September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday morning like any other in upstate NY.
I had a 9:30 a.m. class to teach, my first of the day. As was my habit, I walked into the Business Office of the community college to check my mail before heading into my computer lab across the hall.
“Good morning, June,” I said as I walked by the secretary’s desk. Bustling along, it took me a few steps more before I realized she hadn’t greeted me like she usually did. I stopped and turned to see her staring up and to her left. Following her gaze, I found she was staring at the TV that is always on CNBC with the stock ticker going across the bottom of the screen and the sound off.
I only glanced at the screen, saw the image of the World Trade Center, and since it was around 9:15, only one of the planes had hit.
“What are you watching?” I asked. It never hit me that it was a live broadcast of the news. What was shown on the TV looked like just about any other show or movie we’ve all seen a thousand times. Looking at June, her mouth was slack, her face blank, and I feared the woman was having a stroke. It was only when I walked back to her and repeated my question that she shook her head, her lips visibly flapped; she closed her eyes tight and then looked up at me.
“A plane flew into the World Trade Center,” she said in flat, toneless voice.
I forgot my mail. I blew into the computer lab, threw my bag and purse at my desk and said to the students already in the room, “Everybody, get online and do a search. A plane just flew into the World Trade Center, and I want to know what’s going on right now.”
Heads whipped around to computer screens. The silence was palpable, cut through by keyboard clicks. The silence didn’t last long though. A loud gasp, a muffled sob and then footsteps running down the hall to the payphone at the end. One girl sat with her hands to her face, eyes so wide that it seemed unnatural.
“Go. Go now. Go call now.”
The first student out the door came back in, face ashen and drawn. “I couldn’t get through. I couldn’t call,” he said.
That is when it began to sink in, for all of us.
“A second plane flew into the other tower,” someone said, and the room erupted with more and more information. A few of the students searched online through tears, kept sane only by staying on task. Many had homes and family that lived close by the disaster. Others had friends and relatives that lived in the city. All worried and fearfully dug for more and more information to get answers.
We talked. We hugged. We cried. And, we all stayed right there in that computer lab. No one wanted to leave.
I stood as I always did and got conversations going. This girl’s home was half a block away. I asked for her address, and another student hammered away at his keyboard. He was one of my “geeks,” very good with computers and searches. A few more addresses were thrown out, and more hammering.
Soon, some information came through. That address was OK, it was out of range. So was the next one. No one knew of anyone that was supposed to be in the WTC that day, and all of us acknowledged that miracle.
We were lucky, but so many weren’t that day.
The door to the lab stayed open. A few wanted to keep trying to call. When they came back unsuccessful, we all helped brainstorm different ways to get in touch with the people down in the city. I kept walking among the rows, kept my focus on finding information, offering support, encouraging support and keeping the conversations going.
The secretary came in, still with the same blank look on her face. She announced that the college was closing and that there will be counselors available for the rest of the day and the next. Then she left.
No one got up to leave.
We stayed together in that computer lab for another two hours. We had to. We were coping, somehow, and we couldn’t let that go.