Looking Back at an American Tragedy

Black and white image of the NYC skyline

It was a day like no other.

Students and faculty who had early classes were just starting to arrive at IU’s campuses on Sept. 11, 2001. Those who turned on their TV or radio, or logged onto a news website, learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:45 a.m. ET. Within 18 minutes, another plane would smash into the second tower. Within an hour, a plane would slam into the Pentagon, another would plunge into a field in rural western Pennsylvania, and the twin towers would collapse.

Those at IU watched or heard the news in horror. Meanwhile, thousands of workers and tourists, including several IU alumni, headed to the WTC or the Pentagon or were already there.

The following first-person accounts, written just weeks after 9/11, are unique perspectives from that devastating day. These stories were originally published in the November/December 2001 IU Alumni Magazine and on the IU Alumni Association website. You’ll also find the reflections we asked those same IU alumni to write in 2023—more than two decades after the American tragedy.

Life as We Know It Has Changed

By Evelyn (Ellison) Twitchell, BAJ’94

Dow Jones newsroom covered in soot after 9/11
Dow Jones newsroom in the World Financial Center after 9/11. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Twitchell.

I was on a train pulling into Grand Central Station at about 9:15 a.m., part of my regular commute to work, when the conductor announced, “There’s been a terrible accident downtown, so any of you headed that direction might want to consider alternatives.”

I work in One World Financial Center, which is across the street from what was One World Trade Center. I had to get to work. I had written the main feature for our website that day. It needed to be edited before it was posted Tuesday evening. So, I headed for the 4,5,6 subway line.

As I walked through Grand Central, I heard a woman say, “It just makes me sick to my stomach.”

“What happened?” I asked her.

“A plane flew into the World Trade Center.”

Wow. I’m thinking it was some kind of prop plane. And I hoped it didn’t hit too many floors. I knew that the World Trade Center had withstood a bomb, so what was to follow never occurred to me.

I got on the subway and headed downtown. On the train, some people were talking about the World Trade Center. But others were just reading their morning newspapers. I picked up a section of the Wall Street Journal and tried to focus on what happened in Monday’s stock market. Then, a woman a few feet away from me burst into screams.

“Oh my God!” she shrieked. “I have to get off this train. My daughter works in the World Trade Center.” And she fell to the floor.

I got off the subway one stop north of my normal exit. Outside, there was a crowd of people.

I began making my way toward my office and then realized that many people were there because the police had pushed them away from the scene. I asked an officer if surrounding buildings had been evacuated, and she told me to turn around and go the other direction. I ignored her. I couldn’t just skip work on deadline day without at least trying to find out if people were still working in my building.

I got within a few blocks of the World Trade Center. Then there was a sound like thunder. It grew louder, and I feared it was another plane. I looked up, and I could see a dark gray cloud of smoke cascading down the sides of the World Trade Center, the way the smoke from dry ice pours downward. For the first time, I realized it was real—and I feared for my life.

People were screaming. I think I heard someone yell: “It’s coming down.” And I started running.

People said the scene on TV looked like what happens when a bomb goes off. And that’s exactly what it was.

I kept running for several blocks. Luckily, I was wearing tennis shoes with my black dress that day. I wondered if people in high heels or older people would be trapped in the smoke.

I started to look for a pay phone to call my husband and tell him I was okay. But each pay phone had a swarm of 10 to 20 people around it.

At about 12:30 p.m., I decided I should get out of downtown. A continuous stream of people were walking north—to where, I don’t know. Just away.

One man was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and had ash all over him. It was impossible to tell how old he was because his hair was white from the ash. It seemed like someone should be helping him, so I asked him if he was okay. He said he was fine, and that he had come from the 22nd floor of the World Trade Center. I couldn’t think of what to say to him, so I told him I was glad he made it out.

Eventually, I got through to Grand Central Station and found out that limited train service had been restored. I walked there. By this time, I just wanted to get out of NYC entirely.

Grand Central was relatively empty. I think other people were afraid to go there, too. But the train was full. When it emerged from the Grand Central tunnels, I was relieved. I have never been so thankful to reach the Harlem/125th Street train stop. I realized it was after 2:30 p.m., and I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day, so I ate an apple that was in my bag. I felt strangely guilty for doing something so normal.

As I got off the train in my town, Bronxville, I thought about one man’s comment: “The world, as we know it, has just ended.”

I will not be able to go back to my office for a while. I dread the time when we will return. Every day my coworkers and I will have to walk past what was the World Trade Center and is now a tomb.

22 Years Later …

I was incredibly lucky not to have lost anyone I knew. This was even more remarkable given the fact that I worked in One World Financial Center at the time.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I worked from my home in Westchester County, N.Y., for several months while One World Financial Center underwent repairs. The windows had blown out during the collapse of the Twin Towers, and the offices in my building were covered with debris and asbestos.

When we eventually did return to Manhattan for work, I had the first panic attack of my life on the way into the office. I was scared to be near skyscrapers. I was likely experiencing post-traumatic stress, like many others who lived through the events of that day. This marked the beginning of anxiety issues that I continue to manage 22 years later.

The biggest impact on my life, however, is that 9/11 showed me firsthand that life is short, so it’s important to live it with intention. My husband, Robert Twitchell, BS’94, and I decided to start our family in early 2002, and our son was born that November. Within a few years, we chose to leave New York and return to Indiana to live closer to our parents. Sept. 11 taught us to prioritize our loved ones.

SPEA Class Survives Attack

By Eric Moody, MPA’05

Pentagon on fire on Sept. 11, 2001
The Pentagon on 9/11. Photo courtesy of Eric Moody.

A Navy bus picked us up at the hotel and took us to the Pentagon. The first meeting of the day was scheduled for 9 a.m., with Susan Livingstone, undersecretary of the Navy. We met in conference room 5E490 in the newly remodeled section of the Pentagon. This room is on the fifth floor off hallway E between Corridors 4 and 5.

The undersecretary began speaking to us immediately upon our arrival, informing us that just a few minutes earlier terrorists had attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center in NYC by hijacking two planes and flying them into the towers. At that point, it dawned on me that we could be in a targeted area. I said a short prayer.

Livingstone wrapped up her talk in short order and began a Q&A session. She was in the middle of answering the first question when it hit. It was 9:35 a.m.

A large blast shook the entire room. Several of the panels from the suspended ceiling fell to the floor, and the light fixture in the middle of the room came crashing down on the conference room table. Smoke began filling the room.

As we began to exit the conference room, a few people attempted to head down hallway E to the right. Someone opened the stairwell door directly outside the conference room, only to discover the stairs had been demolished, and thick, black smoke filled the area. Others headed down hallway E to the left. They informed a group of Pentagon employees heading toward them that their normal evacuation route was blocked and encouraged them to head in the opposite direction.

The confusion and congestion in the hallway forced several of us to remain in the conference room for a short time, probably less than a minute. We were forced to cover our mouths and noses to prevent smoke inhalation.

We continued to make our way slowly down hallway E, dodging fallen light fixtures and other debris that had fallen to the floor. I heard someone yell, “Watch your step—there’s a step down right here.” The entire structure beneath us had given way, causing the floor to separate. As we reached the next corridor (Corridor 4), we realized the lights were out. For the first time, I began to be concerned about whether I would make it out alive.

There seemed to be silence, just for an instant. Fortunately, a Pentagon security official ahead of us was directing traffic. I heard him tell us to grab onto the person ahead of us and keep walking in his direction.

Once we were a safe distance away from the building, we stopped to be sure everyone was accounted for. Somehow, our whole group was able to get out of the building without injury, all within a period of 20 minutes.

We heard that a third hijacked plane had crashed into the Pentagon, causing the explosion. The plane crashed into the first three stories of the Pentagon between Corridors 4 and 5 and penetrated three layers deep. We were almost directly above—not more than 50 feet away from the area of impact.

A Hoosier’s View from Ground Zero

By Jan Carl Park, MA’75

I was up north of the city, in Westchester County, N.Y., when the attacks occurred. As soon as we heard the news, a group of us who work together and live in Manhattan immediately tried to return to the city. At the time, we didn’t know that all roads and bridges leading into and from Manhattan were blocked by police and the military.

Determined to return to our homes, even if we had to walk, my colleagues and I got together and, riding in one car, drove as close to the city border as we could get. The main highways leading into Manhattan were the scenes of massive traffic jams, in some places 25 miles long. We chose to take back roads and side streets until we couldn’t get any closer to the border of Westchester County and Manhattan. We parked the car and walked several miles to the nearest subway station, where we waited with thousands of other people for any train that was returning to the city. It took us over three hours to get home.

The train we were riding on, full of anxious, worried people, slowly, stop by stop, made its way into Manhattan, only to be halted about a mile north of our homes—most of my colleagues live in Chelsea, about a mile and a half from the Trade Center. We walked the remaining distance from Times Square, south, into clouds of choking smoke. The streets were empty of traffic, and we noticed abandoned cars, buildings, and trees covered with a fine coat of white ash. We were haunted by the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens. Traffic lights were out, and some neighborhoods had no power. TV and radio stations were knocked out—only cable TV was working. Every major intersection was guarded by police and, later in the day, by soldiers with rifles. For hours, the only traffic consisted of fire trucks, ambulances, military vehicles, and police cars.

Many people were walking home from jobs they had been dismissed from, choosing to walk because they feared being underground in the subways. On the way home, we noticed workers from small grocery stores and fruit stands handing people free water—people were afraid that the water supply had been contaminated. The hospitals were crowded with friends and relatives of people who worked in the trade center, over 50,000 workers, searching for any bit of information about their missing loved ones. Others rushed to the hospitals to give blood, but the lines were so long—about a five-hour wait—that people were given numbers and asked to return on Wednesday.

When I finally arrived home, I could hear dogs barking in the apartments of my neighbors who hadn’t, and haven’t, returned home from their jobs at the Trade Center. Myself, the building superintendent, and my neighbors are taking turns feeding and walking the dogs, not knowing what else to do. I, like everyone else, immediately started calling my friends, but the phones and cell phones were not working. On foot and on my bike, I went to my friends’ homes to find out what happened to them. When I found a friend home, it was with happiness and relief that we comforted each other and then set out to search for other friends, some safe and others missing.

Nine Days at Ground Zero

By Les Wadzinski, BS’73

Two men at ground zero after 9/11
Les Wadzinski, left, at ground zero after 9/11. Courtesy photo.

Sometime on or around September 11, 1971, I was sitting in a classroom in the IU HPER. My aspiration was to land a job in one of our nation’s magnificent national parks or forests as a federal park ranger, and indeed I eventually met that goal. Little did I realize, that my aspiration would 30 years later place me at the site of one of the most horrific events in American history.

I currently work for the U.S. Forest Service and serve as the recreation program manager for Indiana’s own Hoosier National Forest. My primary duties include managing the trails, campgrounds, and other recreational opportunities, but as in many job descriptions there is also the proverbial clause of “other duties as assigned.” In the forest service, that generally means fighting forest fires and assisting in other emergency response efforts.

It was through that avenue that ten days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks I found myself in lower Manhattan at the corner of West and Vesey streets, now better known as ground zero. I had volunteered to help a group of specialists, known as an incident management team, whose usual mission is to manage large forest fires. They had been called to assist the New York Fire Department (FDNY) with logistics and planning for the ground zero relief effort.

My assignment was to provide what is known as “resource check-in and tracking.” This is a technique borrowed from large western forest fires where thousands of personnel must be assigned and accounted for over large areas for weeks on end.

When I arrived, approximately 900 firefighters were reporting to ground zero every day, coming in three shifts of 300 each time. They needed to be accounted for upon arrival and given work assignments, and that became my job for the next nine days.

My fourteen-hour day would start every morning at about 5:45 a.m., in the lobby of a hotel near Times Square. I might add this was a drastic change in lodging from the usual tent I would sleep in on a western fire assignment. I would be paired up with another relief worker and we would catch a van ride to the Duane Street Fire Station in lower Manhattan. The drive could take close to an hour as we navigated through traffic, roadblocks, checkpoints, and the cheering well-wishers that lined West Street around the clock. Upon arrival, we would check in at the command post located at the fire station, be briefed by the team that worked the night shift, pick up the latest maps and shift plans, and start walking the several-block gauntlet to ground zero.

The first order of business was to stop at the local Starbucks coffee shop, which was one of the few businesses still open in the area. There was free coffee for ground zero workers, and you could certainly tell who we were just by looking at us or smelling us. We wore several photo IDs, hard hats, goggles, fire-retardant clothing, carried respirators, and our clothes usually smelled like ground zero, which was not a good smell. We would pick up coffee for ourselves and the fire chiefs because we quickly learned that little things like a hot cup of coffee went a long way at ground zero. We would then pass through a maze of checkpoints where our photo IDs were closely scrutinized by a variety of law enforcement personnel.

As we approached ground zero, the air became foggy from the smoke, our eyes burned from the fumes, and the air took on a nasty smell similar to a burning carpet recently doused with water. The noise level increased dramatically the closer you got. This was a massive operation that reflected the noise from many large diesel generators, heavy cranes lifting huge steel beams, large trucks moving debris, sirens from emergency vehicles, helicopters overhead, and the constant squawk of two-way radios. One also needed 360-degree vision to watch out for emergency vehicles, heavy equipment, and hazardous areas where falling glass and debris were still a problem.

Debris filled city streets for blocks and was piled several stories high. The World Trade Center towers were made mostly of concrete, steel beams, and glass, yet only dust and twisted metal remained. I saw very little glass, no pieces of concrete, and surprisingly no office equipment. Such items were occasionally found, but I personally never saw even a chair, file cabinet, or a piece of a computer. This is amazing when one considers each of those 110-story buildings occupied about an acre of ground. The equivalent of 220 acres of offices disappeared almost without a trace. Sadly, thousands of the occupants met the same fate.

By 7 a.m., we would eventually make it to a tent that served as a command post at the corner of West and Vesey streets, directly kitty corner to where the north tower once stood. We would relieve our night shift counterparts who would have been on duty since 7 p.m., the previous night. Soon, approximately 300 firefighters would appear, bused in from Shea Stadium. We would check them in and make assignments based on the chiefs’ direction. While it seemed routine to us, the fire department must have been impressed. After one particularly chaotic morning, one of the chiefs sought us out to thank us and said we were accomplishing in 30 minutes what would normally take them three hours to do. That made our day.

Other duties included assisting the FDNY in any way we could. In some cases, these duties could be heart-wrenching. In our work area was a large box of American flags, and we would be asked to get one when the remains of a firefighter or police officer were recovered. The temporary morgue was just around the corner, and a small ceremony would be held on the street in front of our tent. The remains would be placed in a body bag on a stretcher, draped with the American flag, and marched down the street. Every firefighter in the area would stop what they were doing, line up on either side of the street, and stand at attention as the stretcher-bearers came to a stop. Upon command, they would salute in unison, the stretcher-bearers would then continue to the morgue, and everyone would go back to work until the next one was found.

The heart-wrenching scenes were not isolated to that area. A memorial was set up near the Hudson River, honoring fallen firefighters and police officers. Near this same spot, the family members of victims were brought down to ground zero to experience the only closure they may ever get, given that so many people were gone without a trace. This was like being at a nine-day funeral.

I learned that the FDNY is a very close-knit group, very much like family. They represent generations of firefighters, and most had friends, brothers, sons, cousins, and even fathers in “the pile,” as the debris area came to be called.

22 Years Later …

Since 9/11, I’ve visited New York City twice. In 2005, I visited with my wife and daughter, and in May 2022, my wife and I visited the 9/11 museum for the first time. Since I was a rescue/recovery worker, I got free admittance and didn’t have to wait in line. We spent hours there and I found it to be very accurate and representative of what my experiences were. We also visited the FDNY Duane Street Station (Engine 7-Ladder 1). That was the command center I worked out of. The amount of death and destruction all in one place is what I remember from 9/11. I had been around burned neighborhoods and the rare fatality due to forest fires, but it was nothing like this. The debris pile was four stories high and occupied 15 acres.

New York City Alumni President Checks In

By Barry Gellers, BA’81

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, seemed to be just another day in New York City.

I was on the subway around 9 a.m. As the train pulled into the Fulton Street Station, I noticed people running from the south exit to the north exit. I wondered if something had happened at the token booth. When the train stopped and the doors opened, people ran into the train with a look of absolute terror on their faces. I had never seen anything like it before. I know now that the second plane had just crashed into the south tower, but then I couldn’t imagine what had frightened them so much. They said, “Don’t go out there, the towers are on fire.”

Being curious, I went out the north exit and saw the top of the north tower on fire. That’s all I could see from where I stood. I had no idea what was happening at the south tower. People were running around the streets of Broadway and Fulton, scared out of their minds. I then walked two blocks east to my office. When I arrived, I began listening to the radio for more details.

Suddenly, around 10 a.m., there was a big noise and our building shook. I know now that the south tower had collapsed. We quickly walked down the stairs and when we reached the lobby, the debris from the south tower was flying east toward the river. You couldn’t see anything past the front doors except grey soot. We were led downstairs to a side entrance onto William Street, and I began to walk north. I could see about 30 feet in front of me.

As I began walking outside, I realized I could be a sitting duck. I then turned very stoic and decided that if nothing else would happen, I would walk all the way north to the 59th Street Bridge into Queens and then walk onto Northern Boulevard toward my apartment in Flushing, about 18 miles. And with all the dust, I assumed it would be days before we would be able to re-enter our building if it was still there.

About one mile north, the dust finally cleared. By the time I had reached Houston Street, the north tower had gone down. I kept walking but I would look behind and see smoke and no towers. It was scary.

I reached the bridge and walked another 30 blocks in Queens before getting a bus back to Flushing. It had been almost three hours since I had left the office.

My parents live around the corner from me, so to see them was my first stop. I had called and left a message on their phone about halfway through the walk so they would know I was okay and not to worry.

Over the next few days, I received many calls from IU alumni from all over the country, as well as other friends and family, wondering if I was okay.

I have lived my entire life in NYC. Nothing could have prepared me for the past two or three weeks. Military patrolling lower Manhattan. The dust that is still prevalent. I am battling congestion that I am sure is a result of the soot. But compared to the thousands of people who lost their lives, a small price.

Eventually, things will get back to normal in lower Manhattan visually, but in our minds, it may never return to normalcy. It has been a good reminder to tell people you love them, to forgive others unconditionally, and to not complain that your sports teams are losing.

22 Years Later …

It will forever be the craziest day of my life. When I think of 9/11, my friend Mike Ferugio comes to mind. He didn’t work in the towers but was attending a meeting that day at Windows of the World—a restaurant at the top of the North Tower.

One ironic thing happened. That day, I walked up Third Avenue. I had no idea that I would be buying an apartment seven years later located between 28th and 29th Street. I have walked that same block countless times over the past 15 years.

Late to Work … and Still Alive

By Marlene Lundberg, BA’64, MA’66, PhD’81  

Teddy bear and a plaque holding a chunk of steel from the World Trade Center
“In recognition of our loss, each of us received a comforting teddy bear and a plaque holding a two-inch chunk of steel from the fallen WTC,” Lundberg says. Courtesy photo.

The announcement said that the local train at Chambers Street was not running because of a fire at Cortlandt Street. It was a little after 9 a.m., and I was on the subway headed to work at 7 World Trade Center. I thought, “Oh, another one of those subway fires. (They occur often enough, causing delays on the trains). I’ll have to walk the rest of the way.”

When I came up out of the subway five blocks north of the WTC complex, the streets were filled with hundreds of people halted on their way to work, standing in the middle of the street and looking south. I looked up and saw black holes ripped into the two white towers. There were flames, but not all that many. Then I heard the towers had been hit by airplanes. One plane might be an accident, but two certainly meant terrorism. I realized that people on the floors where the planes hit must certainly be dead. And those poor people on the floors above the flames. How would they get past?

Someone said there were sprinklers in the towers and the fires would stop. Indeed, it looked like the flames were dying down. I thought, “Well, they’ll go out. Repairs will be made, and, in time, people will still be able to work on the floors below.”

I realized that many of my colleagues were already in 7 WTC, and that surely they must be leaving. (My building was just north of the Towers, across the street.) Then I remembered that three of our former colleagues worked in those tall towers. I was afraid they wouldn’t make it out.

The flames started spreading a bit and people started running toward me in a panic. I ran, too.

While I was on Broadway, another explosion occurred. We saw the clouds of white smoke and dust flooding across at street level a few blocks south, but black skyscrapers blocked my seeing the source of the explosion. We started running again. Minutes later, someone said the south tower had collapsed. That I doubted.

I headed back west before resuming my northward trudge and reached the street where I could see again. I looked back. Incredibly, there was only one tower standing.

I continued north, with hundreds, no doubt thousands, of other people, intermittently looking back. I saw three little black stick figures falling from the remaining tower—souls who had jumped or fallen. Minutes later, I looked back again, and in a matter of seconds, the second tower collapsed. Unbelievable. Impossible. That huge, amazing human achievement which must have taken years to build just dropped, in only seconds. And it didn’t make all that much noise from where I stood, just a rushing sound. Then I remembered the valiant rescue workers who had hurried past with sirens, all of them probably crushed under the fallen giants.

I kept walking north. After about two hours, I tried to get a ride. A limo driver stopped, and thinking it was wasteful to have only one passenger when hundreds were on foot, I called for other people to join me. Two were coming when the driver angrily roared off with the door still open. Eventually, I found another cab and was able to take on two other passengers. I finally arrived home at about 12:45 p.m. It had taken me nearly four hours.

At about 2:00 p.m., I heard that 7 World Trade Center, too, was in jeopardy of collapsing. It seemed unbelievable that our chrome and glass, brownish-pink granite building would be at such risk. No plane had hit. I couldn’t figure out why. I kept watching TV for news of it and saw the gray and black smoke pouring out. Finally, at about 5 p.m., I saw it fall. A hole in my stomach. A hole in the skyline. Our building was gone.

22 Years Later …

Back in 2001, I was working as a corporate credit analyst for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) at 7 WTC.

In the 24 hours after the attack, our employer learned bit by bit that each of us had survived. But some colleagues, viewing from our 19th-floor office only a block away, had been traumatized by seeing desperate victims escaping the flames by plunging 90 stories headfirst. And, at street level, one colleague had risked [their life] to evacuate little tots from a daycare center at the site.

Even after a month of burning, and even from the Upper West Side, seven miles away, I could still smell the acrid smoke coming from the wreckage and burial site.

These stories were originally published in the November/December 2001 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine and on the IU Alumni Association website.

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