Ten Years Later, Faculty and Former Students Recall That Day

September 08, 2011

September 8, 2011 — Dustin Harstock, who was a first-year student in fall 2001, remembers the blank faces as he walked to class in Cabell Hall. For Elizabeth Simpson, the memory that lingers is the silence on Grounds. Matt Amodio recalls his realization that the world had forever changed. A professor's willingness to let students use his cell phone to call home is the memory that stays with Hunter Chorey.

University of Virginia faculty and alumni remember the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, through a kaleidoscope of emotions, images, events. The thread connecting many of them, though, is one of community.

As the horror of the 9/11 attacks unfolded, students, faculty and staff clustered around television sets and hung on telephones, seeking information about what happened at the the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and on a plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa.

William Quandt, Edward R. Stettinius Jr. Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs and then vice provost of international affairs, was in a meeting at Fontaine Research Park when he first heard a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. "We just assumed it must have been an accident," he said.

After the meeting, Quandt went to a television set in time to see the second plane hit the north tower. He quickly concluded that this was no accident.

"I thought then that it must be bin Laden," said Quandt, who specializes in the politics of the Middle East.

Elizabeth Simpson, a 2003 political and social thought graduate, heard the news after a class in Bryan Hall.

"When we left, Grounds was eerily silent. There was no one around – at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. I felt scared, because I knew something must have happened, but I had no idea what. I ran back to Brown College and found everyone in the lounge, watching TV and crying."

Harstock, who graduated with a degree in economics in 2005, said he had been thinking more about what shirt and tie he would wear to that week's home football game against Penn State, which was going to be on ESPN. He watched the attacks, but he said the magnitude of the events took awhile to hit him.

He remembers walking to his 12:30 class in Cabell. "Looking at the faces of my fellow students was eerie. Blank stares were everywhere, while others could be heard just trying to get the latest update. It was the most surreal walk to class that I ever had in my four years at the University."

Professors, with little acts of kindness and understanding, were able to comfort students that day.

Chorey, in a daze from what he had seen, attended Kenneth Elzinga's economics class that day in the chemistry auditorium.

"We were all confused and scared," he said. "Ken walked out of the side room and addressed the class, saying that if anyone needed to make a phone call to friends or family, they could use his cell phone right there, right now, which was a gracious gesture. Some parts of the day are hazy in my mind, but some parts are still vivid. The compassion and care that Professor Elzinga showed for his students in a time of turmoil and fear that day really stuck out to me, in particular."

Elzinga was living in Pavilion IV on the Lawn when he saw the first reports on television. "Cell phones were not as common then as they are today, so I offered my cell phone to anyone who wanted to call home," he said. "Several students did this and were relieved by what they learned."

Courtney Heitz Hatcher, a 2003 government graduate, was also in Elzinga's class. "I joined a group of students up front in the chemistry auditorium and we prayed together, asking God to work, to save people still trapped in the rubble, asking God for comfort, asking God to bring good out of devastation."

Students asked religious studies professor William Wilson, then an associate dean in charge of fellowships, to pray with them in his Garrett Hall office. "Students would come by to see me as dean and I'm sure they had some dean issues to talk about, but the attacks was all anybody talked about. They were looking for some kind of guidance and a way of understanding," he said.

Students also helped students. Sue Robinson, a 2004 psychology graduate now working as a strategy consultant in London, was a resident assistant in Metcalf House, a first-year residence hall.

"I was awakened by one of the girls on the hall running down its length, banging on every door and telling everyone to turn on the news," Robinson said. "I turned on the TV, invited in any girls who wanted to be together."

She and her floormates were concerned about family members.

"One girl on the hall across from mine had a mother who was a flight attendant and regularly flew the routes of one of the planes," Robinson  said. "She was absolutely distraught, and the relief when she was able to get in touch with family and learned her mom was safe was incredible."

Her brother-in-law's nephew worked in the World Trade Center, and other family members didn't live far from Shanksville. Her family was unharmed, but 9/11 created a backdrop for her life.

"I fly regularly, but am constantly vigilant for unusual behavior and I complain a lot less about security screenings and pat-downs," Robinson said. "I am more interested than I ever was about the politics and stability of the nations of the Middle East and Asia."

Religious studies student Sarah Jobe organized a candlelight vigil that evening on the Lawn. "People needed an outlet to try to keep their emotions in control," said Jobe, a 2003 graduate who now works as a pastor in North Carolina. "I know personally that I release anxiety through religion and faith."

She called friends for help and located leftover candles from a vigil held the previous week. "We called people from different faiths and got them together for this," she said. "We tried to get someone from each faith group."

She borrowed a small sound system and printed 500 programs.

"Between 2,000 and 2,500 showed up," she said. "When we lit the candles, we could see this line of light, and all the other people were standing in the shadows."

After the vigil was over, the students moved silently off the Lawn and left no trash behind.

Other events included a ceremony of reflection and meditation at University Hall and a "teach-in" in McIntire Amphitheatre, with speakers including Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies; Peter Ochs, Bronfman Chair of Judaic Studies; politics professor Michael J. Smith; and history professor Elizabeth Thompson. Initially, there were problems with the sound system, so the professors moved into the crowd to talk to clusters of students while the speakers were being repaired.

Quandt, a former member of the National Security Council who was actively involved in the Camp David accords under President Carter, also participated.

"We need to think smart, not aggressively," he told the students that night, adding that the response of volunteers and well-wishers following the attack showed the best of America.

"I wanted to say things about how we should treat each other within our community," he remembered. "I wanted to tell the students that the answer is not scapegoating. I knew there were Muslim students there who were concerned they would be associated with what had happened."

He said it was difficult for the students because of the levels of emotion involved and because nothing like this had happened in their lifetimes.

"Terror tactics are designed to frighten people," Quandt said, "But I told them not to forget that we were still intact. It is shocking and terrible, but it is not the end of the world for the country. This was not something to shift priorities overnight. If it was important to us the day before the attack, it was still important afterwards."

Quandt felt the impact of the attacks in his vice provost role. He canceled a trip to Turkey, where U.Va. was considering a program. Security for overseas programs became much more important. Interest increased in Arab cultures and language.

"This forced a lot of students to think about how the world can impinge on their lives," he said. "We had skyrocketing enrollments in the Arab language program and an increase in foreign affairs majors. The students thought, 'We need to know more about the world.'"

The world changed for Matt Amodio, a 2004 graduate with degrees in English and politics. He was in his apartment when he heard about the attacks.

"I was actually watching when the second plane hit the South Tower," he said. "My immediate reaction was disbelief. I sat there on my bed just staring at the screen. It seemed so surreal."

He attended some services and stayed close to his friends. "We were all looking for a sense of community and togetherness," he said. "We were now in a world where we no longer felt safe. Anything could happen.

"There was also a growing sense of patriotism. People, including me, bought American flag decals for their cars, and many put messages in their AOL Instant Messenger profiles."

Now a New York resident, Amodio passes the World Trade Center site every day commuting to his job as a project manager at an investment bank.

"My desk looks out onto the construction site, and I have watched the new tower slowly rise over the past few years," he said. "I'm excited to see the memorial open. I wish that the tower would have been finished by the time of the anniversary. It would have been a powerful and symbolic image of our American strength, compassion and resilience. They are, however, making great progress on the tower, and it grows taller every day.

"I know the memorial will provide some comfort for the victims' families, as well as for the nation. It will provide an eternal reminder of both the destruction and the rebirth of our nation following the attacks."

Sept. 11 stands out to Elizabeth Roberts for another reason: It was her first day as a professor in the McIntire Department of Music, having been hired three days earlier. She learned about the attacks while filling out paperwork.

"I walked to the Corner and found my way into Mincer's," she said. "I bought a couple newspapers to hunt for apartments, and while I was there, the radio was playing."

She heard then about the plane hitting the Pentagon. She called her father, a now-retired salesman in Washington who had accounts at the Pentagon. Her parents and grandparents were all safe, though they heard the explosions or saw the smoke from different locations.

"Throughout the week that followed, I was struck by how beautiful and clear blue the skies were," she said, "and how quiet everything was with all the trains and airplanes stopped. The tragedy felt surreal, in contrast to the peace and quiet of the Charlottesville community and the beauty of our mountain landscape."

— By Matt Kelly

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications