The University of South Florida (USF) Career Center staff in Tampa, Florida happily spent Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, attending the Student Affairs Annual Employee Recognition Breakfast, an event that we always enjoyed. One co-worker left the breakfast early, and the rest of us lazily strolled back to our office. I was surprised that the people I passed along the way seemed unusually troubled and self-absorbed. I chalked up their moods to hectic schedules and deadlines.
As I entered the Career Center, I noticed that the co-worker who left the breakfast early was openly watching her small portable black-and-white TV. I wondered why she was so lackadaisical.
Another co-worker said, “Did you hear about planes flying into the Twin Towers? They thought the first plane accidentally flew into one of the towers, but then a second plane hit the other tower.” I immediately joined the others watching my co-worker’s TV to get the latest news. We learned that a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Apparently, those passengers knew about the other attacks and realized that they were next. They called loved ones on cell phones and then worked together as a team to force the pilot to crash the plane before it could reach our nation’s capital.
The unthinkable happened: the South Tower actually lost its infrastructure and crashed to the ground, over 100 stories! How could this happen? My prayers were with those who were trapped inside the building trying to get out as the building fell. Already many who were trapped above the inferno were jumping out of both buildings. The North Tower collapsed half an hour later. On TV, we watched in horror as the massive dust from the collapsed buildings filled the streets of Manhattan. People in the streets panicked and tried to run out of the way, and many folks were using whatever fabrics they could to keep from breathing in the toxic dust. Mayor Rudy Giuliani covered his face and led the way to inspire confidence in Americans.
I was horrified and stunned. The news was difficult to absorb. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like an over-the-top horror film, but sadly it was real. Both New York City and Washington, DC were under attack now. Where would the next target be? Why hadn’t USF staff members interrupted our breakfast to tell us about this disaster?
I had lived in New Haven, Connecticut for five years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The World Trade Center (WTC) was a top destination for our out-of-town family members. On a clear day, the view from the top was breathtaking of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Long Island and New Jersey. My then spouse and I had watched the Tall Ships from the top of the WTC in New York Harbor on the eve of the Bicentennial. We even had bought half-price same-day Broadway tickets in the tower lobby. A subway stop was conveniently located in the lowest level of the WTC, along with small shops and restaurants. Who would want to destroy this vibrant part of New York City?
Another irony is that my husband Tom and I flew in clear-blue skies directly over Manhattan and the WTC as we headed back from Hartford, Connecticut, to Tampa a week earlier on September 3, 2001. We remarked that we would love to visit New York City sometime soon. It would be our first visit there together. Tom had never been to the WTC and was excited about the prospect of seeing the sights from the top.
President Bush had been reading a book to a Sarasota, Florida grade-school class when a Secret Service agent whispered in his ear about the WTC attacks that morning. What was the President doing now? We learned that he had been scooped up quickly by Secret Service agents and was flying in a government plane to an undisclosed location. What happened to the rest of our government officials?
Governor Jeb Bush was the President’s brother. We learned that there were threats against all Florida government buildings. Was USF going to close? Should we continue to conduct our student appointments?
The receptionist announced that my 11:00 am appointment was waiting in the lobby. I had been crying with my co-workers by this time and was in no condition to offer career advice to anyone. I went to the front desk and told the student that we would need to reschedule his appointment. He was stunned. Why would his appointment need to be changed due to some attacks in another part of the country? I explained that I wanted to give him the best advice and today was not going to be that day. He was an International Studies major. I told him that I was sure that there would be a discussion about these events in his classes. He thought that was cool!
I contacted Tom, who was a high-school English teacher. I thought for sure that his classes would be cancelled, but, to my horrified surprise, teachers were told to continue holding their classes. They were instructed not to turn on TVs in the classrooms, but they did it anyway as it was impossible for students and teachers to concentrate on anything else.
Tom’s parents and his sister and brother-in-law were driving from Williamsburg to Lancaster, Pennsylvania that day. I wondered how close they were to Washington, DC when the Pentagon was hit.
My Chicago-based parents were at a doctor’s appointment, but I reached my sister Michele. She reported that my 11-year-old niece Amy had been sent home from school and did not realize fully the consequences of the planes crashing into the buildings. My sister Jan had flown back home to Tucson from St. Louis a day earlier. I was relieved that she returned home safely before the attacks began.
I received two voice mails from friends in Human Resources who left messages while I was at the appreciation breakfast. I returned their calls, and we shared our horrified reactions. We speculated on whether the university would close soon. I ran down the hall to the office of my best friend in Human Resources. She was glued to her office telephone. A few months earlier, she had gotten back together with her high school boyfriend, who lived in Maryland, and she panicked when she could not reach him.
It was noon, time for lunch. I met my friends at a nearby outside table as we waited for word that the university would close soon. Finally, we received the official announcement, ran to our offices, grabbed our things and headed to our cars. The narrow university roads were clogged as faculty, staff and students all tried to leave as quickly as possible. We had no idea when we would return.
I listened to the FM radio in my car as I drove home. The radio announcers broadcasted about the local threats against Florida government buildings and speculated about the perpetrators. One of the main concerns was if the President was safe. His plane flew in an erratic pattern until he broadcasted a short message from the middle of the country to us Americans. Meanwhile, all flights were grounded in the entire country! Heroic pilots were instructed to land their planes at the closest airport possible and were guided by equally heroic air traffic controllers. International flights from Europe were directed to land in Gander, Newfoundland.
That evening we spoke with Tom’s relatives. They were in standstill traffic outside of the Pentagon for several hours and finally made it to Pennsylvania. They decided to end their vacation early and were allowed to drive their rental car back home to Atlanta because it was unknown when airports would reopen.
We all returned to work Wednesday and Thursday in a shocked state. More facts and theories about the attacks surfaced, so it was difficult to concentrate. The Career Center Director sent the staff an email that directed us to persevere in performing our job duties despite this national “setback.”
I hosted the three-person Caregivers group of St. Mark United Church after work on Thursday. We prayed for the victims, their families, and our country.
Meanwhile, a tropical system headed toward Florida. On Thursday evening at 9 pm, we learned that USF and Tom’s school system would be closed the following day. Friday, September 14, 2001 was designated as a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. A memorial service was broadcast from the National Cathedral and was attended by current and former Presidents as well as foreign dignitaries.
I vividly remember noting the split TV screen while watching the memorial service. Dan Rather reported from the part of the screen that was labeled “Attack on America.” The other part of the screen was labeled “Tropical Storm Gabrielle” and showed a weather map with the Tampa Bay area in Tropical Storm Gabrielle’s “cone of uncertainty.” We wondered how we could feel more vulnerable than we did at that moment. Both our country and our home were under physical attack.
We normally publish once a week on Monday, but Diane’s piece on Nine Eleven called for a more timely posting. — Editor
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, technology, theater, genealogy, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI class catalog and for OLLI Connects.