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Columbia Spectator Staff

Correction appended.

New Yorkers began their commutes to work, tourists took in the last moments of summer in Central Park, and students began to wake up.

As they stumbled into class or responded to phone calls from concerned family members, the news of a terrorist attack began to spread, and students watched the towers fall on their television screens or from their high-rise dorm windows.

Miles from the World Trade Center and inside Columbia's gates, students found that in two short hours, they had become New Yorkers. Whether they were preparing to embark on four years of college that had just begun or on life after graduation, the effect the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had was tangible. Reactions ranged from paralyzing shock to a need for action.

"It's 8:45 a.m., what could possibly be this important?"
-Greg Shill , CC '02

Andrew Cheung, CC '02, woke up when his mother called him from England to tell him what was happening. "I ran to the TV, and then I ran up to my girlfriend's dorm room on the 18th floor of EC," he recalled. "I remember when I got up there ... I could see the towers on fire, and that was the last time I saw them."

"I remember thinking ... Oh my God. Wow. But, at that point, I didn't rush to the TV, I just ... got into the shower ... it didn't hit me, the gravity of the situation," said Eliza Bobek, BC '02. She then joined her suite-mates on the 12th floor of 600 W. 116th St. "When the first tower fell, we saw it on television first, and then we all sort of ran to the window, and we could see the end of its collapse and the big smoke cloud that kind of erupted."

Greg Shill, CC '02, whose suite-mate woke him up to see the attacks on television, left his apartment once that day to buy water and withdraw money from the ATM. "We thought that other people would be worried and buy up all the water or take all the money from the ATM. ... There was a line for the ATM. There was a line for the water. It was like Soviet Russia," he said. For the rest of the day Shill and his suite-mates sat in front of the television "just watching the news unfold."

"Everyone was kind of walking around like a zombie ... it was eerily quiet on campus and all throughout New York," Cheung recalled. "That day was just kind of a haze."

Cheung had spent the summer before interning at Lehman Brothers in the World Trade Center. "I thought all my coworkers were dead," he said. Days later, he found out that everyone he knew had survived, but he still carries the Lehman Brothers identification with a World Trade Center icon in the background in his wallet. "It was just weird to think that I was working in that tower up until the very end of August, and then ten days later, boom," he said.

"I could smell the soot from the site, the winds had shifted north. It was pretty pungent. It smelled like burning metal and ash."
-Andrew Cheung, CC '02

But for Steve Poellot, CC '05, who was Spectator's photo editor in 2001 and 2002, watching the news wasn't enough. "I just wanted to get my camera and go down there," he said.

"At the time it seemed like a terrible idea to go down there because everyone was leaving and walking as fast as they could the other way," he said. But Poellot and his friends wanted to see what was happening, so that afternoon, after attending his alculus class-which was still held-he walked to 50th Street before taking the train as far downtown as he could go.

"I remember when we were walking in Central Park you could see ... the whole skyline was black," he said. When he made it downtown, he was overwhelmed by dust. "There was a cop car that was just covered, covered, in inches of dust. ... I remember smoke in the sky, the dust everywhere, just on top of everything," he said.

Poellot stood by the police barriers at West Broadway a few blocks north of the World Trade Center, taking photographs until people started running in the other direction.

"We were there for maybe 10 minutes or so, and suddenly everyone started running the opposite way. There was complete panic," he said. Building Seven had just collapsed. "We could see the smoke from that rising, and that was the only time when I felt panicked or scared ... not because of anything I could see, but because everyone was just sprinting and running as fast as they could in the other direction."

"Do you have faith in community? I think that's what 9/11 was like for us here at Columbia. We had faith in each other."
-Jewelnel Davis, University chaplain

In the days that followed, smoke from the World Trade Center drifted into Columbia windows, and students said they sensed a change in the political climate along with a desire to help.

"I think we actually went off to class at 9:10, you know how Columbia students are," said Ishwara Cherin, CC '02 and SIPA '03, who saw the attacks from a television in the School of International Affairs before heading to her dorm with some of her closest friends.

But others found themselves unable to continue their regular schedule. Classes, which were canceled on Sept. 11, resumed on the 12th, though many students skipped classes to volunteer.

"I was very impressed that the community thought, How can we help? Students immediately started collecting money and warm clothes," Barnard President Judith Shapiro said.

Stuart Weinstock, CC '05 and School of Arts '08, went to St. Luke's Hospital on the afternoon of Sept. 11 to give blood, but he and dozens of others were turned away because St. Luke's was unable to handle the volume of donors.

Cheung went to class on Sept. 12, but found that he could not focus enough to attend the next day. Instead, he and a friend called Duane Reade and asked for a donation of supplies, like food, blankets, and toiletries. He gathered "a truckload" on the Sundial and rode in a police van to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, which was serving as a supply depot. Cheung spent two nights there organizing supplies and volunteers. "There was a line around the block of people just wanting to do their part," he said.

Others focused on anti-discrimination efforts.

"Some students immediately made up flyers and went downtown to Midtown areas to spread the message [that] we should not at times like this bend to prejudice against Muslims," Shapiro said.

But some students were still afraid that prejudice would spread through campus. The Muslim Students Association asked Chaplain Jewelnel Davis to come speak to them. "They were really worried about racial profiling and ethnic profiling," she said. "That was amazing to me to be in a room packed with men and women from around the world, trusting that I would have some words of truth about the University's position in terms of protecting the rights of Muslim students and international students. That's not about faith in a religious sense but faith in individuals. Faith that someone was going to be a truth-teller."

Others saw a rise of political interest. "We were immediately thrust into a bunch of polarizing debates about going to war," said Poellot, who now works for the New York City government.

"Things like foreign policy, terrorism, Islamic radicalism were now what everyone was talking about," said Shill, who went to work on the Hill in international relations before going to law school. "Suddenly the thing that I was interested in was now what everyone was interested in."

"New York changed. ... People bumped into each other less."
-Stuart Weinstock, CC '05

On his way to the World Trade Center, Poellot saw sunbathers in Central Park. "It was kind of uncanny or odd because there was this huge cloud of black smoke covering half of the skyline. I guess it was very New York to keep sunbathing," he said.

But Columbia students found that New Yorkers had changed, that they had suddenly become New Yorkers, and that their understanding of what it meant to be a New Yorker had changed.

"If you were there that day, you automatically became a New Yorker," Cheung said.

"I remember that New Yorkers were all very friendly to each other; everybody was flying American flags," Cheung said. "That kind of euphoria ... lasted for about a month I'd say, and then people slowly got back into their normal routine, and as typical New Yorkers were very curt and snappy with each other again, which was refreshing."

"It was truly a moving, unique, powerful experience, but I certainly think people who were lucky enough not to be there were blessed," Cherin said.

"New York is a lot more about culture and a lifestyle that's beyond one traumatic event," Poellot said.

"What really struck me right away ... is it was the World Trade Center," Shapiro said. "To me, it was a moment of seeing our place in our world."

Tanveer Ali and Amanda Erickson contributed to this article.

Correction: "When We Became New Yorkers" (Sept. 11) misspelled the name of Ishwara Chrein, CC '02.

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