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'Surreal Cloud' Hovered Over Law School on 9/11
By Kristin Ekert

When the sun rose on that clear September morning 10 years ago, it was just another day of classes and on-campus recruiting interviews for the Penn Law Class of 2003. By sundown, thousands of people had died, and it seemed as if the world had changed forever.

 

The summer leading up to September 11, 2001 was filled with reports of shark attacks off the eastern seaboard of the United States. Michael Tieff L'03 remembers watching Good Morning America's coverage on what felt like another slow news day before the interruption came: A plane had hit the World Trade Center's North Tower. That's all anyone knew at 8:50 on that Tuesday morning.

Tieff called to his girlfriend (now wife) Candice Enders L'03, who, like many of her 2L classmates, was busy preparing for a day of on-campus interviews. During those first few minutes of news coverage, there was little talk of terrorism. Reporters on the scene remarked that it was hard to imagine how a pilot could run into a 110-story building on such a clear morning.

Enders watched the news briefly, put on her interview suit, and headed to Penn's interview center in the basement of Wharton's McNeil Building.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Kim L'03, also dressed in a suit, left David Rudovsky's Constitutional Criminal Procedure class early for a 9:30 interview, stopping on her way at the Law School's Career Planning & Professionalism Office. The usually hectic office was at a standstill as staff and students listened to the radio.

Kim learned the basic news that the World Trade Center had been hit, but beyond that, no one had any idea what had happened.

She continued on to the interview center. "We're trained to go on auto pilot when we don't know what else to do," she observed as she recalled that morning.

Melanie McMenamin L'03 was also preparing for a day of interviews when she received an e-mail from her sister reporting that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. She turned on the television to watch the news and, by the time the second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03, had a sense that something bad was unfolding. "At a certain point, I thought, relative to law school, what are we doing? Am I supposed to still put on my suit and go interview?" She did. "In this surreal cloud," she recalled, "I went about the business of putting on my suit and preparing and walking through the beautiful campus and going to do the interviews."

When McMenamin arrived, the interview center was in a state of chaos. The below-ground space didn't have any televisions or radio and, and in the pre-smartphone era, there was virtually no Internet access. "It was like a vacuum box where no one knew what was going on," said McMenamin. Interviewers, many of whom had come from Manhattan earlier that morning or worked for firms with Manhattan offices, learned bits and pieces from e-mail messages they received on their Blackberries.

By the time Enders arrived at the center, the scarce knowledge she had gained from watching a few minutes of Good Morning America was enough to make her a hub of information.

Back at the Law School, Dean Michael Fitts and Dean of Students Gary Clinton, still trying to make sense of the morning's events, arranged for a television to be set up in the Law School's Clock lounge area. Members of the Law School community gathered around the TV, watching in disbelief as the networks alternated between footage of two planes plowing into the Twin Towers and live shots of thick, dark smoke bellowing from the soaring buildings.

Bernadette Spina Tiso L'03 was in Ken Feinberg's Mass Torts class when a classmate, who had stepped out of class and caught the news coverage, told her that the World Trade Center had been hit and that it was reported to be a terrorist attack. Tiso walked out of class and, standing next to Feinberg, watched the horrific scene on TV. "He looked back at me and shook his head," she recalled. Within days, Feinberg would be appointed administrator of the federal 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, a topic that would become a focus of that semester's Mass Torts class.

As Tiso watched the initial coverage, she wondered if the top floors of the building could be rebuilt. A few minutes later, she watched the entire tower come down. Still, she had interviews to attend, and the extent of the tragedy wasn't yet apparent.

"I remember thinking, I'm a professional now, I have to pull it together." She headed to the interview center.

Shortly after the second tower was hit, Deans Fitts and Clinton would cancel classes for the day and arrange for crisis counseling for students. Later that day, the Pentagon would burn, a plane would crash in western Pennsylvania, and the death toll would rise to 3,000. Eventually, Bin Laden, Taliban, al-Qaeda, War on Terror, and Homeland Security would become household terms. People would speak of lost innocence and a new normal.

A decade later, has this country really changed? Yes and no, say my '03 classmates.

"9/11 started a whole new conversation within the legal field and the Law School about the treatment of terrorists and the Patriot Act," McMenamin noted. "We didn't come to law school thinking about civil liberties in that way, about the interplay of the branches of government in that way. And suddenly that became very important."

We also became a nation that looks over its shoulder.

We slip off our shoes at airport security, place our liquids and gels in ziplock bags. We have "go packs" in case we need to evacuate in an instant, designated meeting places in case our cell phones don't work. "I think it was a game changer and it continues to be," said Tiso, who has lived and worked in the New York City area for many years post-9/11. "I'm a little bit more afraid. It doesn't mean I'm not going to go about my day. But I do walk whenever possible rather than taking the subway. It's not like you think about it all the time, but sometimes you wonder, am I upping my risk if I'm on the subway?"

Still, the mundane needs of life loom large. "Life goes on," said Enders, a new parent, with Tieff, to a baby girl. "We go to work and pay the bills and take care of our kids. On a day-today basis, it feels like life is back to normal."

Elizabeth Kim, who has worked and lived in or near New York City in the post-9/11 years, agreed. "We fall back into our routines where we live and get by and do the best we can. It's hard to maintain the kind of heightened awareness we had right after 9/11."

Kim added, "I think 9/11 made everyone stop for a brief moment, reassess where they were in their lives, ask, 'What's really important to me.' Some people had a baby, some people moved out of the city," Kim's voice trailed off. "And we, at the Law School, we returned to classes."

Kristin Ekert is a senior writer at Penn Law School.