Teachers, historian recount 9/11 attacks

Dr. Michael J. Eula is shown in his office at the Genesee County History Department.

NEW YORK — Twenty years ago, everything came screeching to a halt at 8:46 a.m. for the American people.

Word traveled quickly that American Airlines Flight 11 had struck World Trade Center’s North Tower. People thought it was an accident at first — until United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.

Suddenly Americans realized they were under attack.

“It made people much more aware of events beyond the United States that were being brought here via the attacks,” said Genesee County Historian Michael Eula. “So it was definitely a broadening of people’s worldviews if I can put it that way.”

Eula thinks people had some hope at the time, after decades of the Cold War and its emphasis on military build-up. Americans believed before 9/11 they reached a time when there would be more peace.

After the attacks, Genesee County had 140 emergency personnel ready to respond on Sept. 14. Four days later the county sent 55 emergency medical personnel to New York City with five ambulances.

On Sept. 15 residents throughout Batavia lit candles all around town. On Sept. 21 Batavia high school students and faculty sent at least a hundred bags of pillows, blankets and sheets which were delivered by the Army to New York City.

“Military recruiters were overwhelmed with people volunteering,” Eula said.

“That’s just tip of the iceberg,” he continued. “There was volumes of stuff going on.”

Laura Williams, a Le Roy native and history teacher since 1999 at Elba Central School, said she dreads Sept. 11 because she relives it all over again. But at the same time as a teacher, she feels like it’s their obligation to pay homage to those who lost their lives that day.

“This year in particular I’ve decided to spend some time with my students talking about the heroes of that day,” she said.

Williams herself was teaching junior high students in her classroom when the attacks occurred. She said she remembered having a planning period and had her radio on.

“There was a fire alarm in our school and everybody left. I was stuck in the building. I was in the bathroom, and I heard on the radio that a plane had flown into the first tower,” she said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘My gosh, I hope this is just a coincidence that we’re having a fire drill right now.’ ”

Students returned to the building, and the teachers had to navigate how to teach what was going on. Williams said it was not only a tough day, but a tough week. She said teachers had to be cognisant the students were young and not to scare them.

There weren’t televisions in the classrooms, so the juniors and seniors were taken to the library to watch the news.

“I think what I remember most moving forward from that day was just the fear our kids had that the United States was no longer safe,” Williams said. “They were coming to school, and it was our job to really help them navigate that idea. That well, yes, this was an attack on American soil, that our location — Upstate New York — was a relatively safe one.”

Williams said there was no handbook in teaching history as it was unfolding right in front of you.

Michael Rapone, assistant principal and athletic director at Notre Dame High School, said Notre Dame received a phone call from the main office secretary saying something hit the World Trade Center. They turned on the television at school.

“As each thing followed, it was pretty scary because you didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said. “We kind of kept our fingers crossed and tried to keep our students informed. We kept everyone here until we knew it was safe to send people home.”

Rapone said a lot of the teachers did a great job at informing the students.

Eula himself was a college professor in Los Angeles 20 years ago. He said he went to class that day, and the campus just shut down. Nothing was done formally, but people just drifted away to get home. Eula said there was a real fear if New York City had been attacked, a city such as Los Angeles could be next.

“There was an immediate fear that the attacks at the Pentagon, at the Twin Towers, the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania, there was a fear that we didn’t know what was going to happen on Sept. 12. What would this mean?” he said.

Eula himself was still in the Army reserves at the time. He didn’t know if he would be called in as a result of the attack.

“What I find really historically ironic is what just happened in Afghanistan and the coming of power there of people clearly committed to terrorism,” he said. “I know I certainly feel a certain anxiousness about this. I know my family does.”

Eula said they don’t know what’s going to happen next week. He said it’s very reminiscent of 20 years ago.

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