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

The gift from September 11

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

Image via Wikipedia

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: http://www.thebreeze.org/archives/9.13.01/front/front1.shtml  And to read moving and first hand accounts written by alumni, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/alumni/tragedy_response/read_messages.html

*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.)

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