Old enough to never forget

Eleven years ago, bad news traveled differently. As we remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, this week and as they fade further into history, Jim Heffernan (’96), public affairs associate for JMU, shares his memories of Sept. 11, 2001, from a journalist’s point of view. 

To never forget

by Jim Heffernan (’96)

Tuesday was one of those picture-perfect September days here at James Madison University, with deep blue skies and a cool breeze carrying whispers of fall. I had a meeting at noon on the other side of campus — far enough away to drive most days, but the beautiful weather convinced me to make the trek on foot. As I walked, the chiming of church bells in memory of those Americans who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 entered my consciousness. My mood quickly turned somber as I recalled that infamous Tuesday in 2001, when I was still a cub reporter for a small daily paper in northwest Virginia.

I was in downtown Winchester that morning covering a visit by Lisa Collis Warner, wife of then-Gov. Mark Warner, when my cell phone buzzed. It was the paper’s managing editor.

“Jim, where are you?”

“I’m here in Winchester with our first lady. What’s up?”

“Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center. They’re saying they might have been hijacked by terrorists. We need you back here in the office.”

I paused. “So you don’t want me to stay here with the first lady?” I asked, innocently.

“No, this is big. We’ll need to meet and come up with a game plan.”

As word of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York spread, Winchester residents began spilling out into Old Town’s cobbled streets. I followed a few members of the first lady’s team back to their van, where we huddled in front of a television set to watch a replay of the strikes, which occurred only 18 minutes apart. By now, there was no mistaking their intent.

While listening to the radio on the drive back to my office, the news broke that a third plane, one that had been circling over Washington, D.C., had slammed into the Pentagon. This was starting to hit close to home. The massive military complex was less than an hour away. Some of our readership worked in the building. Nervous, I phoned my dad, who informed me that he had already heard from my sister, a frequent business traveler who lived in Alexandria. Thankfully, she was not in the air that day. I glanced up at the sky, a brilliant blue, and wondered what else lay on the horizon.

Back in the office, the newsroom television was tuned to ABC’s coverage of the tragic events in Washington and New York. The west side of the Pentagon was a raging inferno. Then, without warning, the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Half an hour later, its twin crumbled to the ground. A fixture on the Gotham skyline was gone. New Yorkers, many of them caked in ash and soot, were scrambling for cover. The destruction wasn’t over: A fourth hijacked plane, later said to have been targeting the White House, crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings did his best to make sense of what we were seeing, but as Americans all of us were shaken to the core.

We held an emergency staff meeting in the early afternoon. As regional reporter, I was charged with anchoring our team coverage, which included Gov. Warner issuing a state of emergency in Virginia, a timeline of the day’s events, reaction from local officials and attempting to track down area residents who were rumored to have been eyewitnesses. Reporters in the paper’s bureau offices would assist, but the lead story would carry my byline.

When I got back to my desk, the gravity of the task at hand set in. Years of journalism classes at JMU and three semesters at the student newspaper hadn’t prepared me for this. Granted, I wasn’t writing an account for the next day’s New York Times or Washington Post, but this was history, a seminal moment like Pearl Harbor or the JFK assassination. All of us in the newsroom felt compelled to give our best effort for our readers. In the early days of the 21st century, there was no social media, and even the Internet was not yet a reliable source of news and information. For millions of Americans, newspapers would once again tell the story. Many readers would purchase extra copies and put them away for posterity in the basement or the attic, where one day they would be uncovered and help inform a new generation about the day al-Qaeda attacked the United States on our home soil.

I gathered myself, made a list of sources to call, and picked up the phone. The remainder of the day passed quickly, anxiously, with the television hovering in the background. Wire stories from the Associated Press were pulled and photos chosen; headlines, in huge type reserved for such occasions, were written, erased and recast; copy began to trickle in and was carefully edited. For news agencies across the country both large and small, the day proved a test of our mettle. In the end, I was proud of our package in the Sept. 12 issue, and of our subsequent stories over the next week, which included the deaths of a Clarke County couple aboard one of the hijacked planes and the heroism of local firefighters who rushed to the Pentagon to help. I feel we passed the test with flying colors — in this case, red, white and blue.

I left the newspaper industry last year to return to my alma mater, where these days I bleed purple and help spread the gospel of JMU. Looking back, 9/11 was one of the defining moments of my young career. As I walked around campus yesterday, it dawned on me that the majority of students currently on campus were 7, 8 and 9 years old that fateful day — still too young to understand, but, like me, now old enough to never forget.

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How do you move on?

photo by Matthew Merritt ('14)

How do you pick up and go on after a day like September 11? Even 10 years after the event, it feels strange to move on, as if by moving on we somehow leave the memory behind. Yet we have to go on. I don’t know how to follow last week’s blog.  Anything I write seems lame. But as a father might gently lift his child from a precipitous perch to the safer, firmer earth, it feels right to go gently. So today, for one more day, others will reflect.

After I posted last week, I heard from Be the Changer Levar Stoney (’00). Levar wrote:

I was a sophomore resident adviser in Ikenberry Hall. I can remember waking up for classes and my suite mates telling me that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers in New York. I initially thought it was just an accident until I watched the second plane fly into one of the towers. I remember thinking this wasn’t a coincidence, and then I heard the TV broadcasters agreeing.

When you’re on campus in Harrisonburg you always feel a tad bit isolated from outside events. That day though, I felt like just about everything stopped, or it started going in slow motion. I remember only going to one class. Ironically, it was a course on global politics. We sat and talked about what was going on in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. We were dismissed early, and I remember this eerie empty feeling walking through the Commons. I was a part of SGA, and this was supposed to be election day. Usually the Commons would be bustling with people. As I walked by one of the polling tables, I recall folks telling me not many folks were voting. A lot of folks rightfully had their minds elsewhere.

Another alumnus Rob Beaton (’00) was working in the World Trade Center. Undoubtedly, he was one for whom friends were searching. He posted his thoughts in a comment to the blog.

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. 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.

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.

Last night on the Quad, students gathered to commemorate September 11, 2001, as they have done every year since the event. SGA President Pat Watral (‘12) opened the program and President Rose offered thoughts. Like so many initiatives at JMU, this remembrance was student-driven and student-run. Nick Langridge (’00) who is now assistant to Dr. Rose, remembered how students rose up in response to 9.11.  Kemper Funkhouser (’02, ’10M) and Kevin Warner (’02) organized the first ceremony of remembrance. It has occurred every year since.

Tom Culligan (’05), who works on Capital Hill handling terrorism issues, spoke to hundreds of students gathered under a threatening sky last night. He recalled that he had been on campus for only a few weeks when he woke to the jarring experience. He remembers crowding around a 20-inch television in Ashby Hall. “As we tried to make sense of it all, one tower fell, then the second, then the Pentagon. It felt as though our world was collapsing.”  So many students were from Northern Virginia, he said, but with only email and telephones — no cell phones or Facebook or Twitter then — “all we heard were busy signals…. The joy of orientation had suddenly evaporated…..I still remember how still the campus was.”

Except for the wind and singular voices struggling to be heard in its midst, the Quad was quiet last night. Even a chant U-S-A couldn’t catch hold. Students seemed to want to reflect, and perhaps that is the best acknowledgment of shared sorrow. I invite any of you to add your own thoughts here as comments to be archived along with those of others who remember the day.

And then we move on.

To see some of JMU’s 10-year remembrance, visit the Breeze’s video coverage here: http://www.youtube.com/user/BreezeVideo

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