Nineteen men. Four airplanes. Two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six casualties. After a day when the unthinkable happened, Americans woke up on Sept. 12, 2001 with the fear that anything was possible.
What would be next?
Iconic buildings across the country were immediately deemed potential targets. With a stadium where more than 110,000 individuals gather most fall Saturdays, the University’s Department of Public Safety took serious steps to protect Michigan Stadium, and the entire campus, from potential terror attacks.
Days passed. Months went by. The next attack never came.
Seventy football games and one hockey game have been contested in Michigan Stadium since Sept. 11, and with the 71st scheduled for Saturday night, there has yet to be a successful terrorist attack on the Big House, Ann Arbor and even the United States since that Tuesday morning a decade ago.
Of course, nobody knew what was to come on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. DPS was quick to respond that Tuesday afternoon, said DPS Deputy Police Chief Joe Piersante. DPS immediately sent officers out on the streets, and off-duty police officers were called in so DPS would be more visible on campus.
“There was speculation about how widespread the attacks were,” Piersante recalled. “There was speculation that the White House may be attacked, and of course we’re a major university, and we have a world-renowned trademark and we would consider ourselves a possible target, especially with the largest stadium in the United States.”
“And we were coming up on a football Saturday,” he added.
Michigan was scheduled to play Western Michigan that Saturday, but the game was postponed out of respect for the victims of the attacks and security concerns.
“We are sensitive … to the concerns we have heard from those who feel a strong need to signal our respect in the most public way we have available to us,” then-Athletic Director Bill Martin said at the time, referring to the decision to postpone the game.
On Sept. 22 — the rescheduled game date — extra DPS officers patrolled the stadium gates, and people were screened upon entry to the stadium. One hundred-nine thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven fans watched Michigan beat Western Michigan 38-21 as the image of the smoldering World Trade Center was still fresh in America’s collective psyche.
Despite potential security threats, players and fans alike expressed a desire to move on and regain a sense of normalcy.
“I don’t think security is that big of an issue,” then-defensive tackle Dave Pearson told The Michigan Daily before the 2001 game against Western Michigan. “Sure, people wonder when you get 110,000 people in the stadium together. You know, I feel that if you’re going to cancel one game you might as well cancel them all, because the chances (of something happening) each week are just as likely.”
In November 2001, all bags were forbidden from Michigan Stadium, but the restriction was lifted during the 2002 season. In the years since, infrastructure improvements — including additional video cameras and vehicle barricades — were added to Michigan Stadium, according to Piersante. There have even been periods of time when the Federal Aviation Administration has banned planes from flying over the Big House.
DPS now also works with the Ann Arbor Fire Department, Ann Arbor Police Department, Michigan State Police Bomb Squad and other agencies on a regular basis to ensure the Big House is secure.
In 2002, DPS created its canine unit, with two dogs specifically trained to search for and detect explosives and other weapons.
“When we sat down and did some brainstorming in the aftermath of 9/11, we looked at what we needed to do as a department to add some specialized units or specialized functions,” Piersante said. “One of the first ones on the agenda was adding a K-9 program, specifically to add explosive detection dogs.”
Officers have also received enhanced training for active shooter or terrorist-like scenarios and DPS created a tactical team to quickly and efficiently handle potential terrorist incidents, according to Piersante.
Even now, 10 years after 9/11, the University’s security measures continue to evolve. Since Sept. 26, 2009, fans have been prohibited from bringing bags inside Michigan Stadium. The ban came after federal agents arrested a suspected terrorist who was believed to have been plotting several attacks, including ones against sports stadiums.
This Saturday, the 115,000 fans expected to pack Michigan Stadium for the first-ever night game in Michigan history, will still feel remnants of 9/11 as they will leave their bags behind.