One was at the World Trade Center. Another was a few blocks from the White House and lived near the Pentagon. A third was on the West Coast, where it was early in the morning. Still another was in the South. Others were on campus. The Gazette asked some Harvard affiliates from across the University where they were when the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks took place, and how they think about that day two decades later.
Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Harvard University
I was in the concourse of the south tower in Sam Goody’s record store to buy a new Walkman radio/cassette player. I had just returned from taking my kids to school, having come up from the subway. I heard a loud “whump,” and things began to fall around us. I ran out with everyone else and ended up in an area that gave me a view of the north tower, which had been struck. Horrific. Things were falling down from the collision. We were told to stay put. I remembered something my father told me when I was a little girl: “If you come upon a scene where there are lots of ambulances and evidence of a disturbance, go the opposite way.”
I decided against staying put and went out through a concourse connected to the south tower — opposite to where I was — to find my husband. We lived across from the World Trade Center, and I knew he was out in front of our building handing out political literature, as it was primary day. It was a pretty grim scene running through the debris, shoes, suitcases, and other evidence that a plane had crashed. By the time I got to the building, I turned around and saw a second plane fly into the south tower. We all took off running, and I heard my husband calling me. We quickly decided to leave the area, which was chaos as people were jumping from the towers.
We started walking north to get to our kids. I stopped at my office at New York Law School to call my father — only landlines were working — to let him know I was OK. As we talked, the first tower came down, and all our power went out. We left and resumed walking uptown. We caught a bus that took us to 59th Street. Then we walked up Central Park West to 91st and Columbus, picked up our kids, and got a hotel room.
I remember it as a horrific day. I saw lots of people die. I felt blessed because my kids could have been orphaned, and they were not. I felt so sorry for the people who were trapped in those towers and lost their lives. It was bewildering at first because the day was so beautiful. At first, I couldn’t see how a plane managed to hit the tower. When I saw the second, I knew that it was deliberate, of course. But it changed the course of my family’s life. We had lived downtown from the time we moved to NYC after graduating and getting married at Harvard-Epworth Methodist Church. After the attacks we moved uptown close to our kids’ school. I felt sad about losing our community. But others lost so much more.
The memory is very vivid. In movies when people are in danger, the characters sometimes seem flustered and confused. I don’t ever remember being clearer about what I had to do that day. I was shocked when I found out how close the time was between the first and second plane, the time that I was running around in the building and then out of it over to where I lived. It seemed like a long time had passed. But it hadn’t.
For a long time after that the sound of a plane was frightening. There are visceral feelings — the awful things seen, the smell of jet fuel, the knowledge that I just missed being in the area under where the second plane hit. You know that you made choices and that you were lucky. It could have been very different. What started as a beautiful day turned into a horror show.
Landon and Lavinia Clay Chief Curator, Harvard Art Museums
I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on the morning of 9/11. I had just started my year of fellowship in the museum’s Asian Art Department. Staff had begun to arrive at work, and I remember a colleague, who had been listening to the radio, calling out that two planes hit the World Trade Center. My brain didn’t — couldn’t — compute what that meant. A plane hitting a building? Even as news confirmed the event as a terrorist attack, and images and details were released, the shocking reality was simply unfathomable. You couldn’t tie it to any previous experience or knowledge — nothing like this had ever happened before.
In truth, much of that day is now a bit of a blur. But I do remember walking across Central Park after we were sent home from work and seeing billowing smoke from downtown even at that distance. And I remember the feeling of unreality, of shock and disbelief, a cognitive disconnect. And anxiety that I couldn’t get home to my husband in New Jersey. I think virtually all modes of transportation out of and into the city were cut off that day. Two years later, when the so-called Northeast Blackout of 2003 hit New York City on a blazing August day, everyone initially thought it was another terrorist attack. I was again in the Met Museum (this time as a curator) and again couldn’t get out of the city and ended up walking miles for temporary shelter at a friend’s home. That time, with the 9/11 incident still vivid in my mind, I felt visceral dread and panic. At times I find the feelings of those two days conflated.
I imagine that for those born after 9/11 the event is abstract. The now standard routines of post-9/11 travel — taking your shoes off, no liquids in your carry-on, even TSA pre-clearance — were not normal in pre-9/11 days and represent the more mundane facets of a world forever changed by those terrorist attacks. It’s actually staggering to realize it happened 20 years ago. My own experiences were circumscribed by the fact that I wasn’t at ground zero. I can’t imagine the seismic shift experienced by those who survived and the pain and depth of grief for the families who lost their loved ones that day.
Senior Lecturer on Journalism, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
On Sept.11, 2001, I was the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. The Pentagon, one of the terrorists’ targets that horrifying day, was just a mile from my house. The impact of the plane hitting the massive building bounced my son out of his bed. I was already at work. The White House is just a few blocks from the bureau. At one point we thought it too might be hit. I began compiling our noon list, the list of stories coming from Washington reporters. It grew and grew, the most stories the bureau filed in a single day. Eventually, I had it framed, and it still hangs right outside the bureau chief’s office. We chronicled everything from intelligence failures to the personal stories of those killed. One of the workers killed at the Pentagon was the brother of a New York-based editor. He waited with us for days while his brother’s body was found and identified. I will always remember his stricken look as he sat, waiting.
I didn’t leave my desk until I finally drove home at 3 a.m. I passed by the Pentagon, glowing orange, and still burning. As I neared our house, almost every home had an American flag outside. When I pulled into our driveway, I saw that my husband had put up the absurdly large Stars and Stripes that we pulled out every Fourth of July.
It was only then that I felt the emotional impact of the day and the terrible loss for our country. I sat in my car and cried. Then my phone rang, and it was an editor in New York. She told me the phone lines were down in Manhattan. We would have to divert all calls through Washington, so the bureau had to be reopened. The news never stopped that night or for scores of nights thereafter. Tanks appeared on the street outside the bureau. A huge box arrived from the Times containing survival equipment, including flashlights and gas masks. My colleagues, all the Washington editors, reporters, and photographers, did amazing work as did the entire paper. No one was surprised when the Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes that year — a record that still stands.
For me, the meaning of that day is why it is so important to provide the best, authoritative information to a stricken and worried world. In the midst of tumult, tragedy, and war, The New York Times provided a lasting public service that continues through time. It was an honor for me to be a part of its coverage on 9/11.