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October 2001

Campuses Mobilize After Terrorist Attack

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Campuses Mobilize after Terrorist Attack

By Michael Arena
University Director of Media Relations

First there was shock, then grief and anger. The terrorists who struck down the World Trade Center delivered their devastating blow to our nation, our city, our University. No one was spared from the aftershocks. But from this core of darkness, in the days that followed, light emerged.

 

people serving food

people in emergency room

 
New York City Tech, an official emergency response center, was up and serving many of pedestrians fleeing the WTC attack. Photos by Michele Forsten

Hundreds of candles illuminating Queens College at a twilight memorial service. Nursing students from Hunter College tending to the bereaved and grief-stricken at a shelter near ground zero. A caravan of students, faculty, and staff from John Jay College crossing Tenth Avenue to donate blood. Custodial workers, sleepless, doing triple shifts at Borough of Manhattan Community College, dispensing food, water, rubber gloves and breathing masks to rescue workers seeking respite from the horrific rubble a few blocks south.

Those images were only part of an outpouring that came from all corners of the five boroughs, every CUNY college campus. Across the University, students, faculty and staff stepped forward in ways big and small. In what was literally a trial by fire, their stories of sacrifice, generosity and kindness revealed—and reaffirmed—the University as an integral part of the city it serves in good times and bad.

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein articulated these ideals in a letter to the University community shortly after the twin towers vanished from the skyline. “We should serve,” he wrote, “as an important resource as the larger society copes with terrorism.

On the front lines were the staff of Borough of Manhattan Community College, its main campus located a few blocks north of the Trade Center. Students and faculty were evacuated, but many staffers chose to remain behind with BMCC President Antonio Perez to assist the rescue effort.

Those who remained reported that dense plumes from the explosions and building collapses traveled north to the perimeter of the campus. Ash and dust inches deep settled midway up the entrance ramp, but no further. “This must have been what it was like in Pompeii,” said Scott Anderson, the College’s acting vice president for administration, who supervised an operation that assisted hundreds of police officers, fire fighters, and paramedics.

A second BMCC team staffed Fiterman Hall, home to classrooms and the CUNY Research Foundation. The off-campus 17-story former office building is just steps from the Trade Center complex. At 10:05 a.m. the south World Trade Center Tower collapsed.

Tremors and debris rocked the surrounding area, including Fiterman. “Suddenly a volcano was coming,” said Ronald Spalter, the University’s deputy chief operating officer, who went to assist the BMCC team at Fiterman. “It was like a lava cloud. We couldn’t see. We couldn’t breathe. We were lucky to escape into the cellar.” Eventually the team safely exited the building.

Within minutes, tens of thousands of dazed and dust-coated people were slowly moving to safety across the Brooklyn Bridge. Within seconds students, faculty and staff from New York City Technical College responded. City Tech’s student nurse practitioners quickly ministered as many of the injured as they could. Others carried out large jugs and dispensed cups of water. Victims gulped down fresh air from oxygen tanks from the college’s health center.

The victims crossed in two waves, said Provost Jo Ann La Perla. “The first group was in shock. Later, the victims who were crossing the bridge had more serious injuries, many bleeding from contact with broken glass.” Throughout the neighborhood, dust and paper rained down. “People had breathing problems,” she said. “We are extremely proud of how quickly the College community came to the aid of those in need.”

In the days that followed, each college found special ways to ease the grieving process and remember victims of the attack.

Beginning the week after the hijackings, students and faculty fired up the kitchens at City Tech’s Hospitality Program to prepare largescale food shipments for workers at ground zero; they were delivered by City Harvest.

Hostos Community College conducted a “Gathering for Remembrance” on September 13th in the Savoy Building.

Hunter College President Jennifer Raab opened the Brookdale campus as a refuge for medical personal at the Bellevue Hospital trauma center. The College created memorial space for students who posted items, photos and other remembrances. On the crosswalks easels were positioned for students seeking to post written memorials. Several gatherings were held for students, faculty and staff to express their feelings.

City College President Gregory Williams held informal meetings with students and faculty today, and a memorial service was organized. Names of friends and family lost in the attack were posted on the College’s web site. Counseling was also made available.

Baruch College’s athletic facilities reopened as a comfort station and rest area serving National Guardsmen acting as relief workers in the downtown area. The Armory across the street from the College’s new vertical campus became a command post for the city’s Office of Emergency Management. Families from throughout the region seeking information about missing loved ones met here with OEM staff to begin the grim process of collecting information that would lead to the identification of those who died in the attack. As the crowds increased, additional space was secured in the vertical campus to handle the spillover.

Brooklyn College held a moment of silence gathering on the steps of Boylan Hall. Lehman College postponed its Convocation until October. Both campuses offered counseling.

The College of Staten Island held a moment of reflection at a campus fountain. A discussion session followed that was led by President Marlene Springer. In the days immediately following the attack, about 150 CSI students from Brooklyn were able to travel home by bus under special police escort across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which was closed to all but emergency vehicles.

Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn offered crisis counseling in the Student Advisory Center. Students with greater needs were referred to the Bedford Stuyvesant Mental Health Center. The CUNY Law School in Queens scheduled a group meeting with the Academic Dean and counselors for people to discuss their feelings.

LaGuardia Community College in Queens held a moment of silence and a campus town meeting in the Mainstage Theater to discuss political violence and world peace; it was led by President Gail O. Mellow and faculty members. Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn offered counseling for students throughout the day in the Marine Academic Center Theater. A special Kingsborough team was dispatched to BMCC to relieve workers serving the Chambers Street campus.

Queensborough Community College held an ecumenical prayer service in the Newman Center and is also providing both group and individual counseling in the Student Union Building.

The University opened special web sites for BMCC and the Research Foundation on cuny.edu, the University web site. Bulletins were posted and updated daily with information on emergency operations. Under the direction of Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Louise Mirrer, a University telephone “Help Line” staffed with volunteer faculty specialists in psychology, social work, nursing and counseling offered grief, trauma, and bereavement assistance.

“Our message to students and others is that it is common for people who have experienced traumatic situations to have very strong emotional reactions,” Dr. Mirrer said. “Understanding that this is a normal response to abnormal events can aid them in coping effectively with their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and help them along the path to recovery. Talking to a professional will help students to deal with this tragic and stressful situation.”

It was clear that the help was needed. One professor at Hunter College found this note from a student explaining her absence from class after the attack. “I am in your 2:10 Shakespeare class,” the student wrote on a page of loose leaf. “Just received word about the World Trade Center. Both my parents work there. I am sorry but I had to go.”