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Where were you on 9/11: students, professors and staff remember

Nick Blank

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Flags across the country were lowered to half staff in mourning of the victims of 9/11. Photo by Jenn Mello

Flags across the country were lowered to half staff in mourning of the victims of 9/11.
Photo by Jenn Mello

My 9/11 story is similar to most children at the time: I was in first grade and my teacher interrupted class to turn on the TV. I lived near a military base, meaning the school was locked down for a few hours. It’s foggy after that, but life continued. I didn’t process the magnitude of the events or the national aftershock– whether through security, the meaning of patriotism or the perception of Islam– to come.

Sophomores in high school were not alive when 9/11 happened; they’re learning about it in textbooks or conversations with parents. I approached UNF students aware that most would have little memory of the attack. They were at elementary or preschool, on their way to school (the first tower was struck 8:45 a.m EST) or at home. The shock hadn’t quite hit them either.

Aeythaniel Vasquez is a senior mechanical engineering major who lived in Queens, New York when he was six. Vasquez said he didn’t really observe any change in the city because of his age, but he remembered what that school day entailed.

“Everybody told us to duck and cover, turn off the lights, turn off everything. I was a kid, I was confused, so I didn’t really know why I got sent home and I realized what happened. ”

Sophomore Neil Duncan was walking to class when I asked him where he was on 9/11.

“I was at Disney World actually,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it went on lockdown. My dad told me about it, I don’t really remember. It was a pretty crazy day. I was 3 or 4. No one saw it coming, it’s definitely a turning point in America’s history for sure.”

Desiree Miller and Bailey Adams were sitting outside of the library,

“I was like 3, I didn’t really register the concept until later,” Miller said.

“I honestly don’t remember. It was more of a conversation [with my parents.]” Adams said.

“It’s funny how high schoolers are learning about that,” Miller said.

“Like through textbooks?” Adams wondered.

“Yeah.”

Then I talked to Anna Hofer, Melissa Parner and Farrah Nugent, who sat outside Alumni Square.

“I was in California, my arm was broken so I was sitting at home,” Hofer said.

“You remember that?” Nugent asked.

“Yeah I remember this very vividly. I was in the middle of the staircase looking down on the TV on the first floor. I didn’t have my cast yet and the swelling was going down. I remember watching the plane hit, I remember watching it all on TV. I was in first grade I think,” Hofer said.“I don’t think my mom wanted me to watch on TV but I snuck down and watched it. I remember my mom saying, ‘I’m glad we both stayed home today.’”

“I don’t remember, I wish I did though,” said Parner, who said she was in preschool at the time. “I had learned about it in third grade because a girl in my class, her dad worked at the Pentagon and he came in and told us about it.”

Nugent was roughly the same age as Parner.

“I was in school and my mom was trying to get us out,” Nugent said.

“Yeah my mom was trying to get us out too,” Parner said.

***

I also talked to two professors from different backgrounds.

English professor Mikayla Beaudrie was a fifth grader in Detroit and she had recently moved to a new school district. She heard about what had happened on the radio during her commute to school with her mother and brother.

“I remember being very bratty about it, like telling my mom ‘I want to go to school.’ My mom said that a lot of people were taking their kids out of school. It’s odd to look back on it now, but all I ever wanted to do was go to school. I didn’t register it at all. I went home and watched it on the news.”

The next day at school she described the impact that student’s comments about Muslims had on her.

“I remember the aftermath. We had just started the fifth grade and [at school] we gave a moment of silence and during the moment of silence one of the kids said something about Muslims and the teacher went off. That was kind of a learning moment for me. I didn’t realize that religion, race or ethnicity had anything to do with what had happened so that was the first time it was introduced to me the day after.

Dr. Eric Johnson, who specializes in Marine Biology, was in graduate school. He remembers talking to his brother and the confusion around about the events.

“I was at a research institute in Morehead City, North Carolina. I can remember being sort of numb a little bit. I called my brother and we were mad and we had a conversation,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t really any TVs where I was, so everything was just hearsay. There was a lot of uncertainty about what had happened.”

“I remember standing outside and being incredulous and calling my brother.”

“You thought it would be an ordinary Tuesday?” I asked.

“Right, no one ever would think that something like that would happen. “

He said 9/11 was “one of those moments that’s kind of frozen in time.” He compared it to the crash of the Challenger or the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a defining American tragedy.

***

UNF President John Delaney was the Mayor of Jacksonville from 1995 to 2003. He had dinner with President George Bush, on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before Bush received word of the attack in a Sarasota classroom.

In Delaney’s words:

“President Bush had been in Jacksonville on September the 10th. It’s obviously a big deal whenever the President comes to town. He asked me to fly with him to Tampa on Air Force 1 and ride with him to Sarasota in a motorcade to do something there the next day. I had dinner with him and eight other people in Sarasota. Someone came down to drive me back to Jacksonville, so I didn’t get back to Jacksonville until about 3 in the morning. I slept in the next day and I’m reading the paper about President Bush’s visit to Jacksonville. I didn’t have the TV on and my wife came running in she said ‘you don’t have the TV on? A plane hit one of the world Trade Center Towers.’ We kicked on the TV and then another plane hits the other tower. I remember thinking that [second plane] was intentional. You assumed the first one was an accident.

“I got a phone call from my chief of staff saying ‘you need to come down to City Hall and decide about security.’ I wasn’t thinking of my day job then, I was transfixed with the tragedy we were seeing. That was it, we went down to City Hall and the rumors were wild, there would be more terrorists attacks there would be poisoning of water reservoirs, you name it. I didn’t think that Jacksonville was necessarily going to be a target. Obviously the town was nervous, and the country picked up.

“It’s something that had never happened before, and you have to get your legs out from under you and lead the country. I saw him on TV the next day, he looked a heck of a lot different than he did the night before at dinner.

“Prior to that we didn’t really have security at City Hall you just walked in, it caused an awful lot of changes. President Bush was obsessed with keeping the country safe he didn’t want another attack on his watch.”

***

There are two large framed photographs on the back wall of Dawn Knipe’s office on the third floor of the Student Union. The first is the iconic photo of firefighters raising the American flag on Ground Zero. The second depicts Knipe waving out the window on the eighth floor where she worked at Pace University. One of the Trade Center towers sneaks into in the bottom right corner of the frame.

Knipe standing next to the photo in her office. Photo by Nick Blank

Knipe standing next to the photo in her office. Photo by Nick Blank

Knipe was walking to work about a block and a half away from the World Trade Center when the first plane struck. She worked in Student Affairs at Pace University (her office was three blocks away from the towers.) Students were exchanging textbooks and staff were eagerly anticipating another school year.

Living in New Jersey required Knipe to take the ferry to Manhattan and her usual route involved walking in the vicinity of the World Trade Center. Now the Student Government Business manager, Knipe lived in New York from 1977 to 2014. She recalled her 9/11 experience on what she thought would be just another brisk Fall Tuesday.

The first thing she remembered was the weather:

“I can totally remember that day, clear blue sky, cool air. It’s like summer’s over, fall is starting.

“The first thing I heard was that I was working on my way to work and I heard the plane crash.” (She points to Osprey Plaza), “It sounded like a plane would’ve crashed right here in the courtyard. It was that loud.

“Everybody was kind of running towards it, you get between buildings and you could see the World Trade Center. It is aflame and there are papers flying all over the place.

“The bottom peninsula of the island was covered in white dust.

“When the plane first hit a lot of people were in the street looking at the fire like, ‘What’s going on?’ Then when the building fell and a dust cloud engulfed the entire area and people didn’t know what to do. Nothing like that had ever happened.

“We didn’t have TVs in our office, it was just happening. We didn’t have [any] news or the internet. I didn’t see what happened until later in the day.

“A woman who had family in the Trade Center who was sobbing. She was uncontrollable. We told her not to fear the worst because we didn’t know what had happened. I’ll never forget that.

“From the front steps you can see it [the towers]. My office faced away from it. We don’t see that the World Trade Center falls, as the building starts going down. And in our office, it sounded like gunfire. Plus, because the building started coming down and from the dust cloud, people started running away. From [where I was] it looked like they were under attack.

“There were a dozen of us on that floor, because we thought it was under attack and the dust cloud was coming and the first bits of the dust cloud looked like a bomb going off, we all dived under tables saying, ‘Oh my God what are we going to do?’ We decided that if the building was coming down we needed to get to the ground floor. In the stairwell a student told us the building went down and it wasn’t gunfire.

“We waited downstairs and there was all this dust. We went to the bathroom, I remember us getting all these paper towels so we could breathe. They waited for some of the dust to clear and then they crossed the street to the gym.”

Knipe said that’s when the second building came down. Staff and students were huddled around TVs.

The boat ride home was where Knipe and other passengers on the ferry tried to registered what occurred.

“It was surreal. I think everybody was just in shock. I would take that boat ride or a similar one all the time, and people you know they talk and read the papers this and that. But this particular ride… how can I describe it? One of the great things about taking a boat ride from New Jersey to New York is the Skyline that you see and I really enjoyed the boat ride usually. But those two towers were part of the skyline as long as I was there. You look and instead of those buildings you just see this smoke coming up. It’s just like how could that be? It’s like if you walked to UNF one day and half the campus is just gone. So everybody is just kind of looking in shock and it was totally quiet. I remember that. I can remember the silence on that boat ride.”

On her first day back to work, her husband made a banner welcoming back students:

“From Canal Street South, it was closed only if you were emergency personnel. Buildings, businesses, everything was shut down. Our school was closed for close to ten days. I was bringing a banner in [to school] and it was all encased. On the corners there was the National Guard, with rifles. You really felt like it was a military zone. I was walking with this giant tube and some soldier searched me.

Knipe remember how New York tried to return to a semblance of normal but the effects remained.  

“The other thing I remember is the smell. For a few months actually. It was an electrical and nauseous smell. I can’t describe it. Everyone just tolerated it for a couple of months and every time you came onto the island it was like ‘Oh God,’ it was disgusting.”

Finally, Knipe kept in contact with the Pace University staffers she shared the day with.

“There was a group of five of us that spent that day together. We still talk, although I’ve kind of lost touch with two of them, three of us on Sunday we’ll be on Facebook and texting. For a few years after that we would have breakfast that morning every year on 9/11 but our lives kind of separated. But I still keep in touch with the people I was with that day.”

For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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Where were you on 9/11: students, professors and staff remember