Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that changed our modern world. On this somber anniversary, Hillsdale’s faculty and staff members share their memories of that day.
Patrick Owens, assistant professor of classics, was in New York City that morning and watched the horror unfold.
“I grew up in New York City and was living there in September 2001. From our window just before 10 a.m., my roommate, neighbors, and I could see the second tower collapse.
Before the second tower collapsed, it was clear that the situation was grave. My friends and I knew people who worked at the World Trade Center, and I worked in lower Manhattan frequently. But when the second tower came tumbling down, the air was knocked out of me: I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t even stand.
As the clouds billowed and darkness enveloped the skyline, I prayed silently for everyone who had just died. Amid the chaos and confusion, no one could immediately comprehend what had occurred. But over the gory video of destruction and the cries of those around us, my prescient neighbor calmly whispered, ‘This changes everything.’
He was right, and we knew it instantly. That moment became a defining point for a generation, the flashpoint of two decades of war, and the coarsening of America.”
Michael Chambers, visiting assistant professor of English, was 15 years old and in a Virginia classroom that morning. He heard what was likely Flight 77 fly overhead before crashing into the Pentagon. He saw the crash site later that night.
“A little after 9 a.m., my tenth-grade English teacher opened our classroom door. I couldn’t see who had knocked, but I could hear a shaky voice whispering to her. When Mrs. Shkor rejoined us, she quietly said that two planes had just crashed into the Twin Towers, and that it was on the news and that she felt like we needed to see what was going on.
She left and came back in a few minutes, rolling a cart with a small TV set. My memory remains blurred for some time after that; I don’t recall whether we talked amongst ourselves, or what Mrs. Shkor told us, or how emotional I might have been.
What I do remember is that, while we were seeing the flaming towers crumbling and listening to the news reporting that seemed to repeat the same images and sound bytes over and over, I heard a plane fly close by. I recognized it as a commercial airliner — growing up in Arlington, Virginia, I spent countless evenings with my family sitting in the grass across the river from Reagan National Airport, watching airplanes take off and climb into the sky directly above our heads — and with the events unfolding on TV in front of me, I thought that this plane sounded oddly close to us and much too low to the ground.
Sometime after that, we were either told by Mrs. Shkor or saw on TV that a plane had slammed into the western side of the Pentagon, which is in Arlington, a mile down the road from where I lived.
I don’t remember if school ended early or not, but I do remember feeling something like a duty, or, responsibility, to not simply see what had happened in my own backyard on TV. I have a vivid and visceral memory of wanting to go see the Pentagon.
And after school, I did. I convinced my dad to ride his bike with me and my brothers up Columbia Pike to where its hill crests and it begins to descend down towards the Pentagon. Later, I would learn that the plane flew just dozens of feet above that very street we rode on. I remember my heart beating as we approached the top of that hill; the gaping hole and grey smoke pouring into the sky; and on the roof, amid the wrangled metal and scorched concrete and those heroes the first responders, I saw an American flag that shown here and there through the smoke. I know that I cried.”
Joe Banach, visiting professor in the economics and business administration department, lost a coworker that morning.
“On Sept. 11, 2001, I was managing a Raytheon Aerospace Program Manager and scheduled to fly from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and from Los Angeles to New York City. When I arrived at the Santa Barbara Airport, the first two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and my flights were canceled.
In that time, Stan Hall, a Raytheon marketing manager, who had changed offices with me 15 years prior, was on the plane from Boston that crashed into the Trade Center. He lost his life. A sad day.”
Jon Fennell, professor emeritus and former dean of social sciences, was boarding a flight at O’Hare International Airport that morning and remembers the eerie sights of planes parked everywhere, not taking off.
“I used to fly a lot for business purposes. Some years, I flew every week and in 2001 I was living near Chicago.
To catch my flight, which was going to San Antonio, I had to go to gate C28 or C30 which is toward the end of the C concourse. It’s almost impossible to find a quiet spot and read, and that’s because they have these television sets blaring away all the time.
Anyway, this was a very busy day for people. The TV sets were blaring as they normally do and I got to the gate area, and the flight was posted.
And all of a sudden I hear somebody tell their buddy, ‘A plane hit the tower in New York’ or something like that. And no one paid any attention.
As I’m standing there, at first, there’s no reaction. And as the minutes passed, you could feel a change in the air. It was sort of eerie. There was a kind of, I wouldn’t call it tension, but there was a kind of alertness that was growing, as the word was spreading in this very crowded terminal, that something happened in New York.
And then all of the sudden the TVs went off, and that never happens. So at that point, it was abundantly clear that something very unfortunate had occurred.
By now, everybody had their cell phones out. So, everybody knew that a big airplane hit one of the towers.
Our flight was boarding and at that point, I had to make a decision: Do I get on the plane or not?
Obviously, something has happened but I was not going to concede to it. I wasn’t going to let it interfere with my job and doing what I was supposed to do. So I got on the plane and I was the first one on.
I looked out the window, and it was very atypical. There were planes lined up all over the place. And one thing I couldn’t help but notice is that nobody was taking off.
I concluded by looking out the window that this plane is not going to San Antonio today. So I just got up and walked off the plane.
When I got back out into the gate area, many of the planes had boarded. But, looking out the window of the terminal, there were airplanes everywhere.”
Robert Rardin, assistant football coach, watched the events unfold from his classroom and spent the rest of the day mourning with his students.
“Shortly after the first Tower was struck, a fellow teacher and coach came in my room and turned on the TV that was mounted in the corner of the room. My class and I watched the coverage unfold.
Some students were attentive, some were uninterested. We talked about how such ‘an accident’ could occur, though many suggested something more premeditated. We were watching as the second plane struck.
I knew immediately what this meant and I loudly exclaimed, ‘My God, we are under attack!’
I will never forget the stunned silence of my students as they all looked at me and digested what I said and what they just saw. I am not sure how long the silence lasted, but at some point, students began to react. Some were in disbelief, some cried, others were angry.
The rest of the school day was in slow motion. The administration provided no guidance as to how to proceed with the school day. As I think back, how could they? They never discussed school policy/procedures when the U.S. would be attacked! Each teacher then handled things however they wanted.
Change of class bells continued to ring; students shuffled about in almost silence; the cafeteria served lunch. I allowed my classroom to become a gathering place for whoever wanted to be there. I did not take attendance, I did not have students go to their assigned classes.
We just sat and watched the news, cried, hugged, and vented. All I wanted to do was to leave and go pick up my daughters, Lisa, who was then 6 and graduated from Hillsdale in ’17, and Catherine, who was 3.
My other preeminent concern was about our football practice. I knew there was no way I could be an effective coach, but what would be best for the kids?
Finally, that decision was made for me when the superintendent announced all buildings would close at the end of the school day and all were to go home ‘and hug their families.’ I did just that.”
Brenna Wade, public services librarian, also watched the events at school, and remembers the feelings of patriotism and anger across the country in the following months.
“I was 16 and in high school in a small town in rural Illinois when the planes hit the two towers. I remember PE class the most, as there was a TV set up in the back concession area, and we could either play in the gym or watch the news in the back.
I alternated between watching the news and walking laps in the gym to pray and calm my nerves.
At lunch, I grabbed my brother, and we went home to eat and call our parents. They had gone up to the Chicago area to move my grandparents into an assisted living facility.
When I got a hold of my mom, they were so busy with the move, that they didn’t know what was going on. She said she saw something on the TV, but thought it was an accident.
They were planning to spend an extra night up north but came home that evening. They said the traffic was very light, and when they passed O’Hare Airport, it was eerie. All the planes were grounded, and not a single plane flew overhead.
I remember watching the news at home, seeing the footage of the planes crashing into the towers, watching the rescue efforts, hoping that they would find more people alive. I still cry when I remember people asking about their loved ones among the missing person signs.
In the days after 9/11, America was the most united that I have ever seen.
There were flags everywhere, God Bless America everywhere. Collections for the Red Cross. We all wanted to do something. Many men and women from my small hometown of roughly 1,000 people joined the military and fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I remember sitting in a Bible study in Waterman my freshman year, 2004, and overhearing a girl say they didn’t know anyone who was fighting, and it didn’t feel like we were at war. At that time, I could have easily rattled off about 10 names of people I knew who were fighting, had fought, or were in the military at that time, all from my hometown of roughly 1,000 people.
One man lost both his legs in Iraq. Another lost his life in Afghanistan.
Outrage and patriotism from 9/11 fueled those wars. 9/11 is one of those watershed events that you will never forget, similar to those who lived through Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination.”
Meghan Barnes, communications coordinator, remembers doing a double-take at the TV screen.
“I was a graduate teaching assistant in the fall of 2001 at the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. I had to be on campus Tuesdays, so I was always up those days at 7:30 a.m.
I lived in a one-room apartment and started every day the same: Wake up. News on. That morning was no different, only the news changed dramatically between the time I clicked on the TV and a few minutes later stepped out of the shower.
It took only a few seconds to realize that something different was happening on the screen. I remember doing a double-take, then stopping, watching, and trying to process the fact that a plane had flown into a World Trade Center tower. Then moments later I watched, incredulous, as another plane crashed into the second tower. I was stunned. Motionless. The next thing I remember is wondering whether I was actually watching live video of people jumping out of those buildings. I was.
I kept the news on until the absolute last second I could, then raced across campus on foot to the journalism building.
Dr. Gade decided not to cancel class that day, which the students thought was insane. Many skipped class. Many were just angry at him. I believe the towers crashed while we were in class, and I honestly only just realized that I didn’t watch this live — unless I was late to class, but that doesn’t seem likely.
The first tower crashed at 8:59 a.m. central time, the second at 9:30. I was in class from 9 to 10:15 a.m. So it must have been after class that I walked back over to the j‑school and stood just outside the main office, staring at their television, and watched what must have been a replay of the second tower falling.
That’s when I finally started crying. I raced to my tiny office on the second floor and shut the door. I probably called my mom.
The story didn’t subside for weeks. It was all we watched, all we read. For a moment, even in liberal academia, it was OK to be a patriot again.”