Saint Mary’s community reflects on 15th anniversary of Sept. 11 attacks
Nicole Caratas | Monday, September 12, 2016
This year, many students starting their freshman year of high school will be the first class to learn about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks largely as history, not something they lived through. But for those who witnessed the tragic events 15 years ago, the memories of that day are still very real.
Saint Mary’s professor of history Bill Svelmoe remembers the day vividly: He was teaching a history course at the College during the attacks. He said he and the students turned the news on during class after another professor told them an attack happened.
“We sat glued to the television for a long time,” he said. “Every class the rest of that day were just students staring at me wide-eyed. … We had to talk about it, but we didn’t know much about it at the time.”
Svelmoe said students who lived off-campus called him that day asking if it was safe to come to campus.
“The story that was out there was that they were trying to hit really well-known landmarks, and the Golden Dome is a pretty well-known landmark.” he said. “It was a terrible, stunning day.”
Svelmoe said his job as a professor was to provide students with a place to talk about the attacks.
“We had to let students talk about it, and talk about it when we didn’t have a lot of answers for what was going on ourselves,” he said. “A lot of it was just gathering information and then helping [the students] talk through their fears. We tried to give some historical context, but I was no expert on the Middle East or on Islam. You just let students talk and try to help them process it and try to reassure them that we weren’t going to get attacked here in South Bend.”
Senior Helen Kovach said she remembers the attack because her family had recently moved to Hungary.
“I vividly remember watching the events unfold on TV,” she said. “The strange thing is, had we been living in the States, then I would not have seen the images, as we did not have a TV at home. I probably was not mature enough to see it happen.”
Thirteen years after the attacks, Kovach studied abroad in Angers, France, and was there during the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
“It was déjà vu watching the TV with my host mom during the hostage situation,” she said. “My host family asked me questions about 9/11 and my experience then. … These are huge tragedies, but our grief is a powerful equalizer.”
After experiencing New York as an adult, Kovach said the attacks changed her perspective on war.
“Three weeks before the attacks, my family had flown out of [John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York], but I didn’t look out the window,” she said. “No one on that flight could have known that only days later the skyline would change forever.
“When I was little, I was naïve and thought that wars and bad things only happened far from home. … I don’t think anyone watching that day could fully know what was happening, but what I remember was that planes crashed and there were tall buildings on fire and people were trying to get out. I was terrified for them.”
“When people ask me why I still want to travel after so many recent terror attacks,I tell them while the attacks are horrible, the best way to respect the memories of the victims is to live,” Kovach said. “We can’t let the terrorists win by living in fear.”
Saint Mary’s alumna Sarah Sullivan Bigelow, class of 1996, remembers her friend and college roommate Suzanne Kondratenko, also class of 1996, who died in the attacks. Bigelow was late on her way to work in Chicago when the attacks happened.
“The gravity of the event wasn’t even apparent at that time, but after the second plane hit, I remembered that Suzanne was in New York,” she said. “I called her right away, hoping maybe she was back in Chicago, or that she, too, would go in late for work that day. Her cell phone voicemail was as close as I could get to her. A few hours later, her sister and office confirmed she was in the second tower when it was hit.”
Senior Clare Durant has multiple family members and connections who worked in the World Trade Center and miraculously escaped before the Towers fell.
According to Durant, one of her uncles was in the towers and made a quick decision when the people in the office were told to evacuate.
“They say don’t use an elevator in emergencies,” Durant said. “When you’re on the 84th floor, you’re not going to get down fast enough. He gets in the elevator and people are shoving in, and they’re being told ‘No, you can’t use the elevator,’ but you can’t walk down those stairs.”
Durant said her uncle’s coworker left the elevator to find his laptop despite her uncle begging him to stay.
“He basically had to make the decision to go,” she said. “He wasn’t back fast enough. … They go down, and right when they get to the bottom in the elevator, that’s when the second tower was hit.”
Durant’s mother and Notre Dame graduate Rosemary Durant said the news of the attacks did not spread rapidly because of the lack of social media. She said even people who lived in parts of New York had no idea what had happened until later in the day.
“If you were above 34th Street … nobody knew what was going on,” she said. “You heard a little bit on the news, but we got the feeling they didn’t want us to see it.”
Now, after 15 years, people have different perspectives on the events of that day.
Svelmoe said teaching the attacks to students who may not remember it or who have not lived through it becomes like teaching any other historical event in which you need to thoroughly explain the climate around the event.
“To me it’s about context,” he said. “You’re always looking, when you’re talking about the past, to help students to connect what they’re studying to what is going on today. … That’s easier to do with 9/11 because we’re still living with the involvement, we still have a presence in the Middle East.”
Alumna Rosemary Durant said she still finds hope in all of the bad that happened. She and her family visited Ground Zero in July after the attacks and saw tributes surrounding a nearby church in memory of the victims of the attacks.
“You could see the rubble; you could smell it,” she said. “It was horrible. … But there’s hope, there’s life. There’s all this beauty surrounding this church. I wasn’t directly affected. It could have been worse. But you think that some people died, some people lived, some people got second chances. I know a lot of good stories that came out of the bad.”
Bigelow said her personal connection to the tragedy changed her point of view.
“It almost makes it less about foreign policy and more about the personal tragic loss,” she said. “Every time I go through TSA, I think to myself, ‘This is still risky.’ They can’t convince me this is completely safe.”
Bigelow said she thinks of her friend on the anniversary every year.
“To me, the date signifies a preciousness of life and humility,” she said. “We’re not in charge down here, and we may never understand the crosses we [carry]. We do our best every day and anticipate the eternal reunion.”
Kovach said the event was significant in her life, even though she was so young when it happened.
“When I was with my host family, it was difficult for me to speak about the attacks, but [it was] important to,” she said. “Until speaking to them, I never realized how much the attacks affected the whole world, not just Americans. At 9/11, the world mourned together.”