Mike was from Ohio and rowed crew. Andrew was from China and spoke little English. Jeremy, from Long Island, arrived on campus with a pet snake. Jacob was interested in architecture. Amy had cheerful eyes and long black hair.
There were close to 50 of them, all told: first-year students at Columbia who moved into the thirteenth floor of John Jay Hall in the late summer of 2001. I was a junior and the floor’s resident adviser. I was supposed to answer questions students might have, resolve conflicts between them (good luck), arrange study breaks where we’d eat pizza, and generally ease their passage into college life. Or at least that’s what I assumed. I had no idea what was coming.
None of us did, of course‚ and it’s hard not to look back wistfully on those first days of September, with their perfect clear blue skies. When the kids on John Jay 13 began their sojourn in New York City, the most frightening things in the news were tales of shark attacks. New York had been safe for years. Even the politics of the day seem harmless in retrospect: I remember pinning a Charles Krauthammer column on the Social Security “lockbox” to the bulletin board outside my door. Now I think, how quaint.
For me, that terrible morning began with a phone call. A friend suggested I cancel an interview downtown. Why? Put on the news. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
I turned on my small television, thinking that this had happened before, in 1945, when a B-25 had flown mistakenly into the Empire State Building.
Except nothing like this had happened before. I was still watching the screen when the second tower exploded in flame. This was neither an accident nor a stunt. It was real, and it was taking place a few miles from where I stood, and there were a bunch of teenagers around me who in a few short minutes were going to be confused and frightened. My window faced north, toward the Bronx, but many of the rooms on our floor looked south. There would be no escaping the view.
I propped my door open so that students could reach me easily. I walked to the end of the hall on the west side of the building, where a window opened on downtown, and saw with my own eyes the smoke billowing from the wounds in the distant towers. It was there that I watched, within the hour, as the snake-like clouds of ash seemed to wrap themselves around the two buildings and pull them to the earth. One couldn’t help feeling small and powerless—as though world history were suddenly an enormous wave swallowing one whole.
Behind me, the first tears were being shed. The phone lines were out, and few students had cell phones. The university shut down. Manhattan shut down. On Fox, Brit Hume was reporting that terrorists had struck the Pentagon, that bombs had gone off on the Mall and at the State Department, that another plane was headed for the White House.
Time seemed to dilate: The hours dragged on as we shuffled purposelessly around the dorm, not sure what to do, not sure where we were headed. Every so often the drone of an F-15 filled the air. I returned to the window at the end of the hall and stared at the pillar of smoke where the World Trade Center once stood.
In the evening, everyone who lived in John Jay gathered in a lounge to hear from university administrators. Afterward, some of my residents and I went to dinner at Ollie’s Noodle Shop on Broadway. The city beyond the gates was quiet. Stunned. Somehow, though, steamed dumplings and General Tso’s chicken made things a little more normal. We talked about what might happen next.
Late at night, after the president addressed the nation, the first-years headed back to their rooms. They would never know what it felt like to attend college in a pre-9/11 world. Before getting ready for bed I heard that threats had been made against the George Washington Bridge and the Empire State Building. I went to the hall window and looked at the outline of my favorite skyscraper for what I thought might be the last time. There were sirens in the distance. I went back to my room, flipped off the TV, and finally went to sleep.
Or did I? There are times it feels as if that day never ended.