Alumns return to relate WTC experiences

The Gaudino Forum welcomed 19 alumni to recount and discuss their experiences regarding Sept. 11. The forum, held Sunday night and entitled “Views from Ground Zero: Alumni Recall Sept. 11,” was organized by Robert Jackall, professor of sociology and Gaudino Scholar, in conjunction with the alumni office. The event drew a mix of students, professors, alumni and families and friends of the speakers.

“The event really springs out of a certain conception of this institution,” said Jackall. “[It is] the conception of a cross-generational community of learning. . . where men and women who go out into the world are willing to return and share. . .even the quandaries and moral ambiguities they experienced in such a crisis.”

Jackall came up with the idea for the forum upon noticing the return of many alumni to campus after the Sept. 11 tragedy.

The alumni Gaudino forum was designed to enable more alumni to return to Williamstown and to give students a chance to learn from their experiences.

“It is a very nice thing for people to come back, share their experiences, connect with the College again. . .[though] it will also be very difficult,” said Tom Kohut, dean of the faculty.

Jackall located the survivors, eyewitnesses and relief participants through the College’s website, using the section dedicted to alumni updates after the attacks.

After finding names of various alumni involved, Jackall personally contacted each alumnus over the phone. According to Jackall, most alumni were “overwhelmingly touched, grateful that the College had reached out to them.”

The speakers included Leonard Bakalchuk ’83, Palmer Bessey Jr. ’66, Rick Bowers ’90, Wilfred Chabier ’77, Scott Davis ’77, Patrick Delivanis ’00, John MacKinnon ’71, Peter Miller ’72, Patrick Moore ’97, Phillip Polomsky ’92, Mark Schein ’88, Brett Schneider ’94, Nicholas Spangler ’98, Bohn Vergari Jr. ’98, Thomas Willoughby Jr. ’71, Joshua Zucker ’97, Thomas Gass ’78, Anne O’Malley ’88 and Timothy Yarter ’88. Among the alumni were investment bankers, businessmen, a journalist, an engineer and doctors.

Strangely absent from the group were women , as O’Malley was the sole woman sharing her story. “We approached female alumna with incredible assiduousness,” said Jackall; however, most alumnae contacted still opted not to attend the event.

The format of the presentation allowed each speaker about four minutes to tell his or her story. Each took a turn at the podium as a slide show of images from Sept. 11 rolled overhead.

Points of view varied from those actually in the World Trade Center to eyewitnesses and rescue and relief assistants. Moore opened the Forum with a recounting of his experience on the 60th floor of the World Trade Center in his office at Morgan Stanley.

He described the “pure panic and chaos” as the walls began to shake, as well as his 45-minute “orderly” descent down the stairs from the 44th floor to the ground level.

Zucker, another investment banker for Morgan Stanley, credited his partner for saving his life. “I asked my partner if we should go back up to the office,” Zucker said. “My partner said ’I’m getting the hell out of here.’”

Spangler experienced the tragedy from another perspective: as a journalist who found himself on the scene when he was scheduled to be covering the city council race.

Describing the circumstances, Spangler said “[I] saw the first plane fly above me [and] started running towards the trade center. I figured there was a story there.” However, difficult conditions made him think twice about the consequences of reporting. “I thought I was pretty close to dying and I really didn’t have to be there,” Spangler said. “I saw bodies falling, indistinguishable from rubble. . . The whole thing was very unreal.”

Numerous alumni recounted the haunting image of people jumping from the buildings. Describing his view of the twin towers from his office window, Bowers said, “What people don’t realize here is. . .that there were dozens of people leaping from those buildings. . .that was the hardest thing for me to turn away from; I couldn’t stop looking.”

Though not an eyewitness to the tragedy, Schneider relayed his experience as a structural engineer working with buildings near the World Trade Center site. While he has been working closely with the results of the tragedy, he explained that he has been separating himself from the emotional implications.

“The reason why I am here tonight is to hear people’s stories and put faces with what to me is just concrete and steel,” Schneider said.

The physicians speaking made the tragedy extremely personal as they described their relief endeavors after the attacks. Bakalchuk explained how St. Vincent’s hospital emptied in preparation for those wounded from the World Trade Center attacks. “If you weren’t on a ventilator, you were outside,” he said, referring to the patients in the hospital until that morning. Before long the victims began pouring in. “We saw 350 to 400 people in the first hour and a half,” he said. “Normally about 80 or 90 percent of work is paperwork; that day we didn’t write a single note.”

Though alumni experiences varied widely, almost all touched on common themes such as their appreciation for surviving and the therapeutic nature of recounting their experiences.

Discussing his opinion on the Forum in general, Bowers said, “I thought it was a great idea, both from a personal standpoint – I thought it would be cathartic to talk about it to an audience – and from an educational standpoint.”

Delivanis echoed Bowers’ sentiments, though he expressed regret at not returning to campus with more close friends. “I hadn’t been back since I graduated,” he said. “It helps to talk to relatively familiar faces.”

In general, the audience seemed pleased with the Forum and were honored by the fact that so many alumni chose to return to the College. One alumnus in the audience said, “It was nice that people chose to share their stories. . .[but] I didn’t expect to see such a general recounting as reflections. Even now, they’re still going over the mechanics. . .I guess it is impossible to come to grips with what happened.”

The Gaudino Forum continue to “direct the College’s intellectual response to what happened,” according to Jackall. Not only will further forums address the current national situation, but also at least one course next semester will deal with terrorism and national security.

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