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My story from an unforgettable day…

September 8, 2021, 10:31 AM

I can’t believe that this Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, otherwise known as 9/11.  I still remember that day like it was yesterday, even though so much has gone on in the intervening two decades.  They say that everyone can tell you where they were or what they were doing when they found out about 9/11, much like the people of my parents’ generation and the Kennedy assassination.

Back then, I was a junior at JMU, and I was working as a resident advisor in Potomac Hall.  It was the third week of classes, and everyone was getting settled into a nice routine.  Being a Tuesday, I didn’t have any classes until 2 PM, so I was able to sleep a little later.  I was awakened around 9:30 AM by a knock on my door, as one of my residents had accidentally locked themselves out of their room.  I put on a bathrobe over my pajamas, and we went down to the hall office, where I completed the paperwork for the lockout (everyone got two free lockouts in a year, and any subsequent lockouts were subject to a fee), and then gave them the spare key to their room so that they could let themselves in.  I impressed on them to immediately come back down to the hall office after letting themselves back in their room in order to return the spare key, because I would be sitting in there waiting for them to come back so that I wouldn’t accidentally leave any room key business unfinished.  My hall director, Mecca Marsh, was a tough boss to work for, and she did not take kindly to any mistakes.  She treated any oversight or error as the worst thing that you could ever do, going so far as to bean you in your performance evaluation for even the most minor of errors, so if I suffered a little inconvenience in order to ensure that I wouldn’t have to deal with Mecca over something, that was fine.  So I waited down there and found a way to entertain myself, probably for about five or so minutes, until they came back with the key.  Then I put everything back as it needed to be and headed back upstairs.  At that time, I was still oblivious to any sort of world events.  As far as I knew, it was just a normal Tuesday.

After this, I had another matter of business to attend to.  The night before, there was a pretty bad backup in one of the toilets on my floor that I had to deal with, as that fell under the scope of my responsibilities.  The toilet got plunged a bit, but ultimately, I had to tape the stall door closed and mark it as out of order, because it was beyond our capabilities as RAs to fix.  I took the plunger, which belonged to housekeeping, with me that night, in order to return it to our housekeeper, a lady named Kathy.  I hadn’t seen Kathy on my floor from the elevator to my room, so I dipped into my room, grabbed the plunger, and continued looking.  She wasn’t anywhere on my floor, and so I went up the stairs to the fifth floor.  I went down the hall to the TV lounge, and found Kathy in there.  I went in, gave her the plunger, and then looked over at the television.

Oh.

My first thought upon seeing the images of what was going on was, the World Trade Center is on fire.  At this point in time, both towers were burning.  I surmised that something had gone terribly wrong there, but had no idea what it was, and also thought back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Back in 1993, terrorists had detonated a bomb in the basement of the complex, causing significant damage, but the buildings ultimately were repaired and reopened.  Once I thought about the 1993 bombing, it took away a lot of the feeling of surprise about it, and it felt like it made more sense that something was happening at the World Trade Center once again, because there was precedent to it.

During this time, one of the people who lived on the fifth floor came into the TV lounge, and was completely beside herself, because she had people whom she was close to who worked in jobs that might have put them in harm’s way, either in New York or at the Pentagon.  Someone else got to her before any of us on the hall staff could, and they helped comfort her.  I was glad that other people got to her first, because I was kind of overloaded on information myself, and didn’t know what to say.

Then the news began discussing the south tower’s having collapsed.  I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it at first.  What collapsed?  What happened?  I just couldn’t consider the idea that the entire building might have gone down like it did, because it seemed completely outlandish.  After all, the buildings stayed up in 1993 following the bombing there.  Then they cut to a wide shot, and there was the north tower there, still burning, and no south tower.  The entire building was gone.  My first thought was, I guess it will be the single tower of the World Trade Center from now on, because even though I had just seen that the south tower had completely collapsed, i.e. it wasn’t there anymore, I still couldn’t fathom the idea that the second tower could go down like its mate did.  In my mind, I still assumed that they could put this fire out and repair the building, like happened in 1993.  Losing both towers seemed incomprehensible to me.  And then it happened.  I couldn’t believe it, and it took a while of their repeating it and showing the towers’ being missing for that to sink in.

At some point, probably around 11:00, I headed back to my dorm room and looked up more information about it online.  The webcam that I had in my room captured this image of me looking concerned at 11:05 AM:


(For those not familiar with the context here, at that time, Schumin Web had a webcam feature that automatically captured a still image every two minutes, and uploaded it to the site.  The feature was introduced in July 2000, and was discontinued in May 2003.)

I ended up missing that 2:00 class, mainly because I was too distracted to even think about going.  I made my way down to Zane Showker Hall for my next class, though, and got there plenty early.  There, they were projecting the news on the screen in one of the big lecture halls.  I got there in time to see then-mayor Rudy Giuliani giving a press conference at that fire station.  I remember the way that they shot it, as Giuliani was kind of to the right in the shot, and a big clock was in the left of the shot.  I don’t remember what he talked about in the press conference, but I remember that clock.  Then when it was time for class, I went.  The professor impressed on us how important it was to still have class despite everything going on that day, because we still needed the normalcy.  Class was normal for the most part, but I doubt that any of us learned much that day as far as classes went, because most people were too distracted by world events to do any actual learning.

I remember at the time that a lot of people were salty about the fact that JMU did not cancel classes.  Should JMU have cancelled classes that day?  I’m on the fence about it, even now.  On one hand, there was a major world event going on, and considering that much of JMU’s student body was from the Washington, DC area, it affected many in the university community at a very personal level, as many people didn’t know whether loved ones were safe or not.  It certainly could have been justifiable to treat it like a snow day in order to give everyone a chance to take it in and process it, and then make up the instructional time the following Saturday (whenever the university would close for snow, the designated make-up day was typically the Saturday immediately following).  On the other hand, the university still had a mission, and nothing was stopping the university from holding classes.  Additionally, no one was forcing anyone to attend classes, so if they missed, it’s not like they were considered truant or anything.  I imagine that many people split it like I did, missing an early class and making a later one.  At least we had the option, though.  In the middle school where my mother taught, the teachers were instructed not to show the students anything about it or discuss it in any way, and to run a completely normal school day.  While I appreciate that they didn’t want to lose the instructional time, I also considered that a major disservice to the kids.  History was occurring live, but the school rather naively believed that whatever lessons that they were already planning to teach were more important than the lessons occurring live, as world events unfolded in real time.  I feel like they squandered a teachable moment, and denied the kids the opportunity to participate in an event that would help define their generation, even if it meant being part of it only as an observer from afar.

One class that I had that day was PSYC 100, which was a one-credit course that was run by the Office of Residence Life.  It was titled “Interpersonal Skills For Resident Advisers [sic]” and was essentially supplemental training for first-year RAs, and was held in a roundtable format.  I didn’t necessarily appreciate the mixing of work and academics, but it was an easy “A”, so it at least helped my GPA a little bit.  That day’s class ended up being about how to handle 9/11 with our residents, and how to help everyone get through it together.  Everyone was still piecing together exactly what happened earlier that day.  It was impressed upon us that this was the kind of thing when our residents needed us most, but it was a bit light on things that we ought to do.  I ultimately ended up leaving class that day more confused about my role in all of that than I was when I went in.  I think that I would have been better off just winging it than getting that information from the residence life staff, who themselves barely had a grasp on what had gone on, just like we did.

When I got back from class, I ran into the girl who was beside herself earlier.  She was in a noticeably better mood than she was that morning.  I checked up with her, and as it turned out, she got the confirmations that she needed, and everyone that she was concerned about was fine.  When I got back to my room, I took a few minutes to make a phone call to check up on my Uncle Johnny, who at that time worked in New York.  By coincidence, Uncle Johnny had planned to work from home that day, but even if he had been in the city, his office was in Midtown, rather than Lower Manhattan.  Therefore, he would have never been in harm’s way.  That was good to hear.

After that, I needed to go out for a walk and just clear my head.  Considering all that had gone on, I let Mecca know that I would be leaving the building for a little while to go for a walk, likely down to Sheetz.  Much to my surprise, she told me not to leave, because people needed us.  Something about that seemed off, because no one had asked me anything about 9/11-related assistance that day, nor did I expect anyone would (nobody in their right mind would go to some 20-year-old with very little training for counseling over an event like that), but if you want me to stick around, fine, I will.  I ended up watching and reading more news in my dorm room for a couple of hours, and then went on that walk to Sheetz anyway, despite what Mecca said, because I needed it for me to be okay.  After all, (A) it was late enough by then that most people would have gone to bed, and (B) how can you be expected to take care of others’ needs if your own needs have not yet been met?  I needed the mental break.  Walking that half-mile distance down the hill to Sheetz and back to get a sandwich off of the MTO menu did me a ton of good.  It allowed me to recenter myself, especially considering that all of our lives had just changed in ways that we couldn’t even imagine at the time.  We all had a long road ahead of us in sorting through what had happened that day, and making some sense of it all.

So that’s my story.  That’s what I was doing when I found out about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  It wasn’t as eventful as some people’s experiences were that day, but it’s my experience nonetheless.  And if all goes well, we won’t experience another event like this again in our lifetimes.

Categories: Events, JMU, Myself