9/11 then & now at the University

Julie Spierer, Special Features Editor

Sept. 11, 2001 brought a series of unthinkable, inconceivable events. The two planes that flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the third plane that crashed into the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania all contributed to a life-changing experience in the United States, and a devastating loss of 2,977 lives.

Seventeen years later, all around the country, many are honoring the legacies of friends and loved ones who were lost that day.

Two years ago, at the milestone 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pa., the University commemorated four of its own alumni who died that day. These students were Brad Fetchet ’99, Mark McGinly ’97, Keith Coleman ’90, and Bonnie Smithwick ’68. All of these students led involved lives on campus during their time here, and their death will be forever grieved.

Due to the weather conditions, the University decided to skip the staking of small American Flags on the grass outside of the uphill side of the Elaine Langone Center in order to preserve them for future years.


Sept. 11, 2001 at the University


Life at the University was completely interrupted as soon as the attack occurred. Faculty, staff, and students instantly felt the gravity of the situation, as did the rest of the nation.

Biology Lab Director Kate Toner was teaching a lab at the time the tragic news came out. “I wandered upstairs to check my mailbox. My friend had a radio in her office and it was on and somewhat loud. I stuck my head in her office and she told me what happened. I watched news coverage on my office computer and saw the towers come down. One of my students stopped to tell me her dad was in one of the towers and his status was unknown, so could she miss afternoon lab (I, of course, said yes). Later that day she told me he walked home to New Jersey. We kept in touch throughout her college years,” Professor Toner said.

Another account comes from Professor of Psychology John Ptacek. “I was on sabbatical and had been playing tennis with my wife. When we got back to the house and turned on the TV, the first tower had just been struck. At that time, it was unclear what had happened, and there was no consistent reporting of what caused the building to be on fire. I remember reports of a plane, and wondering how such an accident could have happened. Then, while watching, we saw the second plane hit the other tower and it became clear that it was not an accident, and that it was a deliberate act of terrorism.  I remember thinking how hard it would be to get everyone out of the buildings and then being horrified when one of the two building collapsed after less than an hour.”

Dr. Ptacek noted that he and his wife frantically asked one another, “How does that happen? How can a building just collapse? How many people were still in the building? What happened to the people on the ground?” as he grew concerned about his sister who worked for the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Professor Toner emphasized the somber attitude and organized prayer at the University for the victims of the attack. “Little things [were different], like no planes in the air. There was a sense of … what’s next? Will things return to normal? I also remember people reaching out to old friends through phone calls and email to check in (before social media allowed us to stay in touch),” Professor Toner said.

“Because I wasn’t teaching that year, I was insulated from the immediate impact of the event. I was aware that the University mounted a big effort to provide resources to individuals and groups who might need support. I came to school and found large groups of students gathered around watching TV  in the Bison. I remember it being very quiet, like students were in shock. It became clear very quickly that students were going to be directly impacted, many of them permanently. They actually understood the meaning of what was happening much better than I did, being a West Coast guy who had no family or friends anywhere near the tragedies, other than my sister in D.C., whom I learned was well away from the Pentagon and was safe. Many of them lost members of their families, family friends, or someone with whom they or their families shared lives,” Dr. Ptacek said.

Professor Toner noted the importance for remembrance and reflection for 9/11 and other impactful events in our nation’s history. “I wasn’t around for World War II, and the atrocities of the concentration camps. That’s why it’s important to remember and reflect,” Professor Toner said.


September 11, 2018


In the evening, the University held a service at 6 p.m. in the Elaine Langone Center forum, co-sponsored by the College Republicans, the Conservatives Club, and the College Democrats. At the start of the ceremony, the Color Guard presented flags.

Professor of Sociology Alexander Riley spoke about his experience with 9/11 and referenced his book, “Angel Patriots: the Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.” Riley grew invested in researching Flight 93 due to the speculation that arose about the crash in Shanksville, Pa.

Professor Riley discussed the profound impact Flight 93 passengers had upon the nation. He emphasized the fact that these 40 passengers deliberately forced the plane down into an open field in order to save the lives of many other innocent Americans. In memorializing the passengers as patriots, he said we further develop the concept of what it means to be an American.

“It was nice to take a moment to pause and reflect with faculty and peers. The services were well done, but I wish more people were in attendance,” Maren Burling ’19 said of the ceremony. “I heard about the event last minute from a friend, and I feel if more people knew it was going on, they would have wanted to be there, too.”

(Visited 158 times, 1 visits today)