When terror shocked the District and shattered New York City on Sept. 11, the University was forced to piece together a plan of action – one that focused on recovery.
“A lot of what needed to be done was symbolic and optical and psychological,” then-University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said. “Since we hadn’t actually been hit, there was no physical issue that could be addressed. What had to be addressed was apprehension, fear.”
GW cancelled classes for the remainder of the day after the World Trade Center and Pentagon suffered attacks. Cell phones proved useless as phone lines across the District jammed, making communication challenging for students, families and University officials.
Shortly after the planes struck, the University Police Department suspected two questionable packages at the Marvin Center were bombs, while Ross Hall received a bomb threat, but a sweep found all harmless. A bomb threat at the next-door Wyndham Hotel evacuated The Aston residence hall.
Administrators decided at about 6:30 p.m. to hold classes the following day. To beef up security, UPD boosted patrols across campus, then-UPD Chief Dolores Stafford said. Officers and staff checked GWorlds outside of the Marvin and Academic centers.
“It was an incredibly scary time,” Stafford said. “You just had no idea, and certainly being where we are we all felt incredibly vulnerable. Our heart rates were going a mile a minute.”
Trachtenberg, who was on the board of the Chief of Naval Operations, was sitting in a dark room at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. The board was peering over slides with the blinds and door shut – until somebody walked in and mentioned a crash at the Twin Towers.
The lights and television switched on, blinds were pulled open and the entire room watched the screen as the second plane collided into the other tower, he said.
“The first plane went in, and we thought, my God, talk about pilot error. But the second plane went in and we knew this was intentional, the country was under attack,” Trachtenberg said.
Earlier that morning, his meeting was relocated to an across-the-street facility, because the conference room within the Pentagon where the group had planned to meet was being painted. He said some speculated the plane that slammed the Pentagon destroyed the original room.
Trachtenberg said it took him several hours to return to campus, as a cluttering of national guards and an exodus out of the city created gridlock, clogging streets with traffic. Once he arrived, he stayed put, only leaving Foggy Bottom to shower.
GW Hospital treated 12 patients who suffered injuries at the Pentagon by the afternoon of Sept. 12. Hospital leaders – as well as the rest of GW’s employees – concentrated on maintaining the University’s operations and services, Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak said.
“It was really a focus on what we could control in trying to maintain some normalcy here,” Chernak said. “Everyone just did what it is they were supposed to do.”
The trying day that transformed national security is also one that spurred administrators to implement sweeping changes to GW’s crisis management plan – by creating one.
By December 2001, Trachtenberg hired a former Navy captain to examine the University from top to bottom. Assistant Vice President for Public Safety and Emergency Management John Petrie was tasked with creating GW’s first disaster preparation, response and recovery plan from scratch.
“We prepared people differently, and we implemented a variety of technical and personal changes,” Trachtenberg said. “Documents were developed to try and anticipate the worst so that people didn’t have to improvise.”
A decade later, University officials said GW is far better equipped to deal with a catastrophe, with its Campus Advisories website, comprehensive incident manuals and the Alert D.C. text messaging service the University signed up for in 2006 to spread information during emergencies.
Over 14,000 individuals are currently signed up for GW-related Alert D.C. notifications, Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell said. That number was just 7,000 in April 2008.
Nationwide, security groups began looping one another in to coordinate efforts and share intelligence, Darnell and UPD Chief Kevin Hay said. Hay, who stepped into his role last year after 26 years as a Park Police officer, said Sept. 11 was a defining moment in his career.
“As time goes by, its easy to forget the intensity of 9/11/01. For many in this country, it was just something that happened on CNN,” Hay said. “In my view, the work started on 9/11 will never really be ‘over,’ as a country, we continue to evolve and improve our ability to protect each other.”