Cover photo by Bill Lickman | Photographer
Twenty years ago, four planes were commandeered by terrorists and crashed into iconic sites in America: the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane also crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania.
Much like the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the 2001 attack shocked us and shaped us. In real-time and with an audience of millions, the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York City. Two decades later, 9/11 remains a date that will forever signify more than just numbers on a calendar. The images of burning buildings, memories of the lives that were snuffed out and the unending heartache remain with us, whether witnessed firsthand or in history books.
So now we come to this juncture, 20 years from that fateful day when terror came streaking through blue skies.
We pause to remember where some of us were, what we thought and how we were changed by this event.
Images That Remain
Story by Ayanna Bronner, Taylor Lawson and Macy Jones
Tiffany Shipp was living her dream. The Louisville, Kentucky native, a recording major at MTSU, had moved to Brooklyn in early September 2001 to begin her first job, one she had snagged while an intern at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers a few months earlier.
On Sept. 10, Shipp was finishing unpacking boxes and decorating her apartment. She would begin work in a few days. Outside, rain pelted the windows, but the storm didn’t bother her.
Her dream to move to NYC had finally come true.
She went to bed, and a ringing phone woke her up the next morning— she didn’t answer.
“Whoever it is can leave a message,” she thought. Then she heard the urgent voice of her friend, Evelyn: “Oh my God! The World Trade Center. Call me and tell me you are okay.”
“I think to myself, ‘Oh wow, that storm was really bad. I guess lightning must’ve hit the World Trade Center or something. She’s calling to check on me because we had a bad storm,’” Shipp said.
She found out something different happened when she turned on the television.
Soon after, her father, a retired sailor, called to give her instructions. “Go down the street and take cash out the ATM, get water, get batteries, get your ass back home, lock the doors, and you do not come out of your house for the next three to four days until we figure out if we are under attack or war.”
Shipp followed her father’s order.
“The thing is, I wasn’t scared in that moment,” she said.
The feelings of despair and uncertainty would come later. “Everything looked bad and the smell was bad, but after knowing about the collapse of the buildings, you realized that that was the smell of people,” she said.
She noticed changes, too. Women began wearing sneakers instead of high-heeled shoes, so they could have a better chance of making it to safety should there be another attack. But there was also the sense of a community of strangers, too. People helping each other.
That’s what Shipp wanted to do, too. With her new job on hold, she took work at an Outback restaurant that was providing meals to workers clearing the rubble from the fallen towers of the World Trade Center. She rode a small bus filled with packaged meals and drove past barriers that kept the curious and the press away. A few blocks from Ground Zero, Shipp and others began handing out meals to hungry firefighters and other emergency responders.
The images remain with her: a German Shepard in fire boots struggle to walk through the debris; the smell of smoke; the grit of the ash on her skin.
Shipp still finds it hard to believe that she was there, a witness to the front lines of one of America’s greatest tragedies.
One scene, in particular, stands out to her. “When you watch that old footage of that footbridge that had the flag on it, I look at it and I go, ‘I was right there,'” she said. A firefighter whose name is unknown was nearby.
“I handed the food to the guy, and he said, ‘Thank you so much.’ And I was like, ‘No, thank you.'”
America is Forever Changed
Story by Tyler Hurst
Rob Patterson was asleep when a friend called on the morning of September 11, 2001, and told him to turn on the television. He didn’t even have time to wipe the sleep from his eyes before the unbelievable images jolted him fully awake.
Patterson is the assistant director of admissions at MTSU, but in 2001 he was just a kid from the small West Tennessee town of Trenton working as a sales rep for Rubbermaid in Houston.
“I was in shock,” he said. “I saw it when the tower actually fell.”
Shock yielded to terror and fear. After all, Houston is one of the largest cities in the United States. If terrorists could hit New York, who was to stop them from hitting places like Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston? While he worried about his own well-being, he was also terrified for his family.
“All of my family was in Tennessee, and I was just stuck there unable to do anything.”
Looking back on that day, the image he can’t forget is the collapse of the towers and hundreds of people running for their lives.
Twenty years later, Patterson believes that America is forever changed, especially when it comes to air travel.
Despite these precautions, Patterson still believes Americans don’t always feel safe when flying. “Everyone is still skeptical when they get on planes.” There’s always the fear that someone eluded security with intent to bring down a plane. People who lived through 9/11 and watched it happen on live TV may never again feel completely safe while traveling, he said.
But Patterson admitted the additional security measures have helped make airline travel safer than ever. Twenty years have passed without another 9/11, and vigilance can keep it from occurring again, he said.
“We Were All Americans That Day”
Story by Noah Brady
There are not very many boring days in the life of a campus minister. Some have more of a lasting impact than others. Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those days.
“It’s not just that I remember what happened that day, I remember details. There are days where I don’t remember what I had for breakfast that morning, but I remember specific details about that day,” said Mark Whitt, Middle Tennessee State University Campus minister at the Baptist Collegiate Ministry, a position he has held for four years.
In September of 2001, Mark, his wife, and two young children were living in Murray, Kentucky, where he had a similar job ministering to Murray State University students. Mark remembered turning on the news that morning. This would have been after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center tower.
“I remember watching the live report and in the back of the shot seeing the second plane crash into the tower live on the air. My one-year-old daughter pointed at the TV and said ‘Fire! Fire!’”
Mark called his wife Lisa, who worked at a preschool program. “You need to get somewhere where you can turn on a TV,” he told her. By the time he arrived at his office near campus, “classes had been canceled for the day and would end up being canceled the next day too. The BCM, however, turned into a viewing location for a lot of our students who just wanted to be around others as they saw what was unfolding.”
The pastor said he, like many others, felt fear and uncertainty, but he remembered having meaningful conversations with international students. These students were afraid. “Will I ever get to go back home?” they asked him. Mark said he used these moments as a campus minister, and as a friend to these students, to share his faith.
“What we saw, as a result, was a coming together of the United States that I had never seen before. Your political affiliation or religion didn’t matter. Those days, we were all Americans,” he said.
“It changed the way we do public events…period.” He mentioned that when students gather in the BCM building today, that events such as 9/11 have him more alert and, in a sense, more prepared for a threat in those situations.
When asked if he had a final thought concerning 9/11, the pastor’s reply was as transparent as his faith.
“It’s heartbreaking that it takes such a tragedy just for us to call someone and tell them we love them,” he said.
Birthed During Fear and Loss
Story by Ben Nelms
Life’s toughest chapters also create the greatest joy. William Tusant is the embodiment of this equation of life – something good coming from something bad.
William was born on Sept. 11, 2001, at Memphis Methodist Hospital at 12:38 p.m., only a couple hours after the planes struck the World Trade Center Towers.
He was a couple of weeks late, which made his parents very concerned about his entrance into this world. Then on the day of his birth, the Tusants were stuck in a small hospital room. They watched the world burn on a tiny TV while they waited for their baby boy.
“It was a lot of change very quickly,” was something that William remembered his parents saying about that day. William always appreciated that his parents never made him feel like that day was a bad day.
“It was a day of change and a time for new beginnings. There’s no point to fear something that is not who you are,” said William. He sometimes felt overshadowed by the events that day but has learned to embrace his situation.
“It’s a day people will always remember. Whenever someone asks me about when I was born, it always leaves an impression and helps them remember me.” While William was not directly impacted by the terrorist attack on the twin towers and Pentagon, he is a product of the change that happened from that day.
William said that having 9/11 as his birthday brought a lot of grief on a day that should have brought a lot of joy.
Ironically, he has always loved flying since his first plane ride as a toddler. Currently, he is studying to be a commercial pilot.
“9/11 did not scare me away from being a pilot. Ever since I was a kid, it was something that I knew I had to do.”
Where many people see 9/11 as a day of destruction, confusion and loss, it was also a day of life and change.
Towers Struck, America Shocked
Story by Robin Pafford
On 9/11, Peter McCluskey, an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University, prepared to leave for campus when his morning routine was interrupted by anxious shouts from his wife.
“My wife had the TV on, and they cut in with the news,” McCluskey remembered. He could never forget watching the Twin Towers fall after being struck by the incoming airplanes.
Despite such a horrific start to his Tuesday, the Shakespeare scholar still had a class to teach, but not long after he arrived, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to focus on teaching that day.
“It didn’t seem real. I got five minutes into my first class of the day before I just told everyone to go home,” the professor remembered. What he had seen on television kept replaying in his head, and it was only a little after 10 a.m., not even two hours since the attacks occurred. His feeling of uncertainty stayed with him throughout the day.
9/11 shook America like never before, and there were consequences, good and bad, he said.
“Lots of bad things have come out of it, such as scapegoating certain people because of their religion,” McCluskey said, referring to prejudices against Muslims. McCluskey also noted how the security measures at airports were significantly increased since that day in September 20 years ago.
On the other hand, the professor described 9/11 as a cataclysmic event that united all Americans. “It brought the country together in a way that hadn’t happened in a long time,” McCluskey reminisced. He said people finally looked past the lines of politics and instead focused on the fact that we were all a part of the same country.
“Parties were set aside. At that moment, we were all Americans,” McCluskey noted.
Covering 9/11 as a Rising Journalist
Story by Case Terry
The attack on the World Trade Center towers happened while Keonte Coleman— a Middle Tennessee State University assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media— was still an undergraduate student at Jackson State University.
He had slept through part of the attack when his roommate rushed in and asked him if he had seen the news. They turned on the TV and watched the event unfold in real-time. Being a journalism student, Keonte sprang into action. He called the television station where he had an internship and asked if they wanted him to come in and start working on a story.
At the time, Coleman’s primary focus was sports. He knew some of the players and coaches from his school’s various sports teams were actually from New York, and he began interviewing them.
“Seeing the newsroom that day and all the ways that they were reaching out to the local community and finding ways to localize the story for Mississippi and finding people, it really made me want to get into this business even more that day”
However, Coleman wasn’t immune to the effects of what happened that day. The images of the towers and the fires would stay with him for a long time
“I’m not someone that was traveling a lot by any means— but having gone through airports before and then after there was this kind of unnerving feeling.”
Coleman also noted the loss of innocence since then.
“The innocence that things that are happening in other places can’t happen here was taken away. In some ways, we kind of fall back into believing that but a large part of growing up, I would see on the news civil wars and things like that in other countries and it’s like well that doesn’t happen here.”
“I want student journalists to understand that you can cover big where you are, and it matters,” Coleman said. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Don’t minimize what you’re doing. I think there’s room for all of it, and especially in the world that we live in today where content really is king, and your voice really does matter. So try to put yourself out there. Don’t sit on the sidelines. There are a lot of stories to be told right now.”
A Time of Unity
Story by Elise Sandlin
For Middle Tennessee State University Professor Jette Halladay, recalling where she was on Sept. 11, 2001, is “a very vivid memory.”
She was in her car heading home after leading a Bible study at a Murfreesboro high school when an announcer reported that a plane had rammed one of the World Trade Center towers.
“I drove home and immediately turned on the television,” the theater and dance professor said. “I was watching the news and was watching the newscaster— and behind him, we see the airplane fly into the second tower,” she said, the horrific image still fresh in her mind after two decades.
Halladay’s initial thoughts were of MTSU theatre students who were in New York City on an academic trip. She then thought of her students still on campus, knowing that “there would be a lot of fear.”
“I didn’t know what to think or what to feel. It took away an element of safety.”
She recalled a government study about Sept. 11 that greatly impacted her. The study dealt with a fear of not being safe by studying resilience in children and used children based in New York City as their subjects. None of them had lost a loved one that day, but all were close to the incident.
“They looked at the emotional and mental health of these kids,” Halladay said. “The group that was most emotionally healthy had only one thing in common— they knew their families’ stories. They knew their heritage, and that made them more resilient, more able to bounce back and continue going and overcome the fear and anxiety that had come with [Sept. 11].”
As a storytelling professor at MTSU, Halladay understands this connection well, claiming that Americans found strength in the tragedy. “We were bound together,” Halladay said. “All America, we all bonded together. We were all focused on rescuing people, and everybody was cheering for everybody.”
“America needs that unity again.”
Have You Forgotten?
Story by Elizabeth Heithcock
After spending Christmas of 2002 in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Uzbekistan playing his music for American troops, Darryl Worley came home and wrote a No. 1 song.
Worley and Wynn Varble, his co-writer, wrote “Have You Forgotten?” as a patriotic reminder of 9/11. The song stayed at the top of the charts for seven weeks on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Eighteen years later, Worley is still proud of the song.
American troops in the war zone are “in the thick of the battle,” Worley said. “Coming home from Afghanistan, I was a mess. It took me a few days before I even wanted to be around people.”
When Worley returned to Nashville, he and Varble were discussing the war, which was being criticized. Varble asked the question, “Have you forgotten?”— a reference to the tragedy that had occurred in 2001 when terrorists took control of planes and crashed them over New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania.
The question resonated with Worley. “I knew immediately this is no accident. We are supposed to be doing this today. It took about an hour and a half to write. It was a good day,” said Worley, smiling.
“We didn’t try to follow anybody’s formula in Nashville. We spoke our hearts, and, apparently, it was the hearts of a lot of other people too.”
Worley was scheduled to play the Grand Ole Opry that weekend and taught his band “Have You Forgotten?” before going on stage. As the song unfolded, the crowd reacted favorably.
“Those old guys from the World War II-era started standing up holding themselves up with walkers and crutches and canes, and (wearing their) hats from what branch of the service they served in,” the singer remembered.
Worley teared up remembering a mother of a fallen soldier in New York City who hugged him and said, “My son joined the service because of your song. I think he found his calling. That song was like an anthem to him.”
“God puts us in a position to do good things for people (and) change lives,” said Worley.
“I think ‘Have You Forgotten?’ pulled us together at that time. And maybe some of these projects and songs that I’m doing now will do the same thing. I pray that.”