Reflections on a tragedy that changed NYU, NYC, and the world.
Given our unique location in downtown New York City, the 9/11 attacks had a profound impact on the NYU community. Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, we invited alumni, faculty, administrators, staff, and others who were on campus in the fall of 2001 to share their memories from that time. Brief excerpts from some of the stories we received appear after the introduction below.
The World Trade Center's twin towers were visible from Washington Square Park when two planes—American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175—hijacked by the militant terrorist group al-Qaeda flew into the buildings on the morning of September 11, 2001. Within two hours of the suicide attacks, the towers collapsed as a crowd that had gathered in the park watched in horror.
While the destruction didn't reach our campus, NYU was the major university closest to Ground Zero. Some NYU community members lost loved ones that day. Six downtown residence halls—home to over 2,000—had to be evacuated, with students temporarily housed in the Coles Sports Center. Classes were canceled for days, in keeping with city guidance to curtail activities below 14th Street so first responders had more room to work.
In a message to the NYU community on the evening of September 11, President Jay Oliva and President-Elect John Sexton wrote: "There may be difficult days ahead. We are a close-knit community, and we should rely on one another. We should not be afraid to turn to one another for help, and we should be quick to offer it to one another. It is hard to capture this tragedy—this crime—in words, but we will say this: if New York City is known for anything, it is known for its determination, its courage, and endurance. We share more than a name with this city—we share its characteristics and its virtues."
There is no doubt that the events of 9/11 changed NYU forever. Researchers examined the tragedy and trauma from every angle, beginning work that continues today in fields as diverse as medicine, engineering, psychology, and politics. The University strengthened its campus safety and security protocols and emergency alert systems, and developed programming and resources to support members of our Muslim community amid rising Islamophobic violence and discrimination in New York and nationwide. And instead of shying away from an association with a place that had lost so much, NYU only strengthened ties to a city that proved strong, resilient, and eager to rebuild.
"Do we want to play up our New Yorkness, or is this a time where we play down our New Yorkness? We decided this is the time when you play it up," recalls Lynne Brown, now Senior Vice President for University Relations and Public Affairs. (More accounts from NYU leaders at the time appear in the 9/11 chapter from the 2015 book In Our Own Voice: An Oral History of New York University's Dramatic Transformation, and in the video below.)
As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of that dark day in New York—and in the spirit of coming together in difficult times—NYU News thanks all of the members of the NYU community who shared these personal memories and thoughtful observations about September 11, 2001, and its afermath.
“Nothing can capture the feeling I had walking out of Carlyle on Union Square and seeing the first tower smoking. At the moment I had no idea what was going on, so I went back in to get my (non-digital) camera. After I came back out, both buildings were gone. A group of us walked aimlessly around the city that day. The looks on people’s faces are captured by this photo. Speechless.”
—Michael Roth (Stern ’02)
“I was living at Lafayette dorm with my roommates. I remember a friend of mine calling and asking if I was okay. I was confused. I had originally wanted to go to the World Trade Center to buy Lion King tickets from the TKTS there, but for whatever reason my alarm clock didn’t go off. I think it was a miracle my alarm didn’t go off. We evacuated the dorm and my roommates walked downstairs. We were standing on the street and saw a lot of people in suits, covered in ash.”
—Kimberly Ha (CAS ‘04)
“I was actually at the World Trade Center that morning. I was at the concourse level near Tower One when the first plane hit. On my way to the office I had made a stop to buy a card for my cousin’s first birthday. I worked at a law firm at the time, on the 38th floor of Tower Two. I managed to escape immediately after hearing the plane hit since I had not taken the elevator yet to my office. Buying that Hallmark card potentially saved my life.”
—Jenniffer Heslop (Steinhardt ’03)
“I dreamed of going to NYU my whole life. When I moved into my freshman dorm in the West Village in August 2001, I felt on top of the world. Then one morning in September, my mom woke me up early with a phone call. She was driving to work and heard on the radio about a plane hitting a building downtown. My roommate and I turned on the news. And then we watched life forever change right in front of our eyes. I was lucky that I had a Nextel phone that allowed me to communicate with my loved ones that day and in the days that followed I was able to help connect a lot of students with their families. Later that week, my roommate and I walked uptown, through barriers and National Guard and a city that looked totally unlike the one we’d known just a few days prior. We boarded a bus that drove us for free to Grand Central. A train took me home. That hug from my parents at the station is something I will never forget.”
—Heather (Hopwood) Lentini (Steinhardt ‘05)
“One thing I’ll always remember from that day was how blue—blindingly, shockingly blue and crystal clear—the sky was that day. I remember standing in Washington Square Park, and when my eyes turned away from the Twin Towers, I looked at everyone frozen in the streets—gathered by car radios, many of them trying and failing to make calls on cell phones—and wondered would I ever witness something like this ever again.”
—Leonidas Lagrimas (Steinhardt ’03)
“I was on campus for a physical. I'd heard entering for my appointment that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Like many people, I thought it was a small plane. The previous summer, a small two-seater had hit a tower in Florida. I called and left a message at home with my wife to say that I was okay and had heard about the plane. After my routine exam, as I came out on Broadway, I looked downtown and saw an impossibly large cloud of smoke in the distance. People covered in soot were coming up the avenue, looking dazed and tired. A man in a suit—covered in ash, even his face—caught my eye and said, "I made it." All I could think to say was, "I'm glad."
—Anthony Patton (Steinhardt ’03)
‘What Might Happen Next?’
“We didn't have cell phones. We didn't have social media. It's so bizarre to remember a time when something so intense was happening, and we didn't already know about it.
I distinctly remember the moment my professor walked into the classroom. Most of us were there, but not yet settled when she said, ‘We've been attacked by terrorists. I'm going to walk home. Anyone who doesn't have a place to go and wants to come with me is free to do so.’
The following weeks were strange. Our neighborhood was shut down. There was an armory set up at 14th Street. Everything below 14th was closed to traffic. Helicopters were constantly flying overhead. Signs were up everywhere, some with messages of hate, and some with hope.
I thought about trying to go home, but in the end decided to stay. I had a feeling when I arrived in New York that it was my home, at least for the next few years. I didn't want to leave. The trauma of that day manifested in different ways. But I enjoyed the rest of my time at NYU, and I feel that I will always be a New Yorker.”
—Cheyanne Baird (CAS ’03)
“I went to class, but nobody could really concentrate, and halfway through the professor told us to leave and be careful. I went to Washington Square Park and everybody was weeping. I am from Ecuador, where we are used to emergencies and extreme situations, so I decided I needed to find one of my Ecuadorian friends and be together. I took my passport, Swiss knife, cans of tuna, and water, and fortunately managed to get a hold of my friend and coordinate to meet at a restaurant where he was working on the Lower East Side.
Seeing the collapse and the fire was really something to experience in the United States, a place I never thought could experience such a thing. It made me realize how evil human beings can be, and how complex the world can be, but most of all how fragile life could be. My cousin was due to visit the next day and our first stop was going to be the Twin Towers. But in an instant, the world as I understood it changed completely.”
—Andrés Burbano de Lara Barrera (CAS ’03)
“My journalism students and I produced a newscast about how NYU and the city reacted. On September 12, we covered the dorm evacuation, iron mongers helping out at the site, local fire station, candle light vigil in the park, Houston Street closed, restaurants feeding workers. We were all over. I am so proud of what the students accomplished.”
—Marcia Rock, Associate Professor of Journalism, Director of the News & Documentary Program
“All we thought about was what might happen next. Would my international friends be deported? Was another attack imminent? Should we be fleeing to small towns? Should we leave NYU altogether?
My parents asked me the same questions after the phone lines opened up enough to call them. But I told my dad what he had always told me after an IRA bombing in England: The safest place to be right after a terror attack is near the scene of the crime, because that's when the authorities moved in. And with airports on lockdown and our parents in Europe, we should stay put.
I remember feeling so helpless, but also so close to the millions of people in NYC that had been through this horrible event. That was ultimately why I didn't leave NYC. These people understood.”
—Theresa Goncalves (SCPS ’02, Stern ’04)
“Within the week, NYU had bought out several hotels in Midtown for students. Except for the few of us, Times Square was abandoned. They had a shuttle take us to campus when class started again. No one felt like starting again, but we were going through the motions of being normal.
I looked forward to making it to NYU every day. Washington Square, Bobst Library, and my boyfriend’s apartment felt like the only safe places in New York, so I spent most of my time there. We’re married now with three kids.”
—Carissa Escober Doran (Wagner ’03, Nursing ’06)
“I was in my office at 240 Green Street, 2nd floor. The first plane hit. It was thought to be perhaps an accident. Then minutes later the second plane hit as I walked down the hall to meet with staff on the disaster unfolding in real time. You could see people standing at the intersection of Washington Square South and Thompson looking south to see the smoke gushing out the sides of the Twin Towers. I made a conscious decision not to view it so it would not be burned in my memory.
The people of NYU were confused and horrified. But more shocks were yet to arrive. Our Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters, and folks who wore turbans, would be attacked and assaulted. I remember Imam Khalid Latif and Khurram Gore, then undergraduates, asking CMEP (then OASIS) for support, which was of course provided.
My daughter was two years old. My wife walked from the 59th Street Bridge to Briarwood, Queens, to get to her—10 miles. CMEP established an Alumni Award in the name of Michael Parkes, an NYU alumnus who was killed in the attacks, and hosted a vigil in support of communities of color. To this day, I see members of the community that lost a loved one that day. I see empty seats on the E train.”
—Allen McFarlane, Assistant Vice President for Outreach and Engagement, Student Affairs
“At the time I was living in downtown Jersey City with the World Trade Center Twin Towers visible from my apartment. I must have been on one of the last PATH trains into Manhattan that morning as there was nothing unusual about my commute into Manhattan and my walk to Bobst Library, where I was working at the time. The view of smoke coming out of the towers that morning once I arrived to work after a seemingly 'normal' commute not moments before was surreal and one I will never forget.
My roommate at the time was from North Africa and a postdoc at a university in New Jersey. He was one of the kindest people I have ever met, and it both angered and saddened me that he was routinely followed and profiled in his commute to and from work for several weeks after the tragedy of that day.”
—William Marcotte, then HR Generalist, now Assistant Vice President, Campus HR Services
“I came to the city from a small suburb in Ohio and at 19 I struggled to find meaning in the events. I was smart and capable for a 19 year old but I was also staggeringly emotionally immature. When Lafayette Hall was evacuated, I brazenly took to the streets of New York City in flip flops and minimal provisions, and didn't return to my dorm until a week or so later when the building was cleared for occupancy. I remember showing my NYU ID to the National Guard, every day for months, to be allowed to go below Canal Street to get back to my dorm.
Even though I couldn't comprehend the events, I considered the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan sacred ground. I didn't go below 80 Lafayette St. for 15 years and when I finally did I wept 15 years’ worth of tears for the incalculable loss. I am part of the World Trade Center Health Registry that tracks the health of people who lived and worked in lower Manhattan when the towers fell. Many experience PTSD and the impact of environmental contamination. I am lucky to have been naive at the time.”
—Elizabeth Goldberg (Gallatin ’05)
‘We Became A Family’
“The weather was just perfect. I don't know why I decided to get to class super early that day, and I don't know why I walked down 5th Ave. I never walk down 5th Ave. The Twin Towers were perfectly framed by the Washington Square Park Arch and it was just super nice to see it.
Heading down the stairs to class, I ran into a friend making a Campus Media delivery. She asked me if I heard about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers. “That's a terrible accident,” I said, dumbfounded. ‘How can a plane fly so low in New York City?’
Halfway into Managerial Accounting, Dean Choi came into our class and told us that a second plane had hit the Twin Towers, another plane had hit the Pentagon, and we should go and call our families.
I watched the news non-stop. As soon as we could go back to school I did. NYU didn't change, but the atmosphere changed. We, the students, all banded together as one. It didn't matter which school we went to anymore. We were all there as a part of the NYU community. If anything, 9/11 got all of us closer. We created the NYU with an American flag T-shirt to show our support for each other, our school, and our community.”
—Olivia Fu (Stern ’03)
“I remember the incredible student staff, resident assistants, who put their own personal emotions on hold to mentally assist our Third North dormitory residents through this traumatic experience. They are the unrecognized heroes that I remember.”
—Molly Deugaw, then Director of the Third North Residence Hall
“I was a resident assistant at the time so my instinct told me to check in with my fellow staff members and with the residents on my floor. I remember talking to fellow students who saw the planes crash into the towers. I remember hugging and consoling co-workers who were worried about friends and family. I watched the towers fall on the TV in the lobby of U-Hall. I couldn’t even believe what I was seeing.
For the next hours and days, our team of Residence Life staff were solely focused on our community. What could we do to support each other? Our UHall community? Our East Village community? Our NYU community? Our NYC community?
We organized groups of students to attempt to donate blood. We made countless PB&J sandwiches that would be biked down to Ground Zero. We staffed the temporary housing at Coles to support the 2000+ students who were displaced from their residence halls in lower Manhattan. We delivered food to our neighbors at Ladder 3 on 13th Street, who lost so many of their brothers that day. We posted signs of gratitude and appreciation in our windows facing 13th Street—letting them know we were thinking of them and grieving with them. We became a family.
I spent the better part of the next 16 years living in New York City. It never felt okay to leave. I was forever bonded to the city that day and forever bonded to the people I went through that experience with.”
—Adam Fertmann (Steinhardt ’02, ’04)
‘You Heal, Together’
“That first night we had 16 people staying in our normally six-person suite, watching the barricade that had been put on 14th Street and just banding together for comfort in extreme confusion and terror. Over the next few days, my NYU dorm felt like a small safe haven in an oasis of terror and uncertainty. We wandered New York City, cried, and paid tribute at the candlelit vigils. In all of this, my high school ex-boyfriend reached out from Australia—he was concerned about my well-being after hearing the news. We reconnected because of the tragedy, ended up getting back together in 2004, and married in 2007. We will be celebrating our 15th anniversary this January with our almost 7 and 2 year old sons.”
—Sanah Kazmi Ansari (Stern ’04)
“The air downtown teemed with pollutants, a chemical tang that coated the back of my throat no matter how much I coughed. An asthma attack, worse than I’d had in years, landed me in the emergency room.
When I returned to my dorm still wearing my hospital bracelet and N-95 mask, a fellow drama student who’d always been generous with her fancy chocolate invited me to stay with her family upstate until the air quality improved and classes resumed. Though we'd rarely spent time together outside of class, I accepted without hesitation.
The country air tasted cool and clean. We played board games, listened to music. Cooked and ate comfort food. Took long walks beneath kaleidoscopic autumn leaves with her parents. They briefed us on the latest news, because we couldn't watch any more. Instead, we made plans to study abroad, to room together the following year, our last as undergraduates. We talked about the relationship I’d recently ended with my high school sweetheart, and the one she’d just begun with a pre-med student. As we shared our dreams, our fears receded.
I visited that upstate sanctuary many more times before graduation. It became the gathering place for an ever-widening circle of students whose homes, like mine, were too distant to visit more than once or twice a year. In the aftermath of 9/11, longing for safety and connection, we made a family right where we were. Though we came from different geographies and backgrounds, we chose to build upon what united us, in the midst of a world divided.
Carla and I have been friends for twenty years now. In times of tragedy and trauma, we draw closer, like we did all those years ago as terrified but resilient undergraduates.”
—Rachel Susan (Horak) Dempsey (Tisch ’03)
“I remember wondering if NYU would ever open up again. I remember the AMC theater on 14th and Broadway opening up that week to show movies for free. And I remember my film school classmates and I went to watch movies for an entire day because we didn't know what else to do. I remember having to bring my utility bill to prove to the National Guard I lived below 14th Street so I could go home from the movies. I remember going home for Christmas and having people ask me how I could stay in NYC after something like that. I tried to explain that this was like asking me to abandon a friend in a time of need. When a friend is hurt you don't disappear. You stay and try to help your friend heal. You heal, together.”
—Melody Morgan Sorensen (Tisch ’03)