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Reflections of 9/11 from York College

We had made it safely into the new millennium despite all the Y2K predictions of economic and technological doom.

We had seamlessly crossed over from the 20th century to the 21st.  It was a new century filled with promise, like all new centuries before our time. But it was still less than two years old when the unthinkable happened.

September 11, 2001 had dawned as no extraordinary autumn day in New York City. It was comfortably warm and sunny. It was also Primary Day for city-wide and local political offices. But before 9:00 am all had changed before our disbelieving eyes. Our city and the Capitol in Washington, DC, were under synchronized attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, respectively. By 9:03 am the second of two passenger airplanes, hijacked by terrorists for the purpose, had flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center.

Voting under way since 6:00 am, was called off, and almost everything else was being called off as well. New York and Washington D.C. under attack was America under attack. Another hijacked aircraft was taken down, reportedly by passengers as it flew over rural Pennsylvania. It was reportedly headed for the White House and the passengers’ actions saved the iconic presidential residence and dozens of lives in it even as they lost their own.

Meanwhile back in Manhattan, the towers were falling and people were jumping from the sky-scrapers’ windows while yet others were trying to escape via stairs. Some never got the chance to make either choice. They were trapped. Firefighters and police officers were doing what they do best, rushing to the danger rather than away from it.

New Yorkers watched in horror as The Big Apple, known for its World Trade Center towers, ironically resembling the number eleven, imploded with toxic dust filling the air for miles. When it was all said and done, a combined, nearly 3,000 people in the Trade Center, including dozens of rescue personnel, the Pentagon and passengers on all four commercial hijacked aircrafts, had perished that day.

The FDNY was decimated with barely a fire house untouched by the tragedy of a brother or sister’s death at Ground Zero. Thousands of others would later suffer or perish from the toxic exposure at the Trade Center. Even now.

The victims came from all over New York. Some commuted from New Jersey and as far away as Connecticut and Pennsylvania. They hailed from countries of birth across the globe and right here in the five boroughs of New York City, including connection to York College, CUNY, which lost an alum and the husband of a then-recent graduate and the husband and son-in-law of employee Susan Spitz. However, there was hardly anyone untouched by the tragedy in some way. We all knew somebody or somebody six degrees separated from us, who had perished there.

In the ensuing years York College continues to honor the memory of those who died on that day and beyond. Some York colleagues are still here and we share their recollections.

According to Stephanie Cooper, then of Academic Affairs but currently in the Human Resources department, the tragedy bonded the college community and brought out then-President Charles Kidd’s “finest hour,” as he stood in unity with a horrified, campus family.

Cooper’s visceral account shared via email, brings back memories afresh as she recalls it in the staccato rhythm of trauma recollected:

“I’m gonna say the whole University “closed” early. NOTHING was happening simply because everyone was just ‘zombified.’ I recall Dr. Kidd asking everyone to be ready to give blood when the call came; and we, all nodding in agreement…but of course that call never did come. No survivors to need blood.”

She added, “Earlier, in the H-Wing, we had been getting ready for Convocation that day and of course, as everything began happening, the TV in the President’s Conference Room was information central, with everyone going in and out to see what was up. That is where many of us stood watching as the towers fell in a heap. Could have heard a pin drop!”

Other long-term York Colleagues recall the day, whether they were on-campus, driving in or staying home because they knew there would be no activities on such a day as that.

“The lighted sign on the Northern State Parkway near Lake Success read ‘NYC is closed,’ as I drove to work shortly after the second Tower at the World Trade Center was hit,” said one such York Professor. “I think the sign gave more information but I could not process beyond the first line. I knew of the attacks before leaving for campus, and had my radio tuned to the news, but I was on auto-pilot. I had classes and meetings and I needed to be on campus.

When I arrived, I was happy to be with people I care about, but it was like we were walking around in a bad dream. Folks were gathered around any news broadcast we could get. In all the years before and after, I have never seen our community be as loving or supportive to one another. Students, faculty and staff were checking in with each other, hugging one another, crying together. We all knew that there were students and alums and family members who worked at the Trade Center and we were worried. Everyone I knew was walking around, asking others if they had a place to stay if they could not get to the other boroughs, inviting people to come home with them.

During Club Hours that Tuesday, President Kidd called a campus meeting. I have never seen the Faculty Dining Room so packed or so quiet, as he explained the College’s role as an emergency site, and encouraged everyone. In the days and weeks that followed, the area around the college was eerily quiet as no airplanes were landing at JFK. The orange and yellow alerts were being issued and I think we were all on edge for a long time, like the day maybe two months later, when several helicopters were hovering nearby and could be seen gathering from the parking lot. We found out it was a traffic accident on the Belt Pkwy and were oddly/sadly relieved.

Slowly we got our rhythm back. There were beautiful tributes and memorials and every year the wreath-laying service ensures we never forget.

-Dr. Margaret Ballantyne, World Languages, Literatures and Humanities.

“September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day in Queens, primary day with optimism for a strong voter turnout, Convocation Day at York with optimism for the academic year ahead . . . Until 8:45. As the news of what was occurring became clear, those of us in the Department of Behavioral Sciences, huddled together by the windows on the 4th floor from where you could see the billowing smoke. Suddenly, we were bound by history-in-the- making trying to make sense out of the unimaginable. New York City shut down and those of us who did not live in Queens were, literally trapped. President Kidd gathered everyone on campus, but what was there to say? As we slowly left York bewildered, colleagues who hardly knew one another were now offering rides and assistance. Personally, I had just moved north of the City and after checking on my parents in Queens, had to figure out a way to get home. Nine hours later, I was able to console my then 6-year-old daughter. She already knew the father of one of her closest friends had been in the North Tower and there was no word from him. Later that night we learned that Mohammed Shajahan was one of the victims, leaving behind a wife who barely spoke English and 4 children under the age of ten.

The memory of those days that remains strong, is what happened in the days that followed the attacks. Throughout the City, those of us who were not directly affected astonishingly returned to our daily routines. As I drove to the College, there were blue skies to my left and a City still on fire to my right. The trail of smoke and debris was visible for miles. Yet, all who could, returned to their lives. At York, we knew we had an obligation to our students; hence we met our classes in the days that followed to assure them, and ourselves, that we would endure.”

-Dr. Donna Chirico Professor of Psychology

Another professor who was not on-site, but watched in horror from home shared his memory and a loss too.

“I had intended to attend the York Convocation that day, but instead stayed home because my neighbor called at 8:46 am and instructed me to turn on the television set as an airplane had crashed into the WTC.  I witnessed the horror that ensued, which took the life of my son's friend, whose wedding was planned for the following week. There is now a neighborhood park in his memory.”

 -Dr. Robert Parmet Professor of History

Another dedicated professor lost a direct mentee while another shared the pain of a recently-graduated mentee, who lost her husband. She provides details here.

“My student's name is Minerva Mentor-Portillo. Her husband's name was Anthony Portillo. She had graduated in June and had just started a doctoral program at the (CUNY) Grad Center the previous week. She tried to continue in the program but could not finish. She had two young boys and the trauma was too much. They moved to Florida and built the house that Anthony, an architect, had designed for their family, hoping eventually to move there. The York and Grad Center communities really joined together to support the family through the difficult period.”

 -Dr. Deborah Majerowitz Professor of Psychology

In the aftermath of the tragedy, York Earth Science Professor Arthur Loring paid tribute to a former student killed at the World Trade Center where he worked. We share his poignant tribute here and have read it at our memorial tribute for the last several years. The printed essay is part of a memorial curated to those who died at the site that day. We thank York alumna/colleague Brunilda Almadovar and others for their foresight in creating this lasting reminder. For those who wish to visit it, the memorial is encased in glass on the wall of the first-floor hallway between the D and E-corridors. Dr. Loring’s essay is as he presented it below under the telling title he gave it.

In Memory

Ezra Aviles (Geology ’82) was born on December 23, 1959. He died on September 11, 2001 while leaving the World Trade Center.

Ezra graduated from York College in June of 1982 and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Geology from Brooklyn College. After graduate school, Ezra accompanied [Prof] Stan Schleifer on some consulting jobs so that he could gain work experience in Engineering Geology.

Ezra then worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Protection as Deputy Commissioner responsible for Material Response. Finally, he was employed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey where he was a valued manager in the Office of Policy and Planning, responsible for Emergency Preparedness and Response. His office was on the 63rd floor of the North Tower. He was one of the early confirmed deaths.

Ezra never forgot York College. He came back as a speaker for our Earth Day 20 and was planning to speak at Earth Day 30 until a job commitment forced him to cancel at the last minute. As his former teacher, there is much I would like to say about Ezra, for he was one of those rare students who stands out in one’s memory.

Early on his career at York, he asked that I not schedule classes both early in the morning and late in the afternoon since he came to York directly form JFK Airport where he worked for a catering firm that supplied aircrafts. He also asked if his wife, Millie, could sit in the back of the class with him when not in class herself.

In letting us get to know Millie, we all got to know Ezra a little more. And we all liked them both – classmates and faculty. He had a marvelous sense of humor. He lived in Commack, New York and is survived by his wife, Millie, his children, Jackie, 13, Katherine, 4 and Andrew, 2. Also surviving Ezra are his mother, one brother, two sisters and nieces and nephews.

-A.P. Loring

Current York president, Dr. Berenecea Johnson Eanes shares her thoughts too.

“Although I was not at York during that time, I too have vivid memories of our city and nation’s trauma and share in our campus’ sadness for those we lost. There is always a pall over our city and university on the anniversaries of the attacks. Our first responders and others continue to die from their toxic exposure at Ground Zero. We must remember them and we must honor their valiant service on all our behalf.”

President Eanes added, “We must also remember that rescue volunteers also rushed to New York from all over the country and now also suffer the after-effects of toxins and of PTSD; and our military service men and women, who paid the ultimate price in the wars that ensued. We may have christened ourselves “New York Strong,” in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, but the trauma persists even though the edge may have dulled.”

**In honor of the late President Kidd’s request to consider donating blood for survivors that day, Dr. Jean Phelps, director of Student Activities, scheduled two blood drives, one on September 1 and a second one tentative for late September. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, blood donations are at an all-time low, according to the New York Blood Bank. The drive on 9/1 was greatly appreciated.