The gift from September 11

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

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The sky was an exquisite shade of blue that morning. Nothing hinted at the immediate future — or the malevolence that had taken flight. In the city, New Yorkers boarded subway trains, sipped on cups of coffee and greeted colleagues. In Harrisonburg, students shuffled toward their 9 o’clocks. It was a beautiful day.

Until 8:46.

The news came in pieces. One student in Godwin Hall’s computer lab heard classes were canceled. Something had happened. As a friend drove her home in his convertible, she reveled in the gorgeous day. “I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I saw my roommates. They were stone-faced. One said, ‘We can’t get in touch with Katie’s dad.’ That was the hard part. All the phones were down.”

Everyone was glued to a television screen somewhere, in offices, homes and residence halls. We were the reluctant audience to a tragedy. Everywhere a collective gasp rose as disbelief gave way to reality. The World Trade Towers were crumbling. Then the Pentagon. And a plane went down in rural Pennsylvania.

We had touched tragedy before, or at least brushed by it, but this felt different. This was aimed at America, and it had penetrated deep into our collective American heart. Together we shuddered at the sights and sounds. On campus, President Rose received the chilling message: “He, I feel, is lost and probably not to be found.” Everywhere students craved information about parents, siblings, friends who they knew were too close to the fire. In the end, we would learn the JMU community had lost four of its own.

We all floated in a state of disbelief, like the moment when a roller coaster peaks and then propelled by a reality as powerful as gravity, we plummeted. We were breathless, lightheaded, as we descended into tragedy. As a nation, we recoiled.

And then we reacted.

I, like most mothers, took stock of my children. I drove to pick up my middle-schooler. I’m not sure why, but it felt like the right thing to do. I have often thought of the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the children who had said goodbye at breakfast that morning. What did they do? Students reached out to each other. The world was suddenly insecure. With every step we took, we were searching for normalcy, for explanation, but none came. There was no reason.

Today’s college students were only 8 to 11 years old that fateful day. They watched the tragedy through children’s eyes, but the vision still stung. Scott Dyer (’12) remembers: “I was homeschooled that year and watched it all happen. My sister’s friend died on the plane in Pennsylvania. When you are that age you can remember it all, but you can’t do anything about it.” Anthony Baracat (’13) was in Disney World: “My dad was at a conference. There were a lot of pilots attending and I remember seeing them all cry. I was very concerned for my family’s safety. I wanted to take a self-defense class.”

The next day was Mary Marks (’12) birthday. “School was canceled, but wherever we went people were crying and sad. I did not understand the significance. I was very confused. The attack made me more aware of the world and how much power the U.S. has and how many enemies we have.” Josh Thoemke (’12) says, “I remember staring at the blue sky all day long and being afraid of it. It made me feel less invincible.”

Tyler McAvoy (’12) remembers: “I was beginning 6th grade, and my nervousness about making friends and not getting thrown in a locker by some mustached, pre-teen 8th graders was my priority at that point. I do remember the moment I discovered the towers fell. My teacher tried to break it to us easily.  ‘Something happened in New York today,’ she said, her voice trailing off. The stuffy classroom was silent and for a few minutes, we sat stunned, confused and scared. After regaining some composure, our teacher flipped on CNN, and we spent the rest of the day watching things unfold in a city many of us had seen only in pictures. It was a surreal experience, a bad dream, something intangible and truly unable to grasp.  How does an 11-year-old comprehend the loss of 3,000 lives? How could we understand the destruction of a skyscraper, or the plumes of smoke that covered people in ash as they ran from Ground Zero? Ten years later, I’m not sure I’ve fully wrapped my mind around it.”

On JMU’s campus, the Classes of 2002, ’03, ’04 and ’05 gave blood in massive numbers. They held hands and cried together. There were no Republicans or Democrats that day, no blacks or whites, no liberals or conservatives. Just us.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”*  What happened in the aftermath of September 11 was exquisite. As smoke cleared over Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, tragedy united us. We were one nation. We rose up together, wounded but resilient. We were not separated by our differences but united in our sorrow. All of our disagreements, both petty and important, sank to the bottom of our consciousnesses. We were hit by a sudden clarity of what bound us together — our freedom and purpose as a nation.

If there is a legacy that we as a nation should cherish from the tragedy of September 11, it is this: What separates us should always be secondary to what unites us. Every one of us — all ethnicities, all political persuasions, all religions, all classes — should strive to recapture and hold on to the unity that was so pervasive in the weeks and months following September 11.

We will never forget the date. It is seared into our American heart just as Pearl Harbor had scarred our collective heart 60 years before. But the farther one moves from tragedy, the softer its impact becomes. Like grief, it fades. Gradually, our unity splintered. Too soon we allowed our politics and religion and divergent points of view to eat away at our unity. Too soon we were caught up in differences of opinion that really don’t matter at all when they are held up against the immensity of what we found when we lost so many.

Martin Luther King once wrote: “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”* If we as a nation learn to subjugate our differences beneath our common identity as we did after September 11, we honor those who died that day. With their loss we were all diminished, and we must never forget the inestimable value of what we lost — and what we gained.

If we can rekindle, breathe life into the unity that we knew immediately after the towers fell, if we can place in permanent and proper perspective the value of each American above our own special and petty interests and opinions, then we can keep the gift from September 11. If that happens, those lost, including Bruce Simmons (’83), Craig M. Blass (’96), Matthew Horning (’97) and Brian Thompson, the father of Daniel Thompson (’03), will have died to create a world better than the one they left. Their lives, their deaths, will shore up the bedrock of a nation like none other: a nation that rushes to give blood, to aid neighbors, that shares its wealth and knowledge, that has as its foundational principal the inclination to lift each other up.

Monuments built at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., will long tell the story of those we loved and lost on that fateful morning, as will the memorial on JMU’s campus. But monuments no matter how beautifully crafted, no matter how grand or expansive, do not sufficiently honor those who died. The only honor that will approach their sacrifice is if we unite to change the world. Our national unity, the precious and seemingly fleeting glimpse that appeared following September 11, must be reignited and stoked, in as much as we hold up a brilliant bright light for a dark world.

It is not pride or arrogance that should lead us, but the humble recognition that 2,819 individuals by their tragic deaths brought us all to our knees and to our senses. We are one nation. It is the great gift from September 11, and it will last as long as we cling to it.

To read more about the Madison community’s response on campus, visit:  And to read moving and first hand accounts written by alumni, visit:

*Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray   *Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963
(Many thanks to Tyler McAvoy (’12) and Matt Turner (’12) for their help with this post.)

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

10 Responses to The gift from September 11

  1. Pingback: Remember Today That We are All Capable of Great Courage | The New Remarkable

  2. Completely concur with FellowAmerican. Thank you for a beautifully written article.


  3. Skippy says:

    This was so beautifully written. My daughter is a sophomore at JMU. I will make sure she reads this too. Thank you.


  4. Rob Beaton says:

    Thank you for the moving tribute to September 11. You really hit the nail on the head and captured the essence 9/11 that many people seem to overlook.

    I am a JMU alumnus and a survivor from the World Trade Center. I had been out of JMU for only a few months, having walked across the stage of the Convocation Center during my graduation in December of 2000. By August of 2001, I was working in the World Trade Center. I had landed an amazing job with Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield on the 28th floor of WTC 1. Most people had a pretty good idea of where my office was — it was pretty easy to spot with the big antenna on top of it.

    On September 11, 2001, everyone in the entire world knew exactly where my office was, and they were all watching in horror. I had been sitting at my desk when the first plane hit my building. I have replayed the day’s events in my head countless times over the last ten years, and I have shared my firsthand perspective of my escape with countless people. Yet, it is always fascinating to hear other people’s accounts from that day since everyone has their own unique point of view. It is especially fascinating to read stories from JMU students about how those events impacted the campus. After all, I was barely out of JMU at the time — it felt as if I had just stepped off the Quad and straight into the center of the most significant historical event of our time.

    As noted in this article, the silver lining of 9/11 was the sense of unity. Before that day, the corporate hierarchy in my company was quite clear and rather intimidating. On September 11, all hierarchy vanished as we were instantly united in our common cause. During our escape from the tower, I crossed paths with one woman who was part of the company’s elite upper management team. We were suddenly on the same playing field despite our mismatched corporate ranking. Slipping on the wet floors of the World Trade Center mall, we linked our arms together to help each other make our way to safety. There was even unity on the streets. Never before in New York City — a notoriously unfriendly city — could you approach a complete stranger to strike up conversation, ask for directions, or have a shoulder to lean on. Amidst the mayhem, a greater power truly prevailed.

    Thanks again for a well done article.

    Rob Beaton (’00)
    WTC Survivor


  5. kamran says:

    i dided in tears my dad worked in twin tiwers but escaped that was the weirdest dream i was born on 2001


  6. Anonymous says:

    I had the honor of knowing Craig Blass at JMU. He was one of the nicest guys I have ever met. We lost a great man on that day.


  7. lmh4183 says:

    I was a freshman at JMU on that awful day, this article truly depicts that day and the events surrounding it. Very well written, great job!


  8. FellowAmerican says:

    Your article moved me to tears. II would like permission to repost this portion:

    “If there is a legacy that we as a nation should cherish from the tragedy of September 11, it is this: What separates us should always be secondary to what unites us. Every one of us — all ethnicities, all political persuasions, all religions, all classes — should strive to recapture and hold on to the unity that was so pervasive in the weeks and months following September 11.”

    Inspirational, thank you.


  9. tjohntrig says:

    Great article !!!!!!


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