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Tony Perez has never forgotten the day the sky fell and terror came to his campus.
Perez, then the president of Borough of Manhattan Community College, was driving to work on Sept. 11, 2001, when he looked up and saw the attack on New York’s World Trade Center.
“There was a ball of fire,” he said, describing his first view of the 9/11 terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people as hijackers crashed airliners into both of Manhattan’s twin towers and the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers fought back against the terrorists.
BMCC, which occupies several buildings in Lower Manhattan, lost eight students and alumni in the fallen towers. The subsequent collapse of 7 World Trade Center -- only hundreds of feet from the heart of the attacks -- pummeled the college's Fiterman Hall with a mountain of debris, rendering it uninhabitable.
The building, which housed classrooms, computer labs and administrative offices, would later be torn down and rebuilt, earning BMCC the terrible distinction as the only U.S. college to lose a building to terrorism.
Then and Now: Move the slider to compare Fiterman Hall on 9/11 and this year
Even as Americans and people across the world struggle with a very different catastrophe in the COVID-19 pandemic, memorials around the nation this week will commemorate the two decades since 9/11.
BMCC's plans include a wreath-laying ceremony at the front of its main building, where a plaque commemorates the eight students and alumni killed that day. Leading up to the anniversary, students, faculty and staff have been sharing their memories of 9/11 in an online forum. The college has scheduled other events to reflect on its story of survival and recovery, which led to disaster-preparedness lessons that BMCC leaders shared with many institutions in higher education.
Lessons From Disaster
“Each disaster reminds us who we are and how we need to change to make it better for all of us,” said Marva Craig, vice president for student affairs at BMCC, which is part of the City University of New York.
Preparation for emergencies is especially critical at BMCC, which sits at the southern end of Manhattan amid a concentration of tunnels, bridges, roads and the offices of federal and local law enforcement agencies. In addition to being near the World Trade Center and other potential terrorist targets, the area’s low elevation near the Hudson River leaves it vulnerable to weather-related disasters.
In the last 20 years, the college has faced several major challenges, including 9/11, flooding from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and now COVID-19.
The 9/11 attacks taught BMCC hard lessons, Craig said, including the need to overhaul in-building communications and enhance counseling and mental health services. The college also learned to avoid keeping documents all in one central location, instead storing them off-site or in digital form, she said.
“We learned to pivot quickly,” Craig said. “That’s why we were ready for Sandy and, to a point, many steps were in place for us to take now.”
Shuttering the college for weeks after 9/11 also kicked off an early focus on distance learning two decades before the pandemic made it the new normal.
Even with great planning, however, disasters can be hard to fully predict.
“They say, ‘We will not come in the same shape or form. We’re going to give you a surprise,’” Craig said.
Perez, who stepped down as president in 2018, added that the challenge of the pandemic is very different from 9/11.
“What’s happening now with the virus is affecting every institution,” he said. “There is no one solution because it changes on a daily basis.”
The Long Recovery
Twenty years earlier, Craig had just made it to the college on 9/11 when a towering wall of dust and smoke from one of the collapsing twin towers enveloped the main campus, about five blocks from the World Trade Center. She ran up a twisting ramp to an entrance at 199 Chambers Street, arriving inside covered in ash.
“When I went in, they didn’t recognize me,” she said.
Perez credited college engineers who took it upon themselves to close air vents, keeping dust and smoke from flooding the vast main building, which is about the size of the Empire State Building lying on its side. Avoiding that additional damage made it possible for BMCC to reopen the following month.
“Leadership is everywhere in an institution. It’s not just the president or the cabinet,” Perez said. “Everybody has a role to play, but during a disaster, you’d be surprised at the people who come to the surface and take on additional roles.”
Emergency teams and police initially used space at the college as a command center after the attacks. With supplies from the BMCC nursing department, the college transformed the gym into a medical triage space for an expected wave of injured people, but after the devastating collapse of the towers, that wave never came.
Even as that recovery effort played out, Perez sought to get students back to classes in just a few weeks. The college faced many hurdles before it could reopen.
The collapse of 7 World Trade Center against Fiterman Hall had wiped out offices, classrooms and the entire continuing education center, which at the time was run by Acte Maldonado, a former dean and now a professor at the college.
“It completely destroyed everything. We had no records, no computers, no files,” she said.
Having lost a third of its instructional space, the college got creative coming up with new classrooms. BMCC carved up its lobby, cafeteria and other areas to make teaching space and set up trailers on the street outside to provide additional room.
“We all came together to produce the miracle of finishing that semester for the students,” said Caroline Pari-Pfisterer, a BMCC English professor.
She emphasized that at BMCC, which then served more than 16,000 students, the disaster of 9/11 wasn’t “just a one-day thing.” Instead, the traumatic challenge went on for months.
Pari-Pfisterer recalled how barges hauling away debris from Ground Zero docked on the Hudson River across from the campus.
“You’d be in the classroom teaching, and you’d hear this banging and these thuds,” she said. “You hoped you didn’t get a classroom looking out on the river, because then you would see the wreckage.”
Pari-Pfisterer said her students told her of their own traumas in the aftermath, from jumping at the sound of sirens and fear of more terrorism to Arab and Muslim students reporting verbal and physical abuse amid a surge in post-9/11 hate crimes.
Just walking to work was “an assault on the senses,” she said, describing the fires that burned for months, infusing the air with an acrid, chemical smell.
For many, that air near the World Trade Center also had serious effects. Tens of thousands of people who lived or worked in the area near the attacks have reported suffering health issues related to toxic contaminants in the dust and debris, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before Fiterman Hall could be rebuilt, the original building underwent a lengthy decontamination and demolition.
BMCC faculty and staff have been among those affected by that toxic air, said Lisa Rose, a BMCC professor of human services. She said that includes those present on 9/11 and people who worked at the college in the weeks and months that followed.
“There are some people who have passed away, sadly. Others who are continuing to have health problems, respiratory problems, cancers related to 9/11,” said Rose, who served on the 9/11 health and safety committee for the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing faculty and staff at CUNY. She is also the mother of former U.S. congressman Max Rose, who worked on securing federal benefits for people harmed by the attacks.
“There is concern among those of us who were around then about what is going to happen in the future,” she said of the potential health effects. “Perhaps we should not have come back as quickly as we did, although it really seemed like the right thing at the time.”
The attacks left a lasting legacy at a college now teaching a generation then unborn who know that day only as history.
In the first few years after 9/11, Pari-Pfisterer said, the attacks were a communal experience in the classroom and a topic for personal writing assignments. Now, she said, “you can’t spend much time on it.”
“There’s no memory of it anymore,” she said of her current students. “Now, I feel like I’m referring to it the way you refer to Pearl Harbor.”
However, the rebuilt Fiterman Hall that opened in 2012 remains a tangible reminder of what happened for all who teach and learn inside its classrooms.
“We have a building that was built because of 9/11,” Craig said. “We do not stop the reminder to students of why we got the building and why the building is there.”
Perez said the most lasting memory of BMCC and 9/11 is of the college aiding its community during the disaster, serving as a base for emergency workers and remaining committed to helping students complete their education.
“That will be always part of the history of the college,” he said. “Its ability to be resilient.”