To commemorate the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Newsweek magazine interviewed five New York City college presidents to learn where they were as the planes struck the two towers and the challenges they faced in creating a calm, reassuring environment for their campus community.
I was one of those five and my interview, which appears in the September 12th issue, follows.
Excerpt from Newsweek:
Where were you when you first learned about the attacks?
I remember explicitly. I was supposed to go to a meeting upstate and I was going to fly, so I was going to the airport.
It came over the news that a plane struck the World Trade Center. What I really thought was that the plane must have really been in trouble. The World Trade Center was such an imposing structure, how could you possibly hit the World Trade Center? It must have really been in trouble and falling to Earth.
I had the car radio on, and then another plane struck. As that came across, we passed an intersection, and I looked up. I saw the building and I knew. Then they said the tunnel was closed, transportation, everything, and I turned around and came back knowing we were really going to have to mobilize and figure out what to do for the community.
What was your first move?
I thought I have to gather my top staff, and we have to figure out a strategy for how we’re going to hold this community together. Whatever I thought was minuscule compared to how it felt when we got back here because it was like a pallor had fallen over everything. No one really knew what to do. Everything was systematically shutting down. The airports, the subways, the streets, the cash machine didn’t work, the phones didn’t work, people couldn’t get here.
I knew what I had to do was create whatever cocoon-like sense that we could that people would feel safe here. I needed to set up a communication pattern so that I would know what was happening in the various areas.
What about your own emotions?
I wasn’t in touch with my own emotions. I really felt like my biggest responsibility was to hold everything together for the community and people should feel this was a safe place to the extent that we could make it such.
Campus: calm or chaotic?
It wasn’t chaotic. I don’t know that I would call it calm. I think it was tense. I think people didn’t know what to think. They didn’t know where it would come from next. We’re very close. The smell, the stench of the attack was very pervasive at this end of town and that went on for weeks. It hung in the air.