A Closer Look at 9-11 Legacy

Local students explore history on anniversary of horrific event in 2001

The freshmen in Brian Rodriguez’s "Modern World History" class at Alameda Science and Technology Institute (ASTI) were babies on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked and crashed four airliners on the East Coast.

Rodriguez had already led the students through a one-week research project that covered the Sept. 11 attacks. The lessons included reading about the events, analyzing the words of President Bush and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, watching videos of the attacks, discussing religious toleration, and journaling. But he wanted them to get something more.

"Because we live in the digital age, we are all witnesses in the 21st century to historic events," Rodriguez said. "Having speakers come into the classroom is the best way to show the impact that this event had and continues to have on our nation. This is how I teach students what real historians do. The history isn’t watered down. It’s not reduced to a paragraph in a textbook. It is real, immediate, and personal."

Jill Wells, the office manager at ASTI, said her most "horrific" memory was of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center to avoid burning. "People had to make that decision," she said. "I will never forget that." She said she also remembered feeling nervous when airplanes were allowed to fly again, three days after the attack. "You would think, ‘are they too low? Are they going to crash?’" she recalled. And she sadly recounted how newscaster Dan Rather broke down on the David Letterman show while reciting "America the Beautiful."

"He said the song would never be the same for him again," Wells said.

Tracy Corbally, principal of ASTI, shared the story of a friend of hers, a real estate agent whose office was "obliterated" when the towers fell. The friend was not in the area that morning but ended up working with other Realtors to find temporary housing for the thousands of volunteers who poured into NYC after the attacks. "She worked day and night for two weeks there," Corbally said. "It was very intense and emotional and painful for her. It’s an interesting picture of how people pull together after something like that."

Superintendent Sean McPhetridge recalled waking up and hearing someone driving around his Castro neighborhood with the windows down and the radio blaring. "I could hear something about ‘New York’ and ‘attack’ and ‘towers,’" he said.

But he didn’t know what had happened until he turned on his car radio as he drove to Alameda High School, where he was then vice principal. Once he understood the magnitude of the attack, his primary concern was his wife, who was in Brooklyn at the time. "It was creepy and eerie for me on a personal level, because I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, something could have happened to her."

As it turned out, she was safe. But back here in Alameda, he said, his biggest fear was that "anti-Muslim, xenophobic sentiments" might get triggered at AHS, where there were some racial tensions. "That’s when I became committed to fighting those beliefs," he said. "We have to counter those with every breath we take. Hopefully you students will go forward into a world with more peace, love, and understanding."

Assistant Superintendent Barbara Adams was driving across the Bay Bridge when she received a call from her husband, telling her that the towers had crashed. Adams’ daughter, then 22, was working for a company on the 72nd floor of 2 World Trade Center. Adams said she was so terrified she began bargaining with God. "I said, ‘If she lives, you can take me,’" she recalls. "I was terrified."

It took five hours for Adams to learn that her daughter, Malia, was alive, and another five hours to learn that she had been several blocks from the World Trade Center when the first plane crashed. "Her friends found her covered in dust on a street corner," Adams said. "She had talked on the phone to co-workers who knew they were going to die. She was beside herself."

Over the ensuing months, however, Malia and her friends helped build a database of people who were missing and volunteered to help those in need. "They saw the power of hatred and wanted to rebuild their city," Adams said. "They had seen death up close."

After the adults had spoken and left, Rodriguez asked the students what had resonated with them in the stories. Several mentioned being moved by the idea of not being able to communicate with loved ones in New York. "They must have felt so panicked and emotional," one student said. Others talked about how horrifying it must have been to talk to people who knew they were going to die, "who were just waiting for death to come," as one student described it. Still other students talked about the power of hearing about the lucky ones – the ones "who came so close but then survived," one student said.

Just one boy mentioned the hatred. "It’s crazy how someone would have so much hate they would kill someone," he said. "Think how angry you would have to be. I can’t imagine it."

Reflecting on the session, McPhetridge commented: "I think Mr. Rodriguez’s work with his classes showcases what AUSD and ASTI aim to do with students: Cultivate critical thinking and empathy, too."

Contact Sun staff at editor@alamedasun.com.