flags

Every Duke who spoke with The Breeze said that, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, they hope that the JMU community honors the dead, discusses what happened and unites together.

It’s one of the only days where almost everyone on the East Coast can tell you where they were and what they were doing. 

Sarah Ward was a junior at JMU that day; she watched the second tower fall, sitting in front of the TV in her apartment’s living room. Tonya Amarino was a senior living in the Sunchase apartments; she and her roommates heard about the first tower on the radio while getting ready for class, then watched the second fall live on TV. Mary Larsen was a freshman living in Eagle Hall, watching it all happen. Adam Mattox was a freshman sitting in a calculus class in Burruss Hall when he heard the news.

On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 members of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda hijacked four planes, all headed for California: American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:46 a.m. United Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., at 9:37 a.m. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m.

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of what’s often referred to as one of the darkest days in American history. The anniversary is also marked by the recent full withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The drawdown formally ends the longest war in the U.S. — a “never-ending” war — that started with the stated intent of quashing Al-Qaeda and making sure Afghanistan could no longer be used as a haven for terrorist organizations.

Saturday also marks the anniversary of the death of four Dukes: Craig Blass, Matthew Horning, Bruce Simmons and Brian Thompson. 

Twenty years later, JMU remembers. Below are some of their stories.

When Danielle Stephan, at the time a senior integrated science and technology major at JMU, found out something had happened in New York City, she was in the car on the way to attend a swimming class. She heard that a plane had hit 1 World Trade Center, the North tower, then right before she turned off the radio, she heard that 2 World Trade Center, the South tower, had also been hit. But, she went to class.

It was once Stephan was in the pool that she realized her uncle, Gerard Gaeta, worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — located on the 88th floor of 1 World Trade Center. As the realization began to sink in, the class instructor told everyone to get out of the pool: The Pentagon had been hit as well. At that point, she said, she “lost it.” Her father worked at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just blocks away from the White House.

She ran to put on her clothes, still soaking wet — she didn’t think to bother drying off — then arrived at her car in time to hear a news report that a bomb had gone off at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, across the street from the EPA. The report was incorrect, but at the time it was one more piece of information terrifying Stephan. When she got back to her apartment, she started scrambling to get in contact with anybody she could. 

“We’re all frantically on the phone, trying to get in touch with anybody we can, and all I want to do is go home,” Stephan said. “I just want to go home to find my family.”

Eventually, the news came through: Stephan’s father was safe and had found her mother, and her uncle had made it out of the North tower safely, all the way from the 88th floor. Several people on floors 88 through 91 died or were seriously injured. No one above the 91st floor survived. 

The events of Sept. 11 brought the country together, Stephan said, and it saddens her to see the division that’s returned in the 20 years since. 

“I miss that — I miss that feeling of being an American,” Stephan said. “It didn’t matter that we had different opinions, that we came from different backgrounds. We were just people, and we had survived this event together. That should have made us stronger."

On Saturday, Stephan said, she’ll be thinking about that unity and the ways in which it’s been lost.

Carol Benassi, who runs the JMU Nation Facebook page, was supposed to be in the same tower that morning. Benassi was working for a software company at the time and had a meeting scheduled for that Tuesday in the Windows on the World restaurant on the top floor of the North tower. 

About a month before 9/11, the meeting was shifted back to Sept. 12. Instead of being at the top of the tower, Benassi was on her way to Times Square. When she and several coworkers who were also supposed to be at that meeting walked back into their office building, several other company employees fainted, having thought the group was dead.

Benassi didn’t watch any footage for several days after, and she’s never been back to the site of the World Trade Center — “I probably need to get closure,” she said. Like Stephan, Benassi thinks back to the unity the country showed directly after the events of Sept. 11, saying she wishes for that unity once again — especially considering the current landscape of political polarization.

“The one thing that I remember is that everybody was talking to everybody,” Benassi said. “Everybody was an American; everybody was getting along.”

On Saturday, Benassi said, she’ll be at JMU for the football game, thinking about the events of Sept. 11 and the lives that day cost. She said she tries to fly on that day each year when possible as an act of remembrance and strength.

Erin Meier, unlike Stephan and Benassi who have connections to New York City, has a connection to Washington, D.C. She works as a flight attendant, and that morning, she was supposed to be getting on American Airlines Flight 135 at 11 a.m. out of Dulles, the next flight from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, after Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. She was dropping Madison, her daughter who’s currently a fifth-year education major at JMU, off at daycare when she heard the news. 

Erin knows the names of every member of the flight and cockpit crew on Flight 77. The circle of flight crew workers based in Washington, D.C., for American Airlines was a small one, she said, and so everybody knew everybody — she said every crew member on Flight 77 was a friend of hers. 

Boarding pass for flight crew

The boarding pass for the flight crew of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

After Sept. 11, Erin said, her career field changed rapidly, with new safety protocols put in place to ensure a similar event couldn’t take place. The hijacking training flight attendants received before Sept. 11, she said, was more along the lines of a “take me to a destination” hijacking, not “we’re going to use [the plane] as a weapon.” Erin said she’s much more vigilant when she watches passengers board than she was before. 

It’s something Madison thinks about every time Erin, who still works as a flight attendant, gets on a plane.

“Still to this day, any time, I’m always texting her when she flies — I’m like, ‘What flight are you? What time is it at?’” Madison said. “It still scares me to this day that a flight could crash or get hijacked. While that’s rare … it still freaks me out every time, and she’s been flying my entire life.”

Madison said that with her mother’s connection to Sept. 11, it always frustrated her that history classes she took in grade school seemed to stop in the 1990s, just short of 2001. They both said not only should Sept. 11 be talked about in school curriculums, but the flight crew shouldn’t be overshadowed in all of the stories that came after that Tuesday morning. 

Headcounts people talk about, Erin said, often only include the passengers and leave out the flight crew — but, in her words, “They were heroes, too.”

“There were so many heroes that day, but you don’t ever hear that flight crew were heroes,” Erin said. “They were.”

Tonya Amarino, Adam Mattox, Sarah Ward, Mary Larsen and Jessica Bramhall were all — like Stephan — at JMU that Tuesday morning. 

Amarino, a senior English major at the time, got up that morning and turned on the radio, where she heard the news of the first plane colliding with the North tower. She walked into her roommate’s bedroom — “Did you just hear that, or was I making that up?” Her roommate confirmed that she, indeed, had heard the same thing. They turned on the news and watched together as the second plane hit the South tower.

Through the confusion, however, autopilot took Amarino to class. The bus ride, she said, was silent, and one girl in the back was visibly crying. Once she got to campus, instead of going to class, she walked to the movie theater where a group of students was congregating. Together, they sat in silence as the theater broadcast one of the major news networks.

In the following days, she said everyone was in disbelief, but even still, “You definitely felt that sense of community,” Amarino said.

On Saturday, Amarino said, she’ll be cognizant as the morning passes of when each event occurred: the crash into the North tower, then the South tower, then the Pentagon, then United Flight 93’s crash into the field in Pennsylvania. She’ll also be thinking about the national unity that followed Sept. 11 and where it’s gone over the years.

Mattox, a freshman chemistry major at the time, remembers the confusion. He received the news while sitting in a calculus class in Burruss Hall when his professor told the students there had been a plane crash. No one knew it was anything more than that, he said, until the class ended and they all went home.

Even though the freshmen had only known each other for a few weeks, Mattox said, they all came together to try to make sense of what was happening. 

“[We watched] as a community with all these people who had just left home and [that everyone was] just getting to know,” Mattox said. “We’d only been there for a couple of weeks, right? All of us were kids just trying to figure this thing out.”

On Saturday, Mattox said he’ll be thinking about what it felt like to sit in that classroom with no concept of what had just happened to the country.

Ward had a similar experience. She was a junior living in an off-campus apartment and watched the second tower fall live with her roommate who was from an area just outside of New York City. She remembers standing there, stunned. Ward said her roommate said to her that there’s no way the towers would fall, “There’s no way, they’re so strong.” 

Just a few minutes later, they watched together as the towers fell — the South tower, then the North.

“We both saw the second plane hit the second tower on live TV, and we were just like, ‘What just happened?’” Ward said. “It’s one of those moments that kind of changes your perspective on life and your security and what you know to be true in the world.”

On Saturday, Ward said, she’ll be thinking about how she’ll teach her children about what happened that Tuesday morning.

Larsen was a freshman living in Eagle Hall. Shortly after waking up, she got a text from a high school friend telling her to turn on the news where, like many others, she watched the second plane crash into the South tower.

Even though she was new on campus, having only been in Harrisonburg for a couple of weeks, Larsen said she felt the strength of JMU’s community as the campus came together to support one another.

“I really think that helped me feel like I was a part of something bigger,” Larsen said. “I wasn’t just another person on campus for those four years. We were all there when it happened, and I felt that bond through the four years.”

Like all the members of the JMU community who spoke with The Breeze, Larsen has a hard time wrapping her mind around the fact that it’s been 20 years. 

“Watching the second plane hit the second tower, that will forever be burned in my memory,” Larsen said. “I can see it. I can visualize the TV where I was watching it, where I was sitting at my desk overlooking campus, and it doesn’t feel like a day has passed.”

On Saturday, Larsen said, she’ll be thinking about the people she’s met over the years who lost family and friends on Sept. 11.

Bramhall was a junior integrated science and technology major living off campus, and her mother called her that morning to tell her something had happened. She turned on the TV in her apartment shortly after the second tower was hit. Bramhall watched the towers fall and said she just knew it wasn’t survivable. The next few days, she said, were full of “just trying to piece together what had just happened in America.”

Every Duke expressed a similar sentiment: the absolute magnitude of the day, and the absolute impact it’s had on their lives and on the country.

On Saturday, Bramhall said, she’ll be thinking about those whose lives were cut short; those who, if they were alive today, may be “nearing retirement on a golf course” or “celebrating a birthday of their grandchild.” It’s a reminder that nothing in life can be taken for granted, she said. 

The Dukes were also united in their wishes for how JMU treats the event: honor the dead, talk about what happened and encourage unity over any and all personal distinctions between community members. 

Several said that they had no idea just how much the world would change following Sept. 11, 2001. The day was marked with confusion and uncertainty, they said, with little cognizance of just how greatly their lives would be altered. It’s another thing they’ll be thinking about on Saturday.

“Every year, this anniversary, it takes me back to that classroom and being in that class with my peers and not knowing that simple statement of, ‘A plane has crashed in New York,’ what that would set in motion,” Mattox said. “Every year, I kind of sit back and reflect on what one set of actions can do to change the course of your life as a person.”  

CORRECTION (Sept. 10, 5:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that the time of Carol Benassi's meeting was moved the day prior to Sept. 11, 2001. However, it was moved about a month before Sept. 11, 2001.

Contact Jake Conley at breezeeditor@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.