Ten years ago

Together, we faced the tragedy of our time

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Jim Hollander—EPA
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Then MIT President Charles M. Vest worked remotely from Banff, Cananda, to help coordinate MIT’s response to the September 11 attacks.
Photo courtesy of Charles M. Vest

Today’s MIT undergraduate population was at a delicate age on Sept. 11, 2001. Spanning the boundary between elementary school and junior high, we were old enough to understand what physically happened but far too young to fully comprehend the political and international significance of the attacks.

A lot has changed at MIT since then, but the memory of MIT’s response remains strong on campus. Some of those who were on campus 10 years ago remember how an already difficult day was made more complicated by the absence of two top senior administrators: Provost Robert A. Brown was across the country for a conference, and President Charles M. Vest wasn’t even in the country.

For the first time in his career, Vest was on vacation during the school year, celebrating birthdays with his wife and four other couples in Banff, Canada. On the morning of September 11, he saw the early reports on CNN but had to leave with his tour group before hearing more about the situation. Vice President and Secretary of the MIT Corporation Kathryn A. Willmore called him while he was on a boat in the middle of Lake Victoria, when he learned about the extent of the situation.

“I could not stop thinking about the irony of being in such a beautiful, pristine, natural place while slowly learning of the extent of the horror of the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania,” Vest said.

Continued conversation with MIT occurred via cell phone, landline, and “slow internet,” Vest said. He was able to call in to the key decision-making meetings, including the meeting where it was decided not to close the Institute. “In this, I was mindful that MIT had remained open in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941,” he said.

Back in the U.S., Dana A. Levine ’02, then The Tech’s editor in chief, woke up at his fraternity while his brothers watched the news unfolding on the TV. The gravity of the situation didn’t really hit him, he says, until he got to his 9:00 class. Levine opened his laptop to get the latest news; CNN’s servers were so overwhelmed, the news site only offered one page of information about the attacks, Levine said.

Meanwhile, Willmore was driving across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge when she heard the news on NPR. Her instinct, like many, was that this was just a horrible accident. Once she arrived at her office, however, she learned otherwise. Calls and emails from faculty and staff poured in, asking how best to support the MIT community. News on the television and on the internet, as well as reports from Campus Police and other schools, kept Willmore’s office up-to-date on the developments.

At about the same time, Chancellor Philip L. Clay PhD ’75 was in a Japanese delegation meeting; there was noticeable tension outside his office when the meeting let out around 9:30. Soon thereafter, Willmore called a meeting of MIT’s crisis team, a group of the senior administration, the Director of Human Resources, the Chief of Campus Security, and others.

Professor Robert P. Redwine, then the Dean for Undergraduate Education, made his way to the President’s conference room for this meeting. On his way, he ran into Alexander V. d’Arbeloff ’49, then the chair of the MIT Corporation, who had just finished a lecture at Sloan. After a brief chat, Redwine realized d’Arbeloff knew nothing of the attacks. “I said, ‘Look, there’s something very important going on — I’m heading to a meeting. I think you should come with me to this meeting,’ which he did, and on the way upstairs, which was only a minute or two, I tried to briefly tell him what was going on,” Redwine said.

A television broadcast the news for those assembled in the conference room. d’Arbeloff sat in a chair facing the television and watched as the station replayed footage of one of the planes hitting a tower. “The look on [d’Arbeloff’s] face, which was completely understandable, was just remarkable. His jaw just dropped; he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was a replay for most of us, but not for him,” Redwine said.

In the meeting, the team discussed what would be best for the Institute.

“As I recall, the meeting was quite focused, concentrating on reports from different areas and decisions regarding communications,” Willmore said.

“Our main concern was to establish a coordinated communication system so that students, faculty, and staff would know what was happening at MIT and what kind of support was available,“ she said. Willmore was the point person for this effort, working with Clay and Executive Vice President John R. Curry and remotely with Vest and Brown.

A web communications page was set up, and official messages, including some from Vest in Canada, were sent to the MIT community and students’ families throughout the day.

According to Redwine, “There were rumors that there were other targets, including possibly MIT, which wasn’t any crazier than what we were seeing. We tried to figure out what to do with classes and the community.” As a precaution, the Lincoln laboratory released nonessential staff for the day while the Green Building was evacuated by Dean of the School of Science Robert J. Silbey, according to The Tech back in 2001.

Added Redwine, “To be honest, almost all of us wanted to go home because it was a day you wanted to hug your children, literally. But we also realized that our students, especially the undergrads, couldn’t go home. They were here and so it hardly seemed right for everybody to just leave. So we had to maintain an appropriate presence on campus.”

To Clay, closing the school made no practical sense. With airplanes grounded, most students had little opportunity to go home. “They had nowhere to go,” he said.

So classes weren’t cancelled officially, but The Tech’s Levine decided he was done for the day. It was then that he walked over to the newsroom; he said he just wanted to “look into this more,” and considered publishing an extra issue.

After Chairman Jordan Rubin ’02 agreed with Levine’s idea, The Tech got to work on its first extra issue since Dec. 10, 1999. As impressive a feat it was for an issue to be laid out and published in less than 24 hours, Levine said that it wasn’t chaotic: “I don’t remember there being a lot of rush.” He estimated that he only had to call a couple writers to get enough material.

Jennifer B. Kehoe ’04 entered the newsroom, her usual lunchtime hangout. Many Tech members were using the free phones in the newsroom to call family and friends — cell phones were not as widespread on college campuses in 2001 as they are today. She had just sat through her public policy lecture after watching the coverage of the attacks; the instructor had spent the entire hour on environmental policy.

During the business-as-usual lecture, Kehoe says she could not help but think, “I cannot believe this. How are you not talking about this major public policy issue?”

The mood in the newsroom was different. Instead of the usual p-set study groups and TV shows mixed with layout work, Kehoe said everyone was focused on the extra issue. “On that day, people were trying to do something. We’re not firefighters. We’re not CIA agents.” According to Kehoe, doing something she knew how to do was comforting.

A photographer joined Kehoe, then a sophomore and news editor, and the two sat outside the offices of the senior administration, waiting for a chance to talk to them for her article.

“That was the only time I did that as a reporter,” Kehoe said.

That afternoon, she went to her combinatorics class, one of her favorite classes at MIT. That day, the lecture covered the pigeonhole principle.

“I just left,” Kehoe said. “I wasn’t in a place to hear about something called the pigeonhole principle.”

One of Kehoe’s clearest memories from that week was a sheet of butcher paper posted in McCormick Hall where students could express their emotions. She remembered seeing the Prayer of St. Francis, which includes the following segment:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

According to Kehoe, the prayer gave her comfort, even though she didn’t know who put it on that butcher paper.

“People were mostly in shock. [They] didn’t perceive the magnitude. I know I didn’t,” Levine said.

For Course 16 Professor Dava J. Newman PhD ’92, the shock was too close for comfort.

She was setting up for a 9:30 graduate aerospace class in 33-116 when she learned about the first plane crash. As Newman said, “Here I am, teaching a bunch of aerospace engineers” who were unaware of the horror unfolding in the skies.

As her lecture came to an end, she was met by a crowd of Course 16 students and faculty waiting to use the A/V equipment in the classroom to watch the news. At that point, “they had better knowledge of what happened than we did,” she said.

Newman was scheduled to be on American Airlines Flight 11 headed to Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 12 for a National Academy of Engineering conference. On Sept. 11, Flight 11 was the first plane to crash, flying straight into the North Tower.

Back in her office, Newman recalled feeling overwhelmed with this realization: “I was physically shaking. The ticket on my desk — it was there.”

Meanwhile, her husband, Guillermo Trotti, was in Trinidad. With the time difference, he said he “didn’t have his days right,” and grew concerned when he heard of Flight 11’s fate. He immediately tried to contact his wife, but “all the lines were busy. Everything was down. It was like trying to call South America 40 years ago. You just dial, dial, dial,” said Trotti, a native of Argentina. He was finally able to get in touch with Newman’s assistant, who reassured Trotti that Newman was safe.

When he finally got to talk to Newman, Trotti had a clear message: “My first instructions to her were, ‘You are not flying tomorrow. You are not going to that meeting.’” This was before they had heard of the grounded airlines.

Newman, on the other hand, felt that she still needed to go, but didn’t realize the state of air travel in the U.S. Yet she was traveling soon enough, flying to D.C. for another meeting within the next 10 days.

“It was strange going through the airport for the first time after the attacks,” she said. “There was not a feeling of safety.”

It took Trotti about a week to return to the States.

Vest also experienced frustrating delays. He and his wife cut their trip in Canada short and in less than a week got one of the earliest flights allowed across the border to Providence, RI. They then rented a car and drove the 50 miles to Boston.

“Vest was trying desperately to get back,” Redwine said.

“I had, and still have, strong feelings of guilt about not being on the campus at a time when I knew there would be much angst, confusion, anger, sadness, and need for discussion,” Vest said.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, as a spontaneous vigil on the steps of the Student Center came to an end, Willmore asked a number of faculty to come back to the President’s office to discuss what should be done about classes. “It was agreed to hold classes but with the understanding that faculty should feel free to use that time in whatever way they thought would be most helpful to students,” Willmore said.

According to Willmore, the group also decided to hold an official vigil on Sept. 12. Afternoon classes were cancelled in order to invite the entire MIT community, which Clay announced in an e-mail to the MIT community the night before.

Clay’s objective for the vigil was to hold an event “where everyone could come,” regardless of religion or nationality. His intended message, “teaching the community to embrace each other rather than run from each other,” stressed that nothing had changed in the community.

As he said in a MIT150 Infinite History interview in 2008, “part of the effort was to remind the community that we were an intentional community that had chosen each other, and that the relationships that existed so well on September 10th needed to be preserved. And it was very important on the afternoon of the 11th, to reach out to Muslim students, quite directly and quite substantially, for them to participate in the community activity, and that when we put together the panel of clergy, that we include a Muslim clergy as well.”

“Muslim students were really afraid. They wanted to be in a safe community … they just wanted to be MIT students!” Newman said.

Sergeant Cheryl N. Vossmer of the MIT Police said she remembers a Muslim student stopping her in Lobby 7 to ask if he and his wife were going to be safe.

While there was finger-pointing elsewhere in the country, Newman was proud that she sensed very little of that on campus: “Not at MIT. Our community’s here. We’re going to embrace everyone.” She remarked that the events brought different peoples together in an overall mood of tolerance.

Chaplain Robert M. Randolph had asked MIT Police to protect the Religious Activities Center in case of anger towards the Muslim community as a precaution, but there were never any issues. According to him, the purpose of the center, opened in 1995, was to build relationships amongst MIT’s religious communities. This, he said, contributed to MIT’s vibrant community that “accepted and honored” all its members.

About 5,000 students, faculty, and staff were present at the Sept. 12 Killian Court vigil, which was organized by the Board of Chaplains. As the MIT News Office reported in 2001, this was the largest turnout on Killian Court for an event — besides commencement — in 85 years. The program began with music, speeches, and a moment of silence. The assembly later broke into small groups of 10–15 people with over 120 faculty facilitators recruited the night before, leading discussions on the emotions felt by the community.

In the past, the Institute used a similar small group format for freshmen summer reading discussions, but “the idea of using [Killian Court] and gathering individuals, advisors, and faculty was an idea that came into bloom for that event” when it was being planned on September 11, according to Randolph.

Willmore called the event “extraordinary.”

“It was truly wonderful — and so characteristic of MIT — how everyone came together to help the campus cope with this tragedy, not just that day, but in the days, weeks and months that followed,” she said.

In an email sent just after 9 p.m. the night before to the MIT faculty, Clay, Redwine, Faculty Chair Stephen C. Graves, and Dean for Graduate Students Issac M. Colbert wrote, “Clearly, business as usual is not possible in the short term. While some have suggested that canceling classes and closing the Institute would be appropriate, we believe that at a time like this, contact between students, faculty, and staff is MIT’s greatest resource. We need to take advantage of this resource, which would be precluded if we close the Institute.”

The letter then went on to suggest that faculty devote class time to discussions, offer additional opportunities to meet with the students, or cancel classes if the time wouldn’t be used productively otherwise. For this, Newman admired the administration’s response. “It was handled well, to say ‘let’s just take time … it was so darn shocking, let’s just talk about this.’”

Instead of cancelling her Thursday lecture, Newman decided to use the time for a different purpose. She told her students that she was more interested in how they were feeling and just wanted to give the opportunity for them to talk about it.

While they tackled the Institute’s response to the situation, the administration, like seemingly everyone that day, was battling personal connections to the attacks. Clay’s daughter worked on 160th street in Manhattan. Vest’s son was the resident in charge of the ER at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York and his daughter lived in the DC area. Then Associate Provost Claude R. Canizares’ son was in a DC newsroom. All survived the attacks.

“What really hit home later was the impact on alumni, MIT Corporation members, and others who lost so many colleagues and friends, especially in New York. One trustee told me that he had spoken at something like 20 funeral services,” Vest said.

Willmore described how her outlook had changed since that morning drive across the Charles River when she first heard the radio reports: “I remember driving back into Boston over the Mass. Ave. bridge [that night], the city lights shining on the water as they do every night, and thinking that everything had changed, including the fact that there were no planes flying, not that night and not for several days. Their absence was an eerie reminder of our vulnerability.”

Clay said he didn’t get back home until 10 p.m., more than three hours later than usual.

Redwine, on the other hand, spent the night on campus. The mid-morning administration meeting had led to a decision to keep one senior person on campus at all times.

“We were worried about communications getting even worse, so somebody needed to be around who would be able to make decisions, working with MIT Police if necessary,” Redwine said. He went home, grabbed a sleeping bag and something to eat, and returned to his office. He walked around campus, keeping in touch with the MIT Police. “In the end there was really nothing to worry about but we didn’t know that at the time,” Redwine said.

As she tried to cope with the situation, Kehoe says she felt most comfortable in small, familiar settings. After The Tech’s extra issue had been sent to the publisher, she went back to her room in McCormick and drank hot chocolate with her roommates.

“We had to go back to that community,” she explained.

In the days and weeks after the attacks, MIT’s story continued as the nation recovered in the aftermath.

Part Two of this article will be published on Tuesday, September 13.

1 Comment
Kathryn Willmore about 12 years ago

Margaret, Thank you for conveying in such a compelling way the events and feelings on campus that week. It was almost like reliving that horrifying and extraordinary time.