It was Tuesday morning. Asad Tarsin, president of the Muslim Students’ Association, was sleeping. University President Lee Bollinger was in New York City, where he would accept the job as president of Columbia University in about a month. Students, recovering from the rigors of Welcome Week, were adjusting to the rigors of classes. Those unfortunate enought to have 8:30 courses were showering. The Michigan Daily hit newsstands early, proclaiming that caller ID was finally coming to the dorms. LSA freshman Amanda Czop was talking with her roommate, who was instant-messaging a friend. It was Sept. 11, 2001.
B. Joseph White sat down in his faculty office overlooking the Law Quad to prepare a lesson plan. He had been dean of the Business School for 11 years but had stepped down a few months earlier to teach. He’d returned six days earlier from a trip to New York City, where he’d attended a board meeting with several alumni who worked on the 93rd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
At about 8:50 a.m., his phone rang. It was his wife.
She told him to turn on the television.
E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs, was in a routine staff meeting with her top advisors and she was tired. She excused herself to get a cup of coffee. Walking down the hall, she passed a large conference room and noticed the television was on. She paused briefly, watching a tiny speck disappearing into the side of what looked like the World Trade Center with a poof.
That’s odd, she thought to herself as she returned to her staff meeting.
When she got back to her office, Dean of Students Frank Cianciolo said, “Royster, we’re under attack.”
“We’re under attack?”
Later, she would recall meeting with the University’s upper echelon of administrators 10 minutes after that exchange. She was wrong. The University’s emergency response team convened at 11 a.m. – about two hours later. Nearly two hours of watching the news had melted into what seemed like minutes.
Meanwhile, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson left her office after seeing the second plane strike the tower. Peterson’s job requires her to keep up-to-the-minute on the day’s news, but the images were too much to bear, so she would use the radio to stay updated for the rest of the day. It wasn’t until years later that she saw footage of the towers collapsing.
Within minutes, the University switchboard was flooded with calls from parents trying to locate students and news outlets trying to find expert professors who might be able to shed some light on the morning’s events.
LSA freshman Scott Foley was in Calculus II. He spoke in a hushed whisper to his classmates: “There was a terrorist attack in New York City.”
The class buzzed and the lecturer, perhaps assuming that indefinite integrals were causing the anxious electricity in the classroom, continued to teach. Foley and his classmates grimly speculated about which cities would be hit next.
Outside, the atmosphere was surreal. Students who would normally be rushing to class talked quietly or stood by themselves, crying. On South University Avenue, groups of strangers huddled around radios. Walking around, it was clear who knew about the attacks and who didn’t. People who knew walked slower, their voices muted.
Department heads e-mailed their staffs, offering advice and instructions on how to comfort distressed students. One minute before 11 a.m., Carol Dickerman, director of the Office of International Programs, sent out an update on students studying abroad. She wrote that program directors abroad were taking directions from American authorities.
“They will also be alerting students to ways in which they avoid drawing attention to themselves as Americans,” she wrote.
Provost Lisa Tedesco called a meeting of top administrators. Tedesco had assumed the position of the University’s second-in-command only six days earlier.
At the meeting, which Bollinger joined via speakerphone from New York City, administrators decided to cancel class. At noon, they sent out a statement under Bollinger’s e-mail account expressing condolences and recommending all classes that week be dedicated to discussion about the attacks.
Other than that, few concrete plans were made.
Someone at a pay phone in front of Ulrich’s bookstore on South University Avenue called the police.
There’s a bomb in the LSA Building, he said.
Leaders from LSA Student Government, the Michigan Student Assembly and the Muslim Students’ Association, as well as other student leaders, crowded into a conference room in Harper’s offices after lunch.
They decided to hold a candlelight vigil that night on the Diag. Several student leaders headed to grocery stores. They bought all the candles in stock.
They also decided to set up walk-in counseling for distressed students in central areas. A sign in the Kuenzel room of the Michigan Union had “COUNSELING SUPPORT, all are welcome” scribbled in marker.
Twenty local therapists volunteered their expertise, talking students through the shock. Some went home as late as 1 a.m.
Although he had seen a seen a cloud of smoke hovering over New York City earlier on a West Hall television, Alford Young, a professor of Afro-American studies and sociology, had not yet grasped the day’s gravity.
He was on his way to his office in the LSA Building to call his mother. He found his co-workers milling around outside the building as police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs searched corridors and trashcans for traces of explosive material.
People outside the building were skeptical that there was actually a bomb inside. Conversation, of course, centered on the attacks in New York City, Young’s hometown.
After almost two hours of searching, faculty were allowed back into the building. The canine unit had turned up nothing.
The bomb threat was a fake.
Young joked with his colleagues that this was probably the most excitement the dogs had seen in months. After all, there aren’t very many bomb threats in Washtenaw County. Faculty members later found that one of the dogs had defecated in the sociology department’s offices.
Young finally called his mother. She told him what he hadn’t realized watching TV earlier that day: Two of the most prominent buildings in the heart of his home city had crumbled. The cloud he had seen was not smoke, but the remnants of the World Trade Center floating above the city.
Asad Tarsin stood on the side of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library facing Haven Hall, watching campus police officers assume posts around the Diag.
Worried that the campus might violently lash out against Muslims, he and the vice president of the Muslim Students’ Association had met with campus police earlier that day. They were especially worried about the women of their community, who were easily identified by their headscarves.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people flooded the Diag for a vigil, students standing shoulder-to-shoulder from the steps of the graduate library to Ingalls Mall.
Tarsin was amazed at the sea of people stretched out before him. Everyone on campus who has a pulse must be here, he thought.
Police estimated it was the largest crowd ever assembled on the Diag.
In front of him, he noticed a man with an American flag painted across his bare chest. He was waving, chanting, enticing the crowd to join in his patriotism. As the night’s speakers took the stage, Tarsin thought briefly of the dangers of mob mentality, unnerved by the chance that someone out there might accuse him and other Muslims of having links to terrorism.
Police were relieved to see the crowd sit down silently. Despite their numbers, people spoke in hushed voices. One person coughed near the graduate library, and the sound echoed across the Diag.
Five campus religious leaders took their turns at the microphone on the steps of the library. Tarsin studied the crowd’s reaction to each. Some waved flags, others cried, holding onto friends.
Sherman Jackson, a professor of Near Eastern studies and a prominent figure in the American Muslim community, urged the crowd to understand that the men responsible for the day’s events did not represent Islam.
“This act, in Islam .” he stuttered and stalled, searching for words. He yelled: “No! It has no place.”
Applause thundered from the crowd.
Tarsin was comforted by the thought that the speaker’s words would stifle any backlash against the Muslim community.
Greg Epstein, a humanistic rabbi and a graduate student, was the last speaker that night.
Take one hand, and hold onto your culture and family, he told the crowd.
With the other, he instructed, reach out to the people around you.
He sang a song and stepped off the stage, his own hands shaking so violently that he had to hang on to fellow speakers Jackson and Hillel Director Michael Brooks for support.
The vigil ended, and Tarsin walked Jackson around Tisch Hall back to his car on State Street. Although they had earlier cautioned friends to seek safety in numbers, Tarsin and other Muslims felt safe going out again. Campus Muslims would see isolated incidents of hate in the following weeks, but not the wave of hate some had feared.
Epstein and Rachel Tronstein, a leader in LSA Student Government, walked home together that night. On the way, Epstein said something he would remember and later repeat to Newsweek magazine.
“Our generation, as long as we’ve had an identity, was known as the generation that had it easy,” he said to Rachel. “We had no crisis, no Vietnam, no Martin Luther King, no JFK. We’ve got it now. When we have kids and grandkids, we’ll tell them that we lived through the roaring ’90s, when all we cared about was the No. 1 movie or how many copies of an album sold. This is where it changes.”
Five years later, he realizes he was right.
Students found their way home. The clock on the Bell Tower struck midnight. It was Wednesday.
This story was researched by Daily staff reporters Anne VanderMey, Christina Hildreth, Laura Frank, Kelly Fraser, Amanda Markowitz and Walter Nowinski.
They conducted a series of interviews with administrators, faculty, staff and students. To reconstruct the administration’s response, they spoke with E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs; Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs; University spokeswoman Julie Peterson; James Etzkorn, then-clinical director of Counseling And Psychological Services; Bob Winfield, director of University Health Services; DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown; and then-Business Prof. B. Joseph White, who served as interim president of the University after Lee Bollinger left. He dedicated his tenure to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Faculty interviewed were Alford Young, associate professor of Afro-American studies; RC lecturer Helen Fox; and Priti Shah, associate professor of psychology.
Students interviewed were Tricia Bass, Loren Berger, Amanda Czop, Greg Epstein, Scott Foley, Dave Krease, Steven Rodriguez, Asad Tarsin, Rachel Tronstein and Phillip Zinda.