AU community remembers what campus was like on Sept. 11, 2001

AU community remembers what campus was like on Sept. 11, 2001
AU students gather on the quad for a candlelight vigil commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I saw the airplane head straight into the Pentagon”

School of Communication Professor Richard Benedetto was driving near the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when he witnessed the third plane crash into the building.

“I heard that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers on the radio in the car,” Benedetto said. “Then I heard a loud noise and saw the airplane head straight into the ground and [the] Pentagon.”

Benedetto said traffic stopped and some cars tried to turn around as rumors spread of another plane headed toward D.C.

“I just pulled my car over to the side and ran to the Pentagon,” said Benedetto, who was at the time a reporter for USA Today.

Pentagon personnel had already set up medical stations and were controlling the crowd when he arrived. He was then moved to a gas station near the Pentagon with other reporters.

“All the cell phones were down and there was only one pay phone in that gas station,” Benedetto said. “We lined up and each got a minute to talk to our editors and tell them what was going on.”

Benedetto stayed at the gas station all day, calling in reports as the Pentagon updated them.

Donald Rumsfield held a press conference with the reporters at the Pentagon at 6 p.m., busing them to the location.

“The purpose of that press conference was to show that the Pentagon was still operating,” Benedetto said. “But the hallways were filled with smoke and kerosene. Everything was hazy.”

After the press conference, Benedetto retrieved his car from the side of the road and drove back to D.C. to finish working on his story.

“I never saw D.C. so deserted,” he said.

AU came together, “protected” Muslim community after 9/11

Alumni who were students at the time of the attacks remember an AU community that seemed scared and confused, with American flags hanging from dorm windows. There was even talk among some students about going home after the attacks rather than staying in D.C. Theodora Blanchfield was one of the many students who had only been at school for a few weeks when the attacks happened.

“We were all walking around like we were zombies,” said Blanchfield, who was an AU freshman on 9/11. “Everybody was in shock.”

Class of 2005 graduate Steven McGovern remembers going to class before a plane hit the Pentagon later that day. His professor dismissed class so students could take care of personal situations. The girl next to him was hysterical, he said, because she could not get in touch with her father.

Following the attacks, Class of 2002 alumna Melissa Bevins and her fellow resident assistants in Letts Hall were challenged to deal with the trauma of the event and to help their residents.

“We had to deal with our own emotions and our own grief or stress or concern, but also be a unified front for the students living on our floors,” Bevins said.

AU students, faculty and staff gathered at Kay Chapel at noon that day to seek comfort in one another and listen to the president and chaplains of different denominations speak.

“We bonded together as a community to mourn tragedy and loss of life,” said AU Chaplain Joe Eldridge, who was at AU on Sept. 11.

AU contacted all Muslim students by email and phone to ensure they felt comfortable and safe during their commute to class, according to Campus Life Vice President Gail Hanson.

“The campus had no retaliatory efforts against Muslim students,” Hanson said. “Students protected the Muslim community and allowed them to practice openly. Students volunteered to escort Muslim students to campus.”

Hanson said she is proud of AU’s reaction to the 9/11 attack.

“In the most difficult time, we acted nobly as a community,” Hanson said. “AU is inspiring.”

Five alumni die in 9/11 attacks

Hanson said her first priority that day was to ensure the safety of students and their families.

As a school with a large population from the New York and D.C. metro areas, many now-alumni lost or knew someone who lost a family member or friend in the attacks. “We had many AU students from the New York area,” Hanson said. “We were lucky that no students lost an immediate family member.”

But many alumni also said their loved ones were inches from death and were miraculously late to work that day.

Blanchfield said her uncle was commuting to Manhattan when he saw the plane hit one of the towers.

Five AU alumni died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the fields of Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11. The Class of 2002 senior gift was the monument, that now sits near the Kogod School of Business, engraved with their names: Peter C. Alderman, BSBA ’99; Linda K. Gronlund, JD ’83; John P. O’Neill, BS ’74; Mark E. Schurmeier, MBA ’88; and Earnest M Willcher, JD ’68.

AU faced bomb threat days after 9/11

AU’s courage would be tested again two days later with a bomb threat.

A resident assistant in Anderson Hall received an anonymous phone call around 10 a.m. claiming there was a bomb on campus on Sept. 13, according to Hanson.

“Fire alarms were pulled in all the residence halls and classrooms and office buildings,” Hanson wrote. “As people poured out, staff stood near the entrances informing them that we had received a bomb threat.”

AU students, faculty and staff evacuated to the Nebraska Parking Lot, where they waited until professional bomb detectors and trained dogs searched every building on campus.

“Thousands were in the Nebraska Parking Lot and some sought refuge in the church,” Eldridge said. “It was a hot day, so they passed out water and other supplies.”

Department of Public Safety confirmed there was no bomb around 3 p.m.

“How long does it take to search 84 acres and 37 buildings for a bomb?” Hanson wrote. “We now know the answer: six hours.”

Attacks prompt alumnus to join Homeland Security

For McGovern, Sept. 11, 2001, changed the path of his professional life forever. He knew he wanted to get a job with the government to prevent another terrorist attack.

He was eventually hired by the Department of Homeland Security, just down the road from his dorm room in Leonard Hall where he first heard of the attacks.

Even before watching both planes hit the World Trade Center from TVs in Leonard, McGovern had known that he wanted to be involved in government.

“It definitely gave me focus [for] why I came to D.C. and what I was here to do,” McGovern said.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of 9/11

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, AU professors acknowledge the attacks in different ways. Akbar Ahmed, SIS professor and Chair of Islamic Studies, works to improve the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Ahmed was teaching one of his first classes at AU when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers.

“I asked Dean Goodman and Provost Kerwin, ‘where do we go from here?’’’ Ahmed said. “And they told me ‘we must engage.’ And that’s the reason I went in with fervor.”

Ahmed has been working on various projects to promote understanding ranging from writing 10 books in 10 years to participating in the Interfaith Council.

“I feel there’s so much work to be done,” Ahmed said. “There’ll be hatred, distortion, and misinterpretation of Islam in the media. How could I do more?”

pjones@theeagleonline.com and zcohen@theeagleonline.com

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