Managing the 9/11 Crisis at BMCC
On Nov. 2 BMCC President Antonio Pérez
spoke on the impact of the World Trade Center attack on his
campus at a conference on Entrepreneurship in Higher Education
at Harvard University. Excerpts from that speech are offered
The Fiterman Building, ravaged when WTC #7 collapsed.
September 11. . .
Many members of our college community witnessed the attack
and the collapsing buildings firsthand. Many were walking
to the College when the planes flew right over their heads.
Some of our students, faculty, and staff had just taken the
subway or the PATH train to the World Trade Center when the
planes hit, so they were literally escaping a towering inferno
of flame and smoke, spewing shrapnel, steel, and glass debris
into the street for blocks. One of our deans arrived at her
office totally covered with debris and shrapnel.
Some of our students and employees actually witnessed the
planes crashing into the towers, saw them burst into flames
and later collapse. Some saw desperate, trapped victims jumping
to their death. We saw workers running north and firefighters
and police officers literally buried alive when the towers
collapsed. We witnessed the rubble up close«and in it people"s
personal effects, office equipment and even body parts, strewn
over blocks and blocks of downtown Manhattan. Nor were we
immune from human loss: seven BMCC students died in the attack.
Five of them worked in the WTC and never made it out. Two
were among rescue workers killed.
In my office alone, my executive assistant lost a close friend,
and one of my staff members lost her cousin and two friends.
In the office next door, my dean of development, who lives
in Battery Park City, couldn't return home for over three
weeks, and a secretary lost her sister.
A Campus in Turmoil. . .
But we were not only emotionally traumatized; the crisis
was also an up-close, personal, and downright physical assault
on the BMCC campus. We lost power, water, and phones. We were
sealed off from the rest of the City by the authorities. You
could not get to our campus, period.
But at least our main campus was still intact. That"s
more than I can say for Fiterman Hall, one of our buildings
a couple of blocks away. Fiterman Hall stood right next to
7 World Trade Center; when that building fell, it fell into
Fiterman Hall, only recently renovated to the tune of $64
million dollars. Our Continuing Education division was set
to move into Fiterman on September 15. Instead, we lost desks,
furniture, computers, carpeting we had just paid the bills
for. Files, student recordsyou name it, and we lost
it. We also lost 41 classrooms in addition to lab space, offices,
and the TeleMedia Accelerator, which had opened last fall.
Pérez on his cell phone, with rescue workers on
the BMCC campus.
The Spirit of Partnership...
When I began preparing my remarks for this conference, BMCC
stood in the shadows of the fourth tallest building in the
world. Students sought us out not only for the high quality
of instruction we offered, but so that they could ěstudy where
the jobs are,î in a safe and exciting environment. Strategically,
our location in the heart of the financial district was one
of our great strengtha real partnership.
The weeks since September 11 have taught us at BMCC what it
really means to be a partner to the community. In response
to the crisis, we offered our campus to the rescue and recovery
effort. Instead of students, our college housed the U.S. Army,
the Port Authority Police Department, the Fire Department,
emergency medical units, the Red Cross, FEMA, and other rescue
What did it look like for those first three weeks? There were
army jeeps outside our college. There were cartons and cartons
and cartons of bottled water, potato chips, apples, and other
food and supplies outside every one of our entrances. Flags
draped over a wall on West Street added touches of color«the
American flag, the U.S. Army flag, the Port Authority flag,
the Fire Department flag, and of course the BMCC banner.
The halls outside the gymnasium were lined with gym mats,
topped with blankets and pillows for officers to sleep on
between shifts at Ground Zero. One whole wall of the gym was
lined with supplies these officers needed for their rescue
work: gloves, masks, socks, rain ponchos, and much, much more.
Another wall of the gym was lined with tables full of bottled
water, soft drinks, snacks, cookies, fruit, and hot meals.
People sat quietly on the bleachers to rest, sometimes to
Outside, in the basketball court and tennis court next to
the college, the Fire Department set up shop with eye washing
stations and hand washing stations and special Fire Department
tents. An entire company slept in our theater. The stage was
piled with countless additional cartons of clothing, blankets,
Right downstairs from the theater, the medical unit set up
emergency medical tents right next to the jungle gym for the
kids in our daycare center. The hallway nearby was lined with
so many cartons of donated medical supplies you could barely
move. A crew of BMCC workers worked virtually around the clock
to make sure that our college remained a clean, welcoming,
and secure environment.
The spirit of partnership brought us help, too. Our dean of
development used her contacts with Verizon executives to have
20 additional phone lines installed, on a temporary basis,
at our command center. Perhaps most important, these lines
made it possible for us to call each of our 17,000 students
during the weekend of September 21st to let them know that
we would be opening on October 1.
This was accomplished only because administrators and faculty
members were willing to volunteer to work through the weekend
to make sure each student was called. We learned later that,
of all the things we did, this meant the most to our students«it
made them feel valued, special, and perhaps most importantsafe.
Another partnership was created more by chance. From my office,
I could see a some TV cameras set up on West Street; I walked
over to the CBS van and asked if they would like to broadcast
from a better location. "What will it cost?"they
asked. "Nothingjust let our students know when
we are about to reopen!"So CBS came and broadcast from
our roof. This was important because CBS was the only station
New Yorkers without cable could get.
Back to the Business of Teaching...
Before the dust cloud from the doomed buildings settled, we
were trying to identify available space for our 17,000 students
to resume their studies in as normal an atmosphere as possible
and as soon as possible.
Our first challenge was to find an alternative place to serve
as an emergency office. We do conduct operations at other
locations in the city, and one is our Educational Opportunity
Center in Harlem at 125th Street. The director of the EOC,
Laura Higgins, gave us its Learning Resource Center to use
as an emergency office, which we did for two weeks.
We immediately planned trauma and grief counseling for students,
employees, and the general public, particularly workers in
the downtown business community. We had turned to the downtown
business community so often for support, that we were happy
to be able to offer this support. With phones and space given
to us by CUNY, we set up a trauma helpline on September 15,
which was staffed by our college counselors.
We also realized that many of our students or employees just
needed information. This was one of the most frustrating aspects
of this crisis in its early stages. When our phones went down,
our email went down, so we could not even update our Web site.
Fortunately, CUNY stepped in to help by posting information
about BMCC on its site.
Within days after the attack, we were contacting other CUNY
and SUNY campuses in search of swing space for continuing
education classes. Classes began in these alternate sites
on Sept. 22.
While most of our staff worked out of the Harlem office, I
felt it was important to be there on campus. I spent a lot
of time on my cell phone.
Miraculously, our students were able to come back to class
less than three weeks after the tragedyon October 1.
The fact that we were able to do so speaks volumes about the
strong leadership team with which we are blessed at BMCC«and
the many selfless employees who worked so diligently during
this challenging hiatus.
"Stronger Than Ever". . .
As students returned, our attention turned to morale and mental
health. T-shirts saying "BMCC, stronger than ever"were
distributed, and we arranged for a group of non- denominational
chaplains, trained in trauma counseling, to be on campus the
first two weeks. Each faculty member received information
about the symptoms of trauma they might expect to see in some
students. A town meeting was also held and we invited students
to express their feelings on a "healing wall "a
place for them to write their thoughts, hopes, and fears.
Our re-opening went flawlessly. One of the keys to our success
was good, clear, and honest communication ˙ between ourselves
as a leadership group, and with all our constituents: students,
employees, and other government agencies. We succeeded because
we put our students, their well being, and their education
firstand because we enjoyed the tremendous good will
of a faculty and staff that pulled together in a time of crisis.
Some final words...
The World Trade Center tragedy has made our educational
mission more critical than ever. Terrorism is fueled by hatred,
and hatred feeds on ignorance. The words of H.G. Wells ring
more truly now than when he first spoke them: "Civilization
is a race between education and catastrophe."Armies will
not stop or even deter the devastation of hatred. Darkness
cannot be defeated by darkness. It will only be overcome by
light, and education is all about light.
But we aren't returning to education as usual. We are rediscovering
that education is not primarily valuable only in terms of
workforce skills learned and careers enhanced«as important
as these two goals are. We recognize that education, to be
true to its mission, must be transformativeaffecting
not only our minds but alsoand perhaps more importantlyour
hearts. Now, more than ever before, when the entire world
is at stake, we need people who can think for themselves,
who can ask hard questions, who can understand the connections
between seemingly disparate situations, and who can make decisions
BMCC is the world in microcosm. Our classes are like the United
Nations, so right on our community college campus we have
a wonderful opportunity to model a better future, not only
for our immediate community in New York City, but for the
world. And if we all act that way on each of our campuses,
we will build a better world.