This is the second segment in a two-part series on MIT’s response to the attacks on September 11, 2001.
There was not a cloud in the sky this past Sunday morning. They say Manhattan was the same way 10 years ago when the towers fell, so the serene atmosphere felt bittersweet this time around. The calm over the campus was typical for a Sunday morning at MIT, but shortly after 8 a.m. Lobby 10 began to fill up with members of the MIT community for the Institute’s anniversary ceremony of the September 11th attacks. The normally bustling lobby seemed to be frozen in time. Acquaintances shared casual nods of acknowledgement, but no words were spoken.
There was silence as the assembly waited for the ceremony to begin.
After the color guard, including representatives from each branch of the ROTC and members of the MIT Police, lined up against the doors leading to Killian Court, President Susan J. Hockfield, Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80, Chaplain Robert M. Randolph, Director of Facilities and Security John diFava, and Ellan F. Spero G made their way to the front of the crowd.
Throughout Boston, bells rang at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. to indicate the solemn moments when two planes crashed into the twin towers. Even MIT’s chapel bell rang, “despite the fact that it sounds more like a ‘donk,’” Randolph joked.
Each of the administrators then shared a few words of respect. As Hockfield said, “We come together to honor those who lost their lives, and those that gave their lives.”
Meanwhile, in the center of the color guard’s queue, Sergeant Cheryl N. Vossmer held a folded American flag, an artifact from Ground Zero.
Ten years later, looking back
Back in 2001, after MIT learned of the attacks, members of the MIT Police were assigned as backup to various points around campus, and Vossmer found herself with the main group in the middle of campus. “I remember seeing a student sitting on the steps of the student center with a postcard of the twin towers just crying and crying and crying,” she said.
Despite all the chaos, an eerie silence had lingered in the air. At around 5 p.m., Vossmer and Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation Kathryn A. Willmore were crossing Massachusetts Avenue, “and there was no traffic,” Vossmer said. “Nothing.”
It wasn’t until Vossmer finally got home around 10 p.m. that the emotions of the day began to set in. “I remember hearing a fighter jet flying over my house and I just burst into tears. You’re not supposed to hear those things.”
It was a trying time for members of the MIT community, to say the least. How does a university proceed with its responsibilities in light of a tragedy?
As Director of the Public Service Center, Sally Susnowitz knew her office would be busy after the attacks. Her memories swayed from what her office was doing to how her office was feeling. She remembers how a student assistant was sitting on a couch in her office weeping uncontrollably that day.
“We kind of decided that we should suspend normal activities really quickly and help people through what we were going through. We also started trying to think about what info people would want to have to be able to deal with this and how to help them get that information.”
During her time as director, Susnowitz said the Public Service Center, which helped in MIT’s responses to tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Japan tsunami earlier this year, has never seen a tragedy as horrific as September 11.
“We were dealing with forces that had no regard; you’re dealing with people who are trying to hurt other people, and I think Katrina and the tsunami, they were natural disasters and there wasn’t that sense of perpetrator.”
Almost immediately, the MIT community began to ask for ways to help. Perhaps due to engineering instinct, MIT saw a problem that needed a solution, but patience was needed as badly as generosity to balance supply and demand of volunteers, according to Susnowitz.
“One of the things we tried to do was channel people’s desire to help into useful ways and to encourage them if necessarily to wait,” Susnowitz said. “And that’s often true with disasters. Everybody’s impulse is to help if they can possibly do that but it’s very important for disaster sites to not have to deal with strangers or just stuff that’s not needed.”
That’s where the MIT Police came in. Through the MIT Activities Committee, Vossmer helped organize three trips down to New York City, coordinating dates and times for when volunteers could finally arrive and what to bring. The bellies of the busses were stuffed with supplies donated by the MIT community, including winter coats, jeans, and boots.
“They desperately went through work boots,” Vossmer said. The heat from smoldering metal beams at Ground Zero would simply melt the shoes if a volunteer stood in place for too long.
The trips took volunteers to St. Paul’s Church, which stood right across the street from the towers’ footprints. Bus-loads of MIT students and staff volunteered to serve food, freshen the linens on a cot, or put a blanket and pillow in the church pews for the firefighters and workers to catch a little sleep.
It was relatively soon after the attacks that a trip to pick up donated food from a restaurant brought back complicated emotions: “We drove by [Ground Zero] by and I was just like … there’s no words to describe the emotion, the pain, the devastation, all of those things, just — it was overwhelming.”
There was no escaping the reality of 9/11 in New York. On a midnight to 7 a.m. shift, Vossmer found herself looking out towards where the World Trade Center used to be, until something in the nearby cemetery caught her eye.
“There was this tree that I saw — all of these little strings through it — there was something strange and I’m like, ‘What is that?’ I get up a little closer and actually inspected it. I see this little sparrow kind of picking this stuff. It was the string from mini-blinds, and they were actually mini-blinds coming in towards the street and the sparrow was using the string to make a nest. You look at this stuff and you’re like, ‘Oh my god.’”
Glass pieces littered the streets. Cement dust lined buildings, ledges, and even “walk/don’t walk” signs at intersections.
While at St. Paul’s, volunteers were invited to take one of many notes of encouragement written from people all over the world. The walls of the church were covered with these letters, according to Vossmer, who chose a humble heart cut out of red construction paper for herself.
On one side, it reads “We pray that you will remember: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ Matt 5:4” and spoke of the benefits of laughter to our health:
“When we have undergone the pain of losing loved ones, it is difficult to find humor in our daily lives, but to maintain our health to care for the children who lost a mother or father we must try. Here is a small story which I hope will at least bring a smile to your face — ”
The other side shares a simple story:
Six-year old Angie and her four-year old brother Joel were sitting together in church. Joel giggled, sang, and talked out loud. Finally, his big sister had had enough. “You’re not supposed to talk out loud in church.”
“Why? Who’s going to stop me?” Joel asked.
Angie pointed to the back of the church and said, “See those two men standing by the door? They’re hushers.”
Two other mementos Vossmer has from the trips include a police mourning badge, with a black stripe and “NYC 9/11,” which she wore on Sunday’s 10-year anniversary memorial, and a humble metal cross, a token of their appreciation from New York firefighters. It was cut by the steel workers at Ground Zero, and is made from one of the last steel beams from Ground Zero.
With each trip, Vossmer says she experienced less and less shock at the sight of Ground Zero. The third and final trip to New York occurred near Easter in 2002, when volunteers brought Easter baskets assembled at MIT.
“The MIT community was phenomenal in assisting with donations,” Vossmer said.
Indeed, the story of MIT’s response was one of community; individuals came together to use whatever skills they had to help the campus cope.
On the day after the attacks, Professor John Fernandez was contacted by Kirk D. Kolenbrander of the President’s Office to help create a tangible memorial for MIT. Fernandez, who taught “Materials and Construction” and “Building Systems” in the department of Architecture, had given a talk about the collapse of the World Trade Center within a day of the attacks; he also used to work as an architect in New York City.
“Back then I had only been at MIT for two years,” he said. “I still counted New York City as my home.”
During the rapid design period, it was agreed that the memorial had to bring the community together. Within 30 hours, Fernandez’ design, a scale replica of an exterior wall of the World Trade Center, came to life with the help of the Department of Facilities.
“They were ready to build anything,” Fernandez said of Facilities.
The “Reflecting Wall,” as it was called, stood along the brick wall near the MIT chapel for a year. On the one-year anniversary of the attacks, Fernandez was out of the country, missing the veiling, and retirement, of the wall.
But he was okay with that. “The most solace I gathered from the whole experience in being involved in putting up the memorial was that it was not about the author and not about any single voice,” Fernandez said. “I never really had a feeling of authorship, really.”
The architect said he purposefully did not get involved in further memorials for 9/11. “I feel too close. It was a really hard day. For my friends and my family, at least for a solid year if not two years afterwards, you felt as if that was not anywhere below the surface. It was right there on top of everything. It was a part of people’s daily life.”
His contribution became his own coping mechanism: “I derived a lot of personal solace, and that was enough.”
In true MIT fashion, Fernandez became heavily involved in research related to the twin towers’ fall. His work followed advanced egress systems, studying how evacuation routes could be improved in developing skyscrapers. The original towers’ stairwells were almost entirely made out of steel with a core of regular sheet rock. Only two people could fit abreast on each step.
“In fires, that’s really not a good approach,” Fernandez explained. Extra wide stairs and a completely concrete core, for example, would make tall buildings safer.
Baker Housemaster Guillermo Trotti, also an architect, always admired the twin towers’ design since he first saw them when he was a grad student. It was 1978, and the young architect took a picture of the towering marvels. The rails were like train tracks running right up the building, he said, and the steel separated with great design. The picture, which Trotti still has, also captured a plane with a white trail in the distance, looking as if it is flying right at the tower, only about 30,000 feet away. It is a beautiful shot, he says, albeit its significance was changed forever by a single day in history.
“Unfathomable.” That’s how Trotti’s wife, fellow housemaster, and course XVI Professor Dava Newman would describe 9/11 in one word.
The Head of Boston FBI came to Newman’s office later in the fall semester to check on a graduate student of hers. He was Lebanese and received C-plane training in the US, and so was considered a threat.
“I was glad to talk to them,” she said, adding that she wanted to dispel any suspicions regarding this “upstanding, wonderful student.” Despite the fact that a C-plane is one of the slowest, least stealthy aircraft possible, his pilot training apparently made him suspicious. “This is like a summer hobby,” Dava explained. “They couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The first time Newman saw Ground Zero after the attacks, she was on a Swedish Airlines flight from New York to Stockholm. “The pilot did the right thing to do,” she said. He announced to the cabin that they were flying near the twin towers’ neighborhood, and asked the cabin to take a moment of silence. “Everyone there took a moment of prayer and reflection.”
Moments like these, both those immediately after the attacks and later on in life, are crystal clear to Newman. “Those memories, boy, they just stay in your mind.”
By the end of the day on September 11, 2001, Daniel M. Lewin SM ’98 was identified as one of the day’s victims.
Seated within a few rows of Lewin on American Airlines Flight 11 were the hijackers, including Mohammed Atta, the man who flew the plane into the north tower. Lewin is reported to have been killed while the terrorists made their way to the cockpit, making him one of the first of more than 2,700 victims on that day.
Lewin, co-founder of the successful internet company Akamai Technologies, was also a soldier, student, scientist, business visionary, husband, and father. In 1998, he received the Morris Joseph Lewin Award for Best Masterworks Thesis Presentation at MIT; many of the algorithms from his master’s are still used by Akamai today. At the time of his death, Lewin was a PhD candidate in the Algorithms group at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science.
In October 2002, the square at the intersection of Main and Vassar Streets was dedicated as “Danny Lewin Square” by Cambridge Mayor Michael Sullivan. Today, the black sign for Danny Lewin Square still stands in the shadows of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences building.
At Sunday’s memorial, the names of 14 members of the MIT community who died on September 11, including Lewin, were read by Graduate Student Council Vice President Ellan F. Spero G after a moment of silence at 8:46.
“This event will stay with you forever, and because of this, it is worth reflecting on how you remember those events, and especially how you use them to shape your attitudes today and in the future,” Grimson said.
As the ceremony concluded with the flag flying at half-mast, the attendees dispersed as silently as they had assembled, carrying with them the stories and memories that defined their personal experience of 9/11. The tragedy rewrote history, but it was one that we faced as a community. These stories are our way to teach America’s future generations.