Faculty, staff reflect on their memories of 9/11

In commemoration of last weekend’s 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, The Eagle has collected stories from AU faculty describing their experiences from that day

Faculty, staff reflect on their memories of 9/11

AU's memorial for University alumni who were victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Victoria Phillips

Professor, Washington College of Law

Phillips helped establish the Intellectual Property Law Clinic at the WCL as well as its Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property in 2001. She now serves as the Clinic’s Director. The Law Clinic had just begun in September of that year and Phillips was a new faculty member when the attacks occurred.

“I do have a strong memory of that morning. I had recently joined the law school faculty to start our IP Law Clinic and we had just welcomed our inaugural class and were beginning to meet with the students on their new client cases. I had a TV in my office in the old building and when the first tower was hit I got a call (I had no cell phone) to turn on the news. My students and I turned on the Matt Lauer and Katie Couric-hosted Today Show and watched the breaking news feed as the tragic events of the morning unfolded. Even 15 years later, some of those images are impossible to shake.”

Diana Rosenthal

Professor, School of Professional and Extended Studies

Lowenthal came to AU in 2000 to teach American politics seminars and supervise research projects for the Washington Semester Program. She is currently the Senior Associate Dean in SPExS at AU. Rosenthal was supposed to be on Capitol Hill on September 11, 2001.

“On September 11, 2001, my Washington Semester Program American Politics seminar was supposed to have two meetings on the Hill, one with a member of Congress and another with several staffers. Some of my students went to the Hill early to complete an assignment about committee hearings. I heard the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on my drive to campus. By the time I arrived at my office, the rest of the story was unfolding. Immediately, I notified my students that we would not be traveling to the Hill for class. Instead, we would gather for a discussion on campus.

I remember making two points in our class session-- first, our discussion the previous day about the congressional agenda was now completely moot (as the day's events would dramatically change our priorities); second, we would all have many questions and we would work together to find answers. The students who had attended hearings had harrowing stories of being evacuated from the Capitol and trekking back to campus in creative ways.

Ultimately, we developed a very tight bond, as we worked through the answers to the many questions we had about 9/11. Many guest speakers helped us make sense of a confusing time.”

Rhonda Zaharna

Professor, School of Communications

Zaharna is a professor and Director of the International Media program in the School of Communication. She has extensive knowledge regarding 9/11’s political impact, as one of her books, Battles to Bridges: U.S. Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy after 9/11 (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010; 2014), explores it in depth.

“My brother from Texas called a little after 9am. I was thinking, ‘why is he calling so early?’ I answered the phone and the first thing he said was “What’s going on up there?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Turn on the TV!”

I did and really couldn’t fathom what was happening. My cousin was staying with me and we just dropped everything and watched it all unfold. What was all surreal and happening so fast. When the plane hit the Pentagon, the place seemed to go eerily quiet. I could see the smoke of the Pentagon from my balcony. What really stood out was watching in real time the Twin Towers fall – I had taken my mother for lunch at Window On the World, the restaurant at the top. Watching the first tower fall – just crumbling down like a little toy. Then the second tower collapsing in a puff of smoke and dust.

I didn’t go to campus that day. It seems everyone and everything kind of shut down in a state of shock. Washington was eerily quiet.

We had a lot of students from the NY/NJ and eastern corridor area so many students were personally affected by the tragedy. People lost family members, relatives, neighbors or knew someone who had a loss. Because of the personal closeness, many students went to volunteer.

Before I started the class lecture, I would do a visual check of each student to try to get a state of where he or she was at emotionally. Most were coping. Some days better than others, depending on the news. I remember one student [who] just broke down in class and we all stopped to console her.”

"I think most of us just froze, because there was no other alternative; we just didn’t know how to manage it, I think, as a population." — Professor Daniel Abraham

Professor Daniel Abraham

Department Chair, Performing Arts

Professor Abraham was teaching an earlier-morning Understanding Music class, unaware of the severity of the attacks. As the news of the attacks spread, students were told to return to their dorms, and classes were cancelled indefinitely.

“I remember being very sleepy and catching something on NPR on the way in for a fairly early-morning class about some sort of plane and the World Trade Center. But I think it was one of the very initial reports; I barely caught it.

I was teaching Understanding Music in what was then the Kreeger Recital Hall...in front of about 65 undergraduate students; it was a fairly large class. And I remember, just this class, just starting, standing in the very front, and I had a group of students seated in the first couple of rows...and I was just chatting with them; I said, ‘You know, did someone hear anything about a plane crashing and the World Trade Center?’ and one the other students said, ‘No, no, I heard it was the Pentagon’...and no one in the entire room had a clear understanding of what had happened…”

About 15 minutes into the class, while he had a musical example playing for the students, Professor Abraham said that he saw a Campus Security officer come into the back of the recital hall, and only he could see the officer because the students’ backs were to her.

“She kind of gave me a look of, you know, ‘Excuse me,’ as if she were going to interrupt what was going on and, of course, there’s this musical example playing and I remember being, you know, young and headstrong, giving her the look of, ‘Please don’t interrupt my class,’ and sort of this back and forth glance occurred and finally...I think she waved both arms, and I stopped the example and she said, ‘I’m sorry, everyone needs to return to their dorm rooms; all classes are cancelled.’ Of course, there was [a] complete hush in the class and I think I said, ‘Okay folks, I don’t know what’s going on but I think we should do what was just said.’

At the University, our alert status, I think, our self-preservation mode is more engaged now than it ever was before 9/11, you know; the world has changed, and it changed, I think at that exact moment, when this Campus Security Officer said, ‘Everyone needs to return to their dorms; all classes are cancelled.’”

Professor Abraham went to another floor of the Kreeger building from there, and a group of faculty, staff, administrators and some students were watching news footage of what was happening on a small television that had been wheeled in from the music library.

“We were watching the footage, and it was when the first tower collapsed and there was a hush and you know, ‘What do we do?’

I think it took me a good half hour or 45 minutes to actually start thinking again and start moving and I just don’t even remember going back to my office; I think I just left… I remember driving to my house, which was, at that time, in Montgomery County, MD, and the drive was 15 minutes but I think I spent the rest of the day doing nothing but lying in my bedroom. And I don’t think I actually did any work or thought about school or students and, you know, I remember tuning into the news now and then to sort of understand what was going on, but I think most of us just froze, because there was no other alternative; we just didn’t know how to manage it, I think, as a population.”

"[President Bush] got off and I really felt like I was seeing a different man ... He definitely had a different look on his face, he had this look of determination that I had never seen before on his face." — Executive-in-Residence Rebecca Cooper

Rebecca Cooper

Executive-in-Residence, Kogod School of Business and Professor, School of Communications 

Cooper was reporting for ABC News on September 11, 2001. She was a producer at the time, filling in at the White House. On the day of the attacks, she a and a select few other reporters were told they would be sent to a ‘secret’ White House where they would report from, and where President Bush would be brought to in order to keep him safe.

“They said, ‘You can’t tell the news organizations where you are, you can’t tell your spouses where you are, but that you’re going to be staying there for the foreseeable future because we’re going to be setting up a secret White House and that’s where the president will eventually come back to,’ but that’s all we knew...We walked all the way through downtown until we got to the FBI building and they took us to the basement of the FBI building.”

When they got down to the basement, Cooper realized that this was going to be the secret White House and that there were engineers working to make the space function as such.

Cooper and her colleagues were told in their first briefing to prepare to be in there for the next few days.

“And then, a short time later, they came back and said, ‘Get all your stuff, we’re going to the White House.’

So we got back to the White House and it was deserted except for Secret Service, usually it’s a bustle of people, and even the security detail was now actually smaller at the gates where you check in people. There were far more snipers on the roof; it was heavily armed, but it was armed in a different way--you usually just check in through the front gate. So we got inside and it was deserted inside--usually there’s all the press aids running around and reporters and some time later, they came and got us and they told us to run out to the White House lawn. So we went out to the White House lawn and the only people there were Condoleeza Rice and the White House butler, the senior valet stayed at his post and went out to greet the President coming back from Florida. And we were waiting for Marine One, the helicopter, to land.”

“[President Bush] got off and I really felt like I was seeing a different man ... He definitely had a different look on his face, he had this look of determination that I had never seen before on his face, and he definitely looked like a changed president in that respect. Maybe it was just the drama of the day, but I really felt that.”

Jon Jackson

Professor, Washington College of Law

Jackson is a Lieutenant Colonel with the United States Army Judge Advocate General Corps. Since February 2008, he has been a Defense Counsel in the Office of the Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions, and has served as lead defense counsel for detainees Mustafa Ahmed Al-Hawsawi (one of five men charged in the attacks of 9/11), Majid Khan, and Omar Khadr before the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay..

“[When 9/11 happened], I was certainly extremely upset. I was thirty years old at the time, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was shocking, horrible; I felt horrible for the people. It was murder in the worst sense--innocent people just trying to go to work. My opinion has never changed, but that doesn’t change the fact that any murder case, or any criminal case--in which there is a victim involved--that you shouldn’t do your job as a defense lawyer, whether there’s one victim or three thousand victims. The oath that you take is the same--you still have to represent your client within the bounds of laws and ethics. It certainly was hard to see the things that I saw.

I’ve received backlash for my work, but mostly from people who have no affiliation with any victim. Mainly, it’s people who think that you’re a part of the terrorism, because you represent a terrorist. When I was on the case, we had meetings with victims’ family members, not only at Guantanamo, but also in New York. They were always more kind than they probably should have been--they were understanding that we have a system in place. During the trial I had a surgery and passed out in court, and I received at least ten well-wishes from family members of victims from 9/11 that I had met. It was kind of the opposite in that I had received support from them, as opposed to negative comments.”

Professor Chris Edelson

School of Public Affairs

Edelson was in Manhattan when the attacks occurred. He was working in Midtown Manhattan as a lawyer at the time.

“I remember when the first plane hit the Twin Towers everyone thought it was an accident or something. I actually went back to work.

Second plane hit, which clearly wasn’t an accident. It was scary, I mean, you didn’t know exactly what was going on and I remember thinking I wanted to get somewhere where there’s not tall buildings…”

Edelson compares the effect that this day had on him to how he felt in the 1980s, growing up and always fearing nuclear war because of the historical events of that time period. He recalls fearing what would come next, and waiting for what would come next.

The next Monday, Edelson went back to work.

“I remember walking back to work that day, you know, sort of proud that we were getting back to work, but also scared for whatever would happen after that.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11 I remember feeling like everyone was kind of in it together, especially for the fire and police, wanting to do anything to help them, people looking to give blood, that kind of thing.”

Michael Bouchard, School of Professional Affairs

Adjunct Professional Lecturer

At the time of the attacks, Bouchard worked for the ATF National Response team.

“When the plane hit, I was at Dulles Airport headed to Pittsburgh, and you know, I was just sitting there waiting for my plane and watched the results of the first plane hitting and then watching the second one, sitting next to a pilot, who just said the first one was not an accident...of course, our flight was cancelled.

I was then dispatched to take teams up to the World Trade Center and then shortly thereafter when the Pentagon got hit, they diverted me toward the Pentagon. So we got our teams together on the 11 and responded to the Pentagon on the 12; maybe sixty people initially and then about a hundred, hundred-plus, and we worked with the FBI and the other agencies on the plan of, you know, how are we going to look behind the scenes? So for 17, 18 days we processed that scene with victims and potential evidence.”


Clarification: The original post did not include Rebecca Cooper's role as a professor in the School of Communications. The post has been updated to include this information.

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