Before 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Yale’s fall term was unfolding in the same ways as the countless autumns that had come before.
Students were still in the throes of shopping period as professors finalized their course rosters. Administrators were tied up in meeting after meeting as they plannedthe capstone celebration of the University’s tercentennialm which was just weeks away.
And then, at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. But the campus was not instantly transformed. It took time for panicked students to rouse sleeping roommates from their beds, to reach the ringing cell phones with worried parents on the other end of the line and to place their own calls to family and friends who lived or worked in New York City.
Though nine graduates were killed in the attacks, the campus as a whole was lucky — no student lost a parent, and no faculty died. But in the days and months that followed, the disaster would touch each member of the Yale community in a unique way.
That week, it united the campus in a fashion seldom seen before.
This week, University faculty and administrators looked back on September 11th in interviews with the News. Here, in their own words, are their stories from that day.
Richard Levin, University president: Just before I got out of the car at Woodbridge Hall, I had actually just heard a report on CBS Radio that a small private plane had flown into the World Trade Center. That didn’t sound like a global catastrophe, so I went into my meeting.
Joseph Gordon, dean of undergraduate education: We were having [a meeting with residential college deans], so we were not connected to any media, and I was seated toward the back of the room. At a certain point, two of the administrative assistants came upstairs, looking very upset. I went outside into the hallway, and they told me that one plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We were in the middle of a meeting, so I didn’t say anything.
Martha Highsmith, deputy secretary for the University in charge of Yale’s emergency management operations: I was in my office in a meeting with several colleagues planning an event. All of the sudden a colleague interrupted our discussion, which was very unlike her. “Something horrible has happened,” she said. So we turned on the television in the room and saw the news. My first thought was about [University Secretary] Linda Lorimer. She was on a plane going from Hartford to Texas that day, so we immediately went and checked her flight number. Eventually we realized that she was safe and her flight had been diverted to land in Charlotte.
Steven Smith, political science professor and former master of Branford College: We were just getting out of class, and my assistant came running over in a state of high panic. I’ll always remember, she said, “The country is under attack.” I said, “What are you talking about?”
Charles Hill, diplomat in residence: I was coming out of teaching Directed Studies, and I was walking up Prospect Street alongside the cemetery. A student of mine in another class was running down the sidewalk toward me with arms waving and yelling to me that they had destroyed the World Trade Center. My reaction was surprise but not shock, because I have been dealing with [international affairs] for a long time. It did not seem to me to be something entirely beyond expectation.
John Gaddis, history professor: I was doing an Ph.D oral exam for a student. There was some kind of an indication that something disturbing had happened, but we did not want to mention it and disturb her. It turns out, she had been aware that it had been happening, but she did not want to upset us. So we had kept it from each other.
Dale Martin GRD ’88, director of graduate studies for the Religious Studies Department: I was working as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and it was afternoon in Copenhagen when this was all happening. I happened to be walking from my office to, I think, a gymnasium where I was going to do some working out. I passed a TV appliance store that had a bunch of TVs all in the window, and they were all tuned to a smoking tower.
THE SECOND PLANE HITS
Eyes were glued to televisions across the world as a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, flew into the World Trade Center’s South Tower at 9:03 a.m. The first crash could have been an accident. The second, however, signaled that the United States was under attack.
Martin: It was showing on all of these TVs at the same time. We just stood there and stared in the street and on the sidewalk, and people were hollering and screaming and crying. The other plane hit and we were still just watching it, and you know, I couldn’t move. I was transfixed, and the towers started falling right there on TV.
Highsmith: As we watched the news, our first real thought of the day was for the Yale community. What students may have lost parents in the destruction? What faculty were in Manhattan at the time?
Levin: We mobilized pretty quickly. The first thing we did was call the Secret Service because Barbara Bush ’04 was then a student at Yale. Our first concern was actually that Yale could potentially be a target because of President [George W.] Bush’s daughter. By the time we got in touch with the Secret Service, she was already evacuated from Yale.
Gordon: [The administrative assistants] came back and said the second plane had crashed. And at that point we canceled the meeting, and everyone went back to their colleges to be with the students. Each had to try to deal with their individual communities.
Smith: I went immediately downstairs into the [Branford] basement TV room. I remember very distinctly being there and watching the second tower go down — an absolutely shattering experience. I remember sobbing. It was just an unbelievable moment.
“After the blast came a silence,” the News reported in a special afternoon edition published after the attacks. “Two hours after the bloodiest terrorist attack in American history, the sun was still shining down on a lovely late summer day, but the lawns and courtyards across Yale’s campus stood empty, blanketed by an eerie silence.”
Members of the Yale community had just watched hundreds of people perish on live television, and there was no guarantee that the worst was over. As students sought comfort, they turned to professors and to each other.
Smith: I remember moving constantly. I couldn’t sit still. While this was going on there was a tour, a Yale tour! Some student guide was giving a tour to a group of parents and perspective students. [He laughs.] They must have thought I was crazy, but I do have a vague recollection of shouting to them, “Go home! We’re under attack! What are you doing?”
Highsmith: It was a very scary time for all of us. We had never lived through anything like this, and we didn’t know if more attacks were coming. People were very on edge at that time because there was a lot of shock, anxiety and grief.
Levin: We did computer runs to see which parents had work addresses at the World Trade Center and started calling all of the students to see if they had heard anything, to see if we could help. We were concerned about the welfare of any students here who had affected family members and there were quite a number of them. It was dozens who were potentially affected.
Highsmith: We also thought that there would be New York-area families that needed to be reunited that night, so we recruited a group of senior Yale staff who would drive people home. We were unclear about if the highways would be clear, or if public transportation was available, so we wanted to help in any way we could. We also sent senior staff to the residential colleges to be a source of support, just to let people know, “Hey, we’re here to talk.”
Levin: As it turned out, no parents of Yale students were lost in the tragedy, although there were relatives. I think the campus really rallied in an extraordinary way. The candlelight vigil [that night] which brought, we estimated, 7,000 people to Cross Campus was truly one of the most moving moments of my time here.
Gordon: I remember being in the Branford courtyard that night, and spontaneously a group of students — bagpipers — came through playing “Amazing Grace.” You heard it coming form the next courtyard over, and it was just magical. It was really incredibly comforting. That was just one of the many spontaneous responses from members of the community that began to heal. People were still in shock, but you began to realize what the human mind and what the human spirit is capable of in the face of disaster.
President Bush had addressed the nation on the day of the attacks and said the attacks had been an attack on “our way of life, our very freedom.” But he assured the country that America’s federal government, its finanicial institutions and its economy would be open on Sept. 12. At Yale, administrators decided not to disrupt the class schedule in the hours and days following the attacks. On campus, professors and students continued their studies — but in the context of a changed world.
Highsmith: [In the days after the attacks], I was sleeping in my office. I used to keep a spare set of pajamas in my car. But ever since September 11th, I’ve kept a pair in my office. [She gestures towards a bag under a small wooden table.] One of the lessons of 9/11 is you can have an absolutely gorgeous day, and the world can change in the blink of an eye.
Levin: We encouraged people to recognize that this was the act of extremists, and we shouldn’t brand any group or religion or political group as responsible. We had essentially zero incidents of any kind of religious or ethnic backlash on our campus.
Martin: I hated the fact that rabid patriotism seemed to be required by everybody. I felt like the nationalism — that was the way some people responded to it — was awful. I was just as saddened by the event, but my response was not to do this “us against the world” hypernationalism. I’ve never gotten over that. I really despise that kind of patriotism. I think the last ten years have been wasted by bad responses to it, including the wars.
Hill: I think that [students] seemed to understand this was not a tragedy. This was an atrocity, an act of war against the United States, and therefore had to be treated in that fashion. I think more students have considered careers in fields of international security [since the attacks]. I think there had been a shift among students towards a domestic agenda. September 11th refocused that to make it clear that there was an imperative for America to have an interest in global affairs.
Gordon: The aftermath in the next couple of years was to be aware of students that were actually quite close to the actual event, and others who had firefighters in their families — or police workers or security guards in their families — for whom this was more than a national tragedy. It was a personal tragedy.
Highsmith: Years later people have told me how helpful the senior staff coming to the colleges was, and that it was the most helpful thing we did during this time. We chose not to cancel classes [that day] because we felt it was important for people to have a place to go, and faculty were encouraged to talk about what was going on.
Gordon: [For] everybody on the campus, no matter what their national origin, no matter what their politics, there was a moment of incredible solidarity and a sense that everybody needed everybody else.
Highsmith: Yale’s tercentennial year celebration was supposed to be three weeks after the attacks. We had long discussions about what do to and whether it was appropriate to celebrate at this time, but in the end the decision was to proceed, honoring the lives and sacrifices of everyone involved. In retrospect, it was the right thing to do: Yale is a place that promotes peace and honor of humankind, which stands in contrast to this act of terrorism.