His father was driving him from New Jersey to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City when Z100 radio reported that first one plane, then another, had crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center.
“We just looked at each other and thought they were wrong,” Soltis said.
But when they made an early stop at the Newark bus terminal, their doubts vanished. Beyond the pandemonium in the terminal, a thick cloud of smoke and dust obscured the view of the New York City skyline.
“I just got the chills, and I still get them when I think about that,” Soltis said. “It seemed like the end of the world at that point. The one stable country had become vulnerable.”
Similar scenes of shock were playing themselves out on Harvard’s campus.
A morning phone call from his mother roused Eugene Chislenko ’04 from bed.
“I believed her barely enough to go watch it on television,” Chislenko said.
Rachel S. Weinerman ’03 was waiting in line to register for the semester when a proctor received a call on her cell phone after the first plane crashed into the North Tower.
“She had a look of shock on her face. Then she announced it to the room,” Weinerman said.
“At first, I just laughed,” said Mark J. Stanisz ’05. “I thought it was another stupid little crash like that parachute over the Statue of Liberty, but then the [New York Times] website started crashing and I saw that something was very wrong.”
The rest of the day at Harvard was marked by an unusual, eerie quiet. Students crowded silently before TVs in dining halls and rooms, venturing outside only to flinch whenever planes flew overhead.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the American landscape was forever changed—literally and figuratively—by the terrorist attacks that brought down the towers and cut short 2,823 lives.
As they reeled in the wake of the tragedy, members of the Harvard community tried to cope with a changed world.
Within hours, University President Lawrence H. Summers e-mailed all students a statement calling the attacks a “moment of incalculable sorrow and loss.”
Faculty and students sought to cope with their grief by seeking counseling, attending vigils and donating blood and money to relief efforts.
Rumors of anthrax scares and yet more attacks gripped the campus along with the nation, and the Islamic community feared for its safety.
And even now—eight months later—the events of Sept. 11 effect life both inside and outside of the classroom.
The first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. and, within a few hours, the campus had begun to react.
Among the first concern of most was the safety of family and friends in New York City.
Students unable to use saturated phone circuits checked in on Instant Messenger, and alumni were able to use two websites devoted to listing the safety of former classmates.
Harvard announced that classes would begin as scheduled on Sept. 12 in the College; several schools, including the Business School, cancelled classes for the day.
William James Hall was evacuated on campus following the closure of other tall buildings in Boston.
“Everyone thought that the building they were in was the next target,” said Steven G. Catalano, Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) spokesperson. HUPD and University Operations both worked to increase security after the attacks.
Some students sought to process the events by attending the first of several discussions about the attacks at the Kennedy School of Government’s ARCO Forum.
Others took advantage of the counseling centers and support groups that opened around the campus, or sought individual help through University Health Services (UHS) and the Bureau of Study Council (BSC).
UHS cancelled all regularly scheduled appointments in the wake of the attack in order to accommodate a burgeoning population of students in need of urgent counseling.
And in two hours of a UHS open house a few days after the attack, an unprecedented 200-plus students showed up for counseling.
“We can’t be sure whether it’s because we’ve been heavily promoting, or because people are looking for help,” said UHS Director David S. Rosenthal ’59 in September. “But both doctor services and mental health have been very busy.”
BSC Director Charles P. Ducey also said his organization was unusually busy, with previously traumatized students and those from war-torn countries showing unusual stress.
But he added that the community in general was also affected from “realizing just how insecure the world is. It adds to the general sense of insecurity and fear of us all,” he said.
Still more attended vigils—more than 3,000 gathered before the steps of Memorial Church on the evening of Sept. 11 for a University-wide vigil.
“I have no special words of wisdom to offer at a moment like this,” Summers told the crowd that spilled out onto sidewalks and into Tercentenary Theatre. “I can only offer words of comfort to those who have been affected by these tragic events.”
Later, students held rallies concerning President Bush’s response to the events.
About 500 students gathered on the steps of Widener Library in a rally organized by the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice calling for a peaceful response to the attacks. The Harvard Republican Club sponsored a “Rally for Patriotism and American Unity” attended by about 50 students.
And aid efforts were abundant—local blood donation sites were nearing capacity and various groups raised money for relief efforts like the 9/11 Fund.
The University itself said it would donate $1 million to a scholarship fund for the families of victims, to be administered by the Families of Freedom Fund.
Businesses in Harvard Square also collected supplies and money to be donated to relief efforts.
The Coop gave $140,000 to the American Red Cross, matching and upping the amount of rebate checks donated by its members.
Into the Classroom
The effects of Sept. 11 could also be felt in the classroom, in the academic choices made by Harvard students.
After an initial drop in enrollment numbers for beginning Arabic, interest increased the second semester, interest that the department could not accommodate because it did not offer an introductory course then, said William Granara, director of undergraduate studies for the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department.
Granara said a higher percentage of students returned for a second or third year of Arabic than had in previous years, and that the department has been pushed in “ways that are healthy and unhealthy.”
The department might move in a more modern direction to accomodate students’ interests, he said, although the department has not planned any significant changes to its curriculum.
NELC also received a $1.5 million dollar donation, which the donor—Gordon Gray Jr. ’65—said was partially in response to the events of Sept. 11, to endow a position for an Arabic language preceptor.
Several other courses offered by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences experienced a boost in enrollment after Sept. 11.
A Core course, Foreign Cultures 17, “Thought and Change in the Contemporary Middle East,” doubled in enrollment compared to previous years, according to its professor, Nur Yalman, professor of social anthropology and of Middle Eastern studies.
“[It’s a] huge course,” Yalman said in September.