Most knew after a friend or co-worker told them to turn on the television. Some happened to be watching in time to see the second strike. GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg found out when he heard the bang.
As the blinds lifted to reveal the blaze from the angled building, Trachtenberg said the mood of a room of military men turned to shock. A once calm meeting of a Navy advisory board turned to a communications center for men frantic to connect to family, to friends, to the office.
One night later, thousands of GW students filed into the Quad more calmly than they had run from classes the day before. They, too, were looking to connect, but to a group farther out of reach.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought many lessons. A world power learned what it means to be vulnerable. Universities learned the pitfalls of crisis plans. And a college-age generation learned its strength lies where youth strength has always resided: in its resilience.
New Kind of Crisis
During her 10 years at GW, University Police Director Dolores Stafford said she has handled 15 to 20 true emergencies. Fires and floods are difficult to predict but simple to plan for because the path to safety is clearly defined. That wasn’t the case Sept. 11.
“In all of the other crises, the most clear variable we’d always had is what the crisis is,” Stafford said. “We were making decisions (on Sept. 11) but not knowing where students would be safest.”
GW had an advantage responding to the attacks that few universities shared: its crisis team was already assembled that morning for a meeting on a scheduled campus closing later that month.
As soon as the Pentagon was struck, Mike Freedman, who heads the crisis team, huddled with another vice president and decided to cancel classes without evacuating buildings. That’s when they ran into their biggest obstacle of the day.
“We were ready with what we wanted to say, but conveying it took hours,” said Freedman, vice president for communications.
Cellular networks were jammed, regular phone lines were clogged and the crisis team found its main method to communicate to the community disabled.
“Phone calls that should have taken second sometimes took hours,” Freedman said.
Unconfirmed media reports during the first hour of crisis added another shock to the system, raising questions the crisis team could not answer.
“There was no way to confirm any of the information you’re hearing,” said crisis team member Craig Linebaugh, who walked the campus to tell deans about the canceled classes. “You hear that the Pentagon is hit, but your initial reaction is that’s impossible. Just like it was impossible that the World Trade Center was hit.”
A University Police officer driving by the Pentagon relayed the news about the attack in D.C., and local media added stories of bomb threats throughout the city. Knowing only that the city was under attack in some way, officials made their “best educated guess” about student safety, Stafford said.
Before Sept. 11, Freedman said, “the closest one might have come to a University-wide disaster would have been a blizzard.”
University Police had never looked at D.C.’s emergency management plan before – Stafford said she didn’t know one existed – and emergency plans did not include biomedical attacks. Procedures for handling suspicious packages were incomplete and not widely distributed. And the Community Living and Learning Center relied on phones to reach residence halls in case of an emergency. That has all changed.
“It was a wake-up call not just for GW, but to D.C., and really everybody in America,” Freedman said. “We were not as prepared as we should have been as a country, as a society.”
Freedman relates it to a “comfort level” Americans enjoyed after the Cold War. Trachtenberg calls it a “false sense of security.” Most agree they were caught off guard.
“We knew there were bad guys out there,” said Linebaugh, associate vice president of academic affairs. “But we thought those bad guys were doing things to embassies in Africa, to ships restocking somewhere in Israel, in the Tokyo subway.”
New federal aviation regulations, postal mishandlings and a frenzy of new laws on terrorism highlight how far the level of surprise spread.
Trachtenberg said no one, including federal and city governments, anticipated a crisis as large as Sept. 11.
“I don’t think it’s fair to GW to say we should have been ahead of all these different groups,” Trachtenberg said.
Stafford said GW is now on the “radar screen” of D.C. Emergency Management and has access to city crisis preparation. CLLC now uses closed-circuit radios to reach community directors in emergencies, and Trachtenberg hopes to hire his own director of homeland security this month.
Asked how much money GW is willing to spend for the new position – and on ideas such an possible intercom system connecting GW buildings – Freedman said the University “will do what it has to do” to provide security.
“We understand we need to be ready for anything,” crisis team member Linda Donnels said.
GW’s student population has taken in stride a national tragedy that partly played out in its backyard, organizing campus-wide candlelight vigils for Sept. 11 victims, lining up to donate blood and setting a tone of acceptance on a campus with a large international student presence.
A week of live broadcasts of CNN’s “Crossfire” on campus gave students an outlet to discuss terrorism and a pending war in Afghanistan.
“I am struck by how resilient college students are,” said Donnels, dean of students. “Part of it is that (they) tend to feel invincible . College students have been able to get on with their lives faster than people who are older. It’s a better place to be.”
Dr. Diane DePalma, director of the GW Counseling Center, said her office has received a flood of students seeking guidance to help them through a national tragedy.
“We’ve been very busy,” she said.
Despite its sizable population of New Yorkers, the University reports no students or staff members lost an immediate family member to the attacks.
“That was the first question I had when I got home,” said Mike Gargano, associate vice president for the Student Activities Center. “Knock on wood, thank God; it’s still hard to believe that with all the lives that were lost we did not lose a single relative.”
But like many students, Gargano did lose a close friend, local businessman and season ticket-holder for Colonial basketball Steve Jacoby. He said his work comes first but he finds time to grieve.
While students and staff members often want to return to their normal lives without dwelling on the past, DePalma said it is important they realize Sept. 11 is now a “piece” of their lives.
“Do not expect this to go away quickly,” she said. “This is not the kind of event where you can say, ‘OK, this is over.’ We don’t have to fear those feelings, and we don’t have to fear they are going to interfere. But we do need to integrate them into our life.”
On the same note, DePalma said, students should use the structure of their normal routines to exercise a “healthy denial.”
Linebaugh said students and professors have offered as much as they feel comfortable sharing about Sept. 11, and the healing process seems to be taking root:
“We’ve absorbed this enormous shock, we’ve absorbed this hit on our national security,” he said, “but by God we’re not going to let it steal our lives.”