the people who by some twist of fate slept in that day or missed the subway or called in sick. I hope they survived.

I know this was a lengthy post — I blame all the detailed journal entries I wrote in the days following 9/11 — but thanks for reading.

Photo: The Gamecock, Wikimedia Commons, Stefanie Parker, Wikimedia Commons, yours truly, tableatny/flickr

5 thoughts on “September 11: A freshman, a front-page story and a fearful day

  1. Yes it was along read but thank you for it. I never even knew about the other 9/11 attacks in Jordan. I was just 10 when the 01 attacks took place.

  2. Thanks for reading, Becca! I felt I needed to share my story.
    If you ever get the chance to visit Jordan, take it — it’s such an amazing place.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story of that day. I will never forget where I was or what I was doing either. I am saddened by the tragedy, but grateful for the unity and humanity of Americans I felt and saw after.

  4. What a touching, heartfelt and gut-wrenching post. As an Australian, September 11 probably didn’t affect me quite as deeply, but I still remember exactly where I was when I found out, and I believe that Australia mourned for America and shared its loss of innocence and ‘impenetrability’.

    It’s amazing how, ten years on, those images still shake you to the core. It’s important we don’t forget these events or what it means to live in a free country. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Thanks, Shari and Cally!

    When I was an exchange student in Australia in 2004, I took a course in international journalism. I was the only American and the professor and students were amazing. They all had their own 9/11 stories and it was intriguing to hear it from their perspective.

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