It was 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 when the first airplane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Penn students found out about the tragedy over the course of the next few hours on a day that rapidly transformed from a normal day of classes to an unforgettable tragedy.
After hearing the news, college journalists rushed to 4015 Walnut St. — The Daily Pennsylvanian's office. It was an unusual sight. Ordinarily, reporters met at around 5 p.m. in order to catch up on sleep after long days of working well into the previous night. But that Tuesday, reporter after reporter flooded into the office around noon asking, “What can I do?” and, “How can I help?” and, “What’s the plan?”
Emotions varied. Some were fearful. Others were in shock and confused. But all were fueled by a sense of purpose to cover the traumatic event unfolding.
Twenty years after 9/11, the DP spoke with alumni who were students at the time and recounted their experiences of that unforgettable day.
The morning of the attacks
2004 Wharton graduate Will Tung — then a sophomore — was sleeping when the towers fell. That day, he did not have any classes until the afternoon, so he was woken up by a phone call from a high school classmate telling him to turn on the news immediately, as he knew that Tung's parents worked nearby.
“I turn on the TV, and it is just the shadow of the towers collapsing over and over again, on repeat,” Tung said. “My mom worked in the World Trade Center, so I thought that she was in there. As far as I knew, the towers came down right away and I thought she was just in there. I thought she was dead.”
With cell phone service throughout much of the northeast United States failing, Tung was unable to contact any family members in New York and was uncertain about his mother's condition. He said that many of his peers at Penn knew that his mother worked in the city and tried to comfort him.
“It was great to be with my roommates and very good friends,” Tung said. “There were probably at least half a dozen people in my tiny room — all these friends that I just made in my time [at Penn] lending me support.”
But later that afternoon, Tung’s mother — who had walked barefoot for miles in order to reach her company's branch in Madison Park to use a telephone after escaping the World Trade Center — was able to get in touch with her son and let him know that she had made it out of the building without serious injuries.
Prior to the attacks, many Penn students said it was just a normal morning. But the attacks threw the day into uncertainty — some students proceeded to class as usual before the University suspended operations around 10:30 a.m., nearly two hours after the first tower was struck.
2004 College graduate Kirsten Griffith, a sophomore at the time, was getting ready for a Spanish class when she heard through a call from her family that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings.
Griffith remembered watching the news unfold on a television in her on-campus residential apartment in Rodin College House. Not knowing exactly what to do, she said that she went to Spanish class as usual.
When she got out of class, Griffith said that Locust Walk and the student body had transformed. Students were whispering of the event that had just occurred, unsure and scared of what could happen next.
Like Griffith, 2003 Wharton graduate Alexis Volpe and 2004 College graduate Kate Jay Zweifler said calls from their family alerted them about the attacks, prompting them to check the nearest television.
“In the moment, you don't know that history is happening,” Jay Zweifler said. “Everyone decided that they should go to class first.”
Volpe said she was shocked by what she saw, but before receiving word that the University suspended operations, she decided to walk to Van Pelt-Dietrich Library for her morning class.
“I remember walking [to class], and on Locust Walk there were people smiling, laughing, and just acting normal,” Volpe said. “I was saying to myself, ‘Oh my god. I don't think these people realize what has happened because I wouldn't have known without my mom telling me about it.’”
Griffith lived on the 21st floor of a high rise residential building at the time, which she said was "scary, given that planes were flying into skyscrapers."
“There was a period when there were a few hours when nobody really understood what was happening,” 2002 College graduate Stacy Frazier said. “Nobody knew what was going on, and you knew Washington had been hit. You knew New York had been hit. You didn't exclude that Philadelphia could be hit.”
Reporting on, and coping with, the news
While some students proceeded to class during the confusion that morning, 2002 College graduate Rod Kurtz, the managing editor of the DP at the time, went straight to the DP's office.
“I just got dressed. I don’t even remember if I showered,” Kurtz said. “I headed to the DP [office] and was already starting to think.”
After calling all the reporters and editors into the newsroom, Kurtz told reporters that the DP would not cover the events in a way that catered to a national audience like The New York Times. Kurtz wanted to tailor the DP's coverage of 9/11 and its impacts specifically to its audience of Penn students and Philadelphia residents.
"I said we were going to keep covering it until we ran out of angles," Kurtz said.
The DP covered many stories on 9/11, including the shock students who had just moved to campus felt; analyses from professors who were experts on terrorism, geopolitics, and economics; the expanded services Counseling and Psychological Services offered in the wake of the attacks; as well as vigils held in Houston Hall and on College Green.
2002 Wharton graduate Jonathan Margulies, the DP editorial page editor at the time, said that he found it difficult gathering commentary on 9/11, even from Penn professors.
"I don't know that anybody had much to say initially," said Margulies. "I think there was so much to process."
DP alumni remembered that staff members were especially eager to contribute during 9/11. 2003 College graduate and copy editor at the time Drew Armstrong said he found himself and others volunteering for tasks and assignments outside their usual roles.
“I was out there finding students to interview and things like that over the course of the day,” said Armstrong. “It was really one of those situations where whatever you think your job is, you're going to be doing that, but you're also going to be doing three other things.”
The bustle of the reporting that day helped DP reporters and alumni process the event, Armstrong recounted.
“I think that was a little bit of a blessing to be honest — to get through being able to process what all of this meant by being so busy and so engaged, and not having to just sit there and consume it,” said Armstrong.
Frazier, the campus editor at the time, remembered one of her reporters asking for a story to write after hearing about a loved one who had been affected by the event. The reporter found work to be a way to redirect her energy in a positive way, Frazier recalled.
Despite their fatigue, the reporters and editors all remained at the office until around 3 a.m. the next morning so that the paper would be ready for publication and distribution Sept. 12.
Other students also turned to their respective clubs and communities on campus to grieve.
A member of the Undergraduate Assembly, Griffith remembered that she headed straight to Houston Hall, which houses the UA office. Several other UA board members had the same idea, congregating in the office out of a desire to help support each other in any way they could. They hosted a phone drive in Houston Hall, so students without access to cellphones or landlines could try to get in contact with family members.
“All of us naturally gravitated there and felt like we needed to do something,” Griffith said. “We had TVs everywhere trying to keep track of what was going on because we knew that there were so many people — recent Penn grads — that were in those buildings.”
Many students, faculty, and staff were connected to and grieved for those affected by the towers falling — even those they had never met. Members of the Penn community kept a lookout for familiar names as the death tolls mounted and victims were identified. Sixteen Penn alumni were among those killed in the attacks.
“We set up this room at the bottom of Houston Hall as information came in, and if we found out that a Penn alum had perished on the towers, their name would go up on this wall,” Griffith said. “People would come, and there was a lot of quiet reflection.”
Adjusting to a post-9/11 world
In the months following the attacks, students and staff began to adjust to the world that had changed before their eyes. The University created a plaque on the second anniversary of 9/11 in remembrance of the 16 alumni who died in the terrorist attacks.
Students took their time to adjust to the post-9/11 world. Zweifler took a semester abroad in fall 2002 in Rome and was met with a changed world, from the increased security at the airport to an anti-former President George W. Bush atmosphere abroad. She said the trip helped her process and contextualize what had happened, as she learned the world is much bigger than just the United States.
“The world changed that day for the rest of our lives, and it was also a time of change in my own life because I was in college,” Zweifler said. “A different world started, and that's the world I graduated into, so I at least had the time to adjust to that world.”
Reflecting on the event two decades later, Armstrong said his experiences at the DP prepared him to work at Bloomberg and cover the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really did give me exposure to what it was like to work on a massive — the biggest story in the world," Armstrong said. "Work as hard as you can to cover it and try to figure out all of the problems and questions and just the ways of trying to do journalism in the middle of chaos."
Alumni reported noticing shifts — both big and small — in how they lived their lives following the tragedy. Tung, who was studying finance at the time, said that witnessing 9/11 forced him to rethink his priorities and goals.
“Seeing this enormous catastrophe in lower Manhattan and seeing all the folks just senselessly dying — especially folks who worked in finance for years and years, working a job that I couldn't see myself being fulfilled by – I feel like it caused me to reevaluate what was important for me,” Tung said.
While he actually did end up working in finance after graduating from Penn, Tung left his job after just a year. He now lives in Philadelphia and works as a fire lieutenant. Though it did not feel like a direct consequence of witnessing the tragedy at the time, Tung said he cannot help but see the correlation now.
“I felt so helpless on that day. I felt like I wanted to do something, and I wanted to go there to help, but I obviously couldn't. There was nothing I could do,” Tung said. "Now I'm in a position where I can actually go and help people at their worst moments.”
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