Longwood Student Found Herself a Part of History
Laura Henry won't forget her fall semester any time soon.
Shortly before 9 o'clock on the morning of September 11, her 20th birthday, the Longwood junior was in a subway station under the World Trade Center about the time it was struck by two commercial jets piloted by terrorists. A participant in the 2001 New York Honors Semester, she was on her way to a lecture at nearby Grand Central Station, from which she was later evacuated.
To make matters even worse, she mistakenly thought that her father was in the Pentagon at the time, and he knew that she was in Lower Manhattan. Each tried frantically to contact the other before she finally reached him at 3:30 that afternoon.
Laura, who had visited the World Trade Center only two days earlier, was one of 30 college students chosen to take part in the honors semester, held Sept. 1 - Dec. 17 at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus. It was titled Reinventing Urban Culture - each semester derives its theme from the location - and was sponsored by the National Collegiate Honors Council. For her project in a photodocumentary class, Laura decided to photograph dogs and their owners, since many New Yorkers turned to their pets for solace after the attack.
"After September 11 I felt some guilt in choosing dogs as my theme," says the English major from Fairfax. "It seemed like a light-hearted topic for such a serious time in the lives of New Yorkers and other Americans. However, after shooting for two weeks, I realized that in a way I was documenting dogs and their owners specific to the hard times. Pets, and especially dogs, are consoling, and many owners feel a personal bond and attachment to their four-legged friend. I saw lots of animals being hugged and kissed."
"We lived in dorms in downtown Brooklyn, which is completely different from Longwood," she said with a laugh. "A housing project was two or three buildings over. Most of the classes were held outside a classroom; for example, we went to planning and zoning meetings, and on September 9 we went on a scavenger hunt in Lower Manhattan to find certain buildings and learn what they're used for.
"The theme for the photo class was supposed to be A New Diaspora, about immigrants and New York's diversity. But after 9/11, the professor said we could do whatever we wanted. When I'd go to Central Park or walk around, I'd always talk to the dog owners. I'm a dog lover, so that's how I talked to a lot of people. Sometimes I'd start a conversation and then shoot, other times I'd shoot from a distance. I went to the dog parks and the Blessing of the Animals on Saint Francis of Assisi Day."
The first two weeks of the program, she and the others were involved in orientation, which took place in Lower Manhattan and thus placed her literally in the midst of history. She viewed performances on the evenings of Sept. 8 and 9 at the outdoor plaza between the two towers of the World Trade Center.
"The first performance was by a modern dance group, and the second was a satirical ballet. The second day, I went shopping inside the World Trade Center. All the restaurants connected to it were filled with people. I remember the World Trade Center as being very clean, more so than the rest of the city, and the shops and restaurants as very upscale.
"We were supposed to attend a lecture at Grand Central Station at 9:30 on the morning of the 11th and meet there at 9," she continued. "My roommate and I took the subway; because we were on the NR line - which goes under the (Hudson) River; the other line goes over the River - we couldn't see anything. We stopped at a station under the World Trade Center, called Cortland Street, where the train sat for five or six minutes. The conductor said 'There's smoke in here, I don't know why.' He thought maybe it was another train. Then we went to Grand Central Station, about 10 or 15 minutes away. Everybody was confused; some people said a plane had hit the World Trade Center, but others said 'No, it's just a small plane.' At about 9:10 we went into a Hudson News store, which is like a news-stand, and watched TV. The store was filled with people and cell phones. I saw two or three women crying.
"The lecture was in an office attached to Grand Central, and in fact it was about Grand Central. The strangest thing was that we had the lecture anyway. A lot of us weren't taking notes; we were in shock. We were going to go on a tour of Grand Central, but that was cancelled. We found out about the Pentagon during the lecture when a woman working in the station said 'They've hit the Pentagon. We have to evacuate.' Then Grand Central, which serves all of New York's commuters except those from New Jersey, was closed and the trains were stopped.
"On the way back home, we (she was accompanied by her professor and two classmates) were stuck in Central Park for a few hours, then we watched the news at the CBS Studios where they have TVs outside in the window. Everybody there was helping each other out - a woman bought pizza for everybody, and another woman's cell phone was working so she let other people use it. I couldn't get through to Virginia. We had to walk for two-and-a-half hours, toward the smoke. We took a bus to 34th Street, next to the Empire State Building, which is as far as buses were allowed to go. They opened the subways at 2:30 for 45 minutes. The subway I rode was shaking the rubble, so it was closed, and it remained closed for nearly two months. Most of my classmates had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge; I rode the train because I crossed when they were still running. Finally, I reached my dad from my room; the phones worked pretty well in Brooklyn."
Part of another class, in planning and preservation, was about Lower Manhattan. "We got to meet a member of the zoning committee that will decide what will be built at 'Ground Zero,'" she says. "They'll probably build streets, which were there once, and smaller office buildings and a memorial."
Two honors semesters are usually held every year, one in the United States and one abroad. Another Longwood student, Teresa Feher, had been accepted for the spring semester program, in South Korea, but that was cancelled due to concerns prompted by 9 /11. Two other Longwood students have done honors semesters: Joe Diamond ('01) in 1999 at the Grand Canyon, hosted by Northern Arizona University, and Rob Wilson ('97) in 1995 at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, through the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Laura, who wants to live in New York and teach high school English, attended the Macy's Day Parade on Thanksgiving, saw several Broadway shows, and often visited Central Park. She saw some positive signs in the Big Apple despite, and probably because of, the tragedy. "The crime rates dropped, we went to candlelight vigils, and I saw a human side of New Yorkers," she says.