|9/11 at ECU: ‘Innocence died that day’
By Mary Schulken, Jeannine Hutson, Doug Boyd, Crystal Baity and Joy Holster, ECU News Services
At East Carolina University, where learning is a fact of daily life, the events of 9/11 delivered a lesson no one anticipated —a lesson many on campus that day say changed fates, attitudes and lives in the decade since.
“It made you step back and view how the world works from a different perspective,” said Mark Alexander, who was a 19-year-old sophomore on Sept. 11, 2001. “We learned that we don’t live in a perfect society and there are people who want to do harm to us.”
Alexander, now director of development for the College of Nursing, remembers being taken by surprise. He was in his Fourth Street apartment, readying for a 10 a.m. class when the TV caught his attention.
Announcers said a plane had hit the World Trade center. He thought it was strange since the buildings were so tall and so visible.“It never dawned on me it was a terrorist attack,” he said. He went back to what he was doing but kept the news on.
Soon there was no doubt what had happened. “I was watching when the second plane hit,” he said.
Not one to skip class, Alexander and his roommate stayed home, glued to the TV all day. Two out of three classes ended up canceled anyway.
Across campus, those who were here that day echo similar emotions: disbelief, alarm and a sobering realization this act of violence would affect their lives.
Hitting close to home
The Boeing 757 that crashed into the Pentagon hit close to home for Tanya Kern, now ECU director of Alumni programs. Her family lives in northern Virginia, about 20 miles from the site. Kern’s father had just retired from his job at the Pentagon where he served as head of enlisted personnel for the U.S. Army.
On the morning of the attacks, Kern was a 20-year-old senior at ECU preparing for a class in communication. She heard something on the news about an airplane striking the twin towers, but went on to her class as scheduled. The professor dismissed the students, telling them to go home and get in touch with family members.
“I ran back to the dorm and tried for the next four hours to contact my Dad,” Kern said. “All the phone lines were tied up and I couldn’t get through.”
She knew he wasn’t at the Pentagon, but knew many of his fellow soldiers were.
Kern remembers feeling confused and concerned. “The shock and the horror had not set in yet,” she said.
‘In a haze’
Hank Bowen, a 19-year-old sophomore on 9/11, was heading into his statistics class when he heard about the planes crashing in New York and Pennsylvania.
“I remember everybody on campus being in this haze the first day,” said Bowen, now coordinator for first-year programs at ECU. “I remember people coming into classes telling everybody. It was just a shock for most people.
“The professor hadn’t heard and one of the students told him. He had that same look of disbelief and he just stood there for a moment. And then he went on with the lesson because you could tell he really didn’t know what else to do or say,” said Bowen.
Bowen knew instantly the attacks would affect him personally. His father, Eddie Bowen, is in the Army reserves and has been deployed twice since 2001 — one year in Iraq and another year in Afghanistan.
“He’s still active … with no plans to retire, so who knows what the future may hold for that,” said Bowen.
A somber campus
Memorials, moments of silence and candlelight vigils became part of campus routines following 9/11.
Bowen recalls a surge of patriotism.
“After the first day, the next week or so, the East Carolinian printed big American flags that people were putting up in their office windows. It became a big patriotic environment, pulling together to over come (this) and everybody sticking together.”
ECU Dean of Students Lynn Roeder said a memorial service at Wright Auditorium was so crowded many students could not get inside. They were distraught they could not go in, so Roeder and a campus minister encouraged the crowd outside to join hands and pray or reflect.
“This gave them something they could do, their own thing outside the event,” Roeder said.
Alexander remembers a somber campus, despite the start of football season.
“You didn’t realize the magnitude of what was going on,” he said. “You didn’t realize how things would change. I remember the vigils on campus. Even if you didn’t have a personal connection, you felt like a part of your family had died.”
‘New ways of thinking’
Looking back 10 years later, Kern said the biggest personal impact of 9/11 has been the change in attitudes among civilian Americans toward military service. Raised as a “military brat,” she said that before 9/11, most civilians perceived military service as just another job.
“But now it is a source of pride,” she said. “The average American now has a much stronger appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who serve their country in the military.”
The attacks were difficult enough for faculty and staff to deal with, but especially hard on students, Roeder said.
“Innocence died that day,” she said.
Many students’ perception of the world changed, she said. They questioned their safety, they questioned America and they reconsidered plans to study abroad.
“I think it made us all grow up a bit,” said Alexander. “At 19, you’re still trying to figure out who you are. It made us have a greater appreciation for the country we live in.”
Roeder said the biggest impact of the 9/11 attacks on campus was having to find new ways of thinking.
There were worries about safety — whether there would be more bombings, whether international students would be targeted.
It changed the way students incorporated travel abroad into their education, she said.
“Study abroad was a big concern. After 9/11, we advised students differently about travel. We even had to train faculty on how to advise students differently about traveling abroad.”
ECU Dean of Students Lynn Roeder was in the worst possible place she could be on 9/11 – away from the ECU campus.
She was attending a conference in Greensboro, watching events unfold with a group of people standing around a television in the conference hotel lobby. At the time, Roeder was director of ECU’s Center for Counseling and Student Development.
“I was thinking, oh no, I’m not there! I’ve got to get back to campus!” Roeder said.
In the five hours it took to return from Greensboro, Roeder worried about how the students would react and what the university could do to respond to their needs.
“I was worried about international students and whether they might be targeted. I was concerned about students from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” Roeder said.
“We did not know at that time how long the attacks would go on and when it would be over,” she said.
A new concept
The attacks were difficult enough for faculty and staff to deal with, but especially hard on the students, Roeder said. Students today have grown up hearing about terrorism, but for the students in 2001 it was completely new and frightening, Roeder said.
Emotional reaction from ECU students continued long after the attacks, she said. Some students became angry, convinced that the terrorists had won because Americans’ lives had been altered and freedoms reduced. International students worried about racial profiling and their safety in America.
These concerns were echoed by Dr. M. Saeed Dar, a professor of pharmacology at the Brody School of Medicine.
Dar was interpreting for a Pakistani man in an FBI in a case involving check fraud the morning of Sept. 11. When he left the interrogation, he heard about the attacks.
A leadership role
“Watching it on television with the planes was very horrific,” said Dar. He knew it had to be a terror attack, and he sympathized with the families of the victims.
“That those people left their house and loved ones, just as I leave my house every day, and came to work and then would never come back,” he said. “It was inhumane, tragic.”
A leader at the local Islamic center, Dar has urged Muslims in the years since to educate their fellow Americans that Muslims are peace-loving people with families and jobs just like anyone else.
He wonders if the government’s responses to the attacks have been worthwhile.
“Are we as Americans feel safer any more than 10 years or eight years or five years ago with all we are doing in terms of national security and all the surveillance and that sort of thing?” he asked. “I don’t think we are safer.”
An American flag is shown during a candlelight vigil for victims of 9/11. (Photo by Tony Rumple)