Touched by Tragedy
The full effect of the September 11 terrorist attacks may not be known for months, but within days of the hijackings, alumni, faculty, students and staff were recalling their own brush with the events and their aftermath. Here are a few of their stories.
September 11 was Mike Odrich’s 38th birthday. A partner at Lehman Private Equity Group, Odrich, ’85, was sitting in his 21st-floor office at 3 World Trade Center that morning when he heard a deafening whoosh followed by a spectacular explosion. He ran to the west corner of the building, which looks directly across the street to the twin towers, and saw that the north tower had been hit by an airplane. “What happened shortly thereafter is still difficult for me to comprehend,” he says.
After instructing his staff to vacate the floor, he returned to the window, where “my field of vision was consumed by a large jet banking directly into the south tower.” The explosion and fireball, he says, “are imprinted on my retina.” He made sure everyone had evacuated, then took the stairs to the street. Odrich had been out of the building about one minute when the south tower collapsed. “I saw all the police cars and fire rescue vehicles and workers completely enveloped by the falling building. My heart just sank,” he recalls.
Then he ran. With a cloud of smoke and dust billowing close behind, Odrich sprinted northwest toward the Hudson River, behind Stuyvesant School and onto West Side Highway. Stealing a look behind him, he saw the north tower come down. After several unsuccessful attempts with his cell phone, Odrich used his wireless e-mail device to send a message to a colleague in Menlo Park, who contacted Odrich’s family to let them know he was okay. He walked to a friend’s house at 80th and Park, then took a cab to his home in Greenwich, Conn. The first person to greet him was his 6-year-old son, Parker. The little boy hugged him and said, “Dad, this is the worst birthday of your life.”
A month later, Odrich still had not had a full night’s sleep. “I’m up between five and eight times every night,” he says. But Odrich is hopeful. “I know our country will get through this crisis,” he says. “My group at work has come together in an unbelievable way to function, and I’ve seen New York rally like I’ve never seen before. We will be stronger going forward.”
Stanford development officer Donna Garton left the Warwick Hotel in New York City at 6 a.m. Tuesday and took a cab to the Newark airport, arriving at about 6:25. Garton, ’79, was scheduled to leave on United Flight 93 to San Francisco at 8 o’clock, but when she was told at the check-in counter that seats were available on a 7 o’clock flight, she changed her plans and walked on board. About two hours into the trip, says Garton, the pilot announced that because of “a national emergency” they would be landing in Lincoln, Neb. Once on the ground, but still unsure about what was happening, Garton joined three other passengers and rented a car to drive to Denver, where her parents live. Listening to radio reports, she heard that the airplane she had expected to take, a flight for which she still had a boarding pass and ticket receipt, had been hijacked and had crashed in a farm field in western Pennsylvania, killing everybody on board. “I am so incredibly grateful, but it’s hard to be happy when there’s so much sorrow,” she says.
Shortly after the blast shuddered through the Pentagon from the impact of American Flight 77, Lt. Cmdr. David Tarantino ran to the crash site to search for survivors. He heard a man crying for help from inside the pile of blazing rubble. Trying to pinpoint where the voice was coming from, Tarantino, ’87, shone a flashlight through a small hole in the debris and saw the man sitting at his office desk, pinned in his chair by a large fallen object. After some colleagues helped extinguish nearby flames, Tarantino, a Navy doctor, slithered through the hole, positioned himself with his feet against the object and moved it just enough to allow the man to squeeze out of his chair. Retired Navy pilot Jerry Henson, bloody from a head wound and choking from smoke inhalation, crawled to safety with Tarantino. A few moments later, Henson’s desk was consumed by fire and more debris crashed down on top of it. “I just want to thank him profoundly, because he is the reason I’m here,” Henson told NBC’s Dateline program a week later. “He has given me the rest of my life.”
Ground-zero volunteer Lisa Guili, a medical student at Cornell, spent 42 sleepless hours between the morning of the attack and Thursday. She was assigned to a “chaotic” relief station established in a bombed-out building near the World Trade Center, where most of the patients were rescue workers suffering from smoke inhalation, dehydration, sprained limbs or eye problems. One man, a 37-year-old Italian-American construction worker, refused treatment and insisted that he be allowed to return to the mountain of rubble where he and his brothers were searching for survivors. “He was badly dehydrated, had swallowed some butane, was throwing up all over the center, delirious, could not feel his legs, and was trying to push his way out of the station,” Guili, ’00, recalls. “I took a chance and started speaking Italian to him. It had a calming effect.” Guili held the man’s hand for half an hour, waiting for his iv to take effect, before releasing him to his brothers to take him to the hospital. “They were so sweet—they told me if I ever needed a hole dug to give them a call,” Guili says. Aside from the fatigue, two things stand out in her mind: the destruction and the body bags. “Dresden with taller buildings,” she says of the site, and “hundreds of body bags.”
Mid-morning on the 11th, political science major Michael Sulmeyer was in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, listening to former Clinton administration policy adviser Dennis Ross deliver a speech about problems such as suicide bombings in the Middle East. But when the question-and-answer session was supposed to begin, Sulmeyer recalls, the program sponsor got up and announced, “The Pentagon is burning, the twin towers were hit, and we’re evacuating.” In “utter shock and confusion,” Sulmeyer hastily retreated to his hotel a couple of blocks away. Sulmeyer was one of nine seniors in the nation’s capital as part of Stanford’s Honors College in international security studies. The group had already visited the State Department and was scheduled to tour the Pentagon on September 13. That visit was cancelled; but on September 12, the students did meet with officials at rand, a think tank in Pentagon City. “You didn’t need to be reminded on that day why it was important to study international security,” says Scott Sagan, professor of political science and co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, “but to see a group conducting research provided further inspiration for the students.”
Senior Christophe Larroque spent most of his final week of summer vacation stranded at a remote outpost of a Canadian maritime province. En route to Philadelphia from Paris when the attacks occurred, Larroque’s plane was diverted to a former military base in Gander, Newfoundland, population 6,000. There he joined more than 12,000 passengers from 47 airplanes redirected from their original destinations. Larroque sat on the aircraft for 18 hours as officials tried to sort out security precautions and logistical details. Eventually he was bused to a Bible camp nine miles from Gander, where he spent the next four days. Locals provided the passengers with food, moral support and as much news as they could, says Larroque—“one guy from town printed out Internet reports in both French and English and passed them around, but we didn’t have a television so we never saw any footage.” On Sunday, Larroque finally flew home. “The thing that will stay with me is the kindness extended to us by the people in Newfoundland,” Larroque says. “One of the volunteer groups prepared our evening meal—enough for 220 passengers—and drove 100 miles to deliver it. They were just amazing.”
Inderjit Chabra was awakened at 3:30 a.m. on September 17 by gunshots fired at his home in Stony Brook, N.Y. No one was hurt, and the assailant escaped, despite being chased by a Nassau County police officer who lives nearby. Chabra, ’95, is living with his parents while working toward an MD/PhD at SUNY. “We are Sikhs, and my father wears a turban and has a beard. Unfortunately, the pictures of Osama bin Laden being shown in news reports resemble Sikhs,” Chabra says. He reported the incident to the Hate Crimes Bureau and urged local government leaders to take a public stance against vigilante acts.
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Data is from the past two weeks.