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Remembering the day the Towers fell

Reflections from the Princeton community on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

A view of the New York City skyline shortly after the Towers fell.
A view of the New York City skyline shortly after the Towers fell.
Courtesy of Susan Wheeler

Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In observance of the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, The Prospect asked Princeton community members — students, faculty, staff, and alumni — to share brief personal reflections and anecdotes. Responses were lightly edited for concision and clarity.


Twenty years later, I still see those who jumped.

Susan Wheeler, Professor of Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts

I will always be a New Yorker.



"The Only Plane in the Sky" by Garrett M. Graff is the best reflection on 9/11 I've encountered. It combines years of research and hundreds of voices to give a stunning tribute to all those impacted (all of us) by the event. I hope it can provide a model for historical storytelling, American identity, and excellent writing and research for others.


On 9/11, we lived half a mile north of the Twin Towers. Claire and a friend from Italy were having coffee when the first plane flew overhead.

"That plan is flying awfully low," Claire said. Seconds later, they heard the "thwump" of impact. I was at our office, watching the news on TV as we waited for a meeting to begin. We saw the second plane appear, and an instant later, it crashed into the second tower. My partner Mike, quoting someone I cannot recall, said: "Gentlemen, we are at war." Fifteen minutes later, I was walking the four miles to my home. About halfway there, I started seeing people heading north, covered with ash, looking shell shocked and desperate. They didn't want help, they just wanted to keep moving.

I stopped at a grocery store. It was packed. But looking at the carts, no one could decide what they wanted in the face of this crisis.

At home, I baked an apple pie. The phone rang all day long with friends wanting to know if we were all right. We were.

After dark, I walked along Canal Street, the northern edge of the protected zone. American flags were up for sale everywhere, and no one had any idea where they came from. In a vacant lot at the corner of Sixth Avenue, I saw a young woman surrounded by dozens of candles. She said, "If I can just keep some of them going until sunrise, maybe things will be OK.

Jim MacGregor '66

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On 9/11, I was the Political Counselor at the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. We were in a temporary building because the original embassy had been destroyed by Islamist terrorists affiliated with Osama Bin Laden. Almost all our Kenyan staff had lived through the 1998 bombing. Our temporary building was located below the approach flight path to two airports, so we had planes flying low over us all the time. The attack happened near the end of the work day Kenya time, so I was already on the road home when word reached me that the two towers had collapsed. I remember wondering if any of our Kenyan staff would decide not to come in the next day. None did. Everyone showed up. Later that morning, a large group of young Kenyans came marching up to our building, not to protest, but to express their solidarity with the American people in the face of terrorism.

Terry Pflaumer '71

I was a staff director in the U.S. Senate on 9/11. I was watching the Senate "floor" from my office in the Dirksen building that morning and saw the senators running out of the chamber. I had never seen anything like that and knew immediately something was very wrong. Shortly after, someone screamed, "Get out!" I ran through the offices to make sure people were leaving and then started down five flights; at some point, I abandoned my high heels.

With no emergency plans in place, the Senate staff congregated in the park across from the Senate buildings. We could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon, but no one knew at that time that it was coming from the Pentagon; in fact, it would have been inconceivable to think that the Pentagon had been attacked. Many of us, including me, had loved ones who worked in federal buildings and, of course, no one could reach anyone; those moments of watching the smoke rise will be with me forever.

I decided that no staffer should take public transit, so we organized carpools or stayed in homes on Capitol Hill. Others walked home. On Sept. 12, I got on the Metro and returned to the Senate for a previously planned hearing on protecting the nation's critical infrastructure. Each year on 9/11, I take time to remember the incredibly brave people on Flight 93 who very likely saved my life. I always wonder if I would have had the courage they had.

Joyce Rechtschaffen '75

On 9/11, I left a windowless hotel dining room in New York City at around 9 a.m. with no idea of what had happened. Approaching 5th and 44th, I wondered why so many people were looking into the window of an electronics store so early in the morning. I looked south and saw flames from the South Tower and assumed there had been an accident. At that moment, my colleague's husband called to tell her that planes had crashed into both towers. I walked to the office.

Later I learned from my wife that our son, who had worked a few hundred yards from the towers, saw the second plane as he exited the subway and tried to return to his apartment, but the neighborhood was closed off for the next couple weeks. I remember seeing the eerie sight of thousands walking north on Park Ave., some with fine ash on their clothes. I worked until 3 p.m., and when I left work, I bumped into two commuters from my bus who said there were long lines at ferries. We took the subway to the George Washington Bus terminal. I offered $20 to a construction worker stopped in traffic on his way to New Jersey to take us across the bridge where my wife picked us up.

Bob Nahas '66