A City Transformed By a Terrible Morning

The human mind is well known for adjusting distant memories in ways that are often unexpected. So it is regarding my recollections of the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath. Fortunately, I was able to refer to notes I took during this tumultuous time, which have helped considerably in focusing my recollections.


Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was a beautiful late-summer day. Many people have recalled that the sky that morning was a strikingly iridescent blue. I was putting on my tie and just about to get into my car for the 45-minute trip to Juilliard when my wife, Elizabeth, told me to come to the television. The time was shortly after 8:45 a.m. I told her I was in a rush, but she insisted. What I saw confused me. My impression of the enormous smoking gash in the north tower of the World Trade Center was that we were witnessing a horrific airplane accident reminiscent of when a U.S. Air Force bomber had flown into the Empire State Building in 1945.

But then, as we watched with incredulous horror, the second plane struck at 9:03 a.m. Newscasters began to announce that the United States was under attack. Our first instinctive response was to try to contact our daughter, Catherine, who was the only one of our three children then living and working in Manhattan. However, phone service was intermittent. I soon learned that I would not be able to travel to Juilliard by car or train. All access to Manhattan was blocked.

After much effort, I was able to make contact by telephone with Dean Stephen Clapp and Vice President Jon Rosenhein. In the panic and fear of the first hours after the two planes hit the towers, New Yorkers didn’t know if and when another attack might occur. (We learned a bit later about the plane crashes into the Pentagon at 9:43 and in Pennsylvania at 10:10.) As a result, people worried that every building in Manhattan taller than six stories could be a target. Although such a thought might seem to be irrational today, it was a very concrete fear on that Tuesday.

As a result, Dean Clapp, Jon Rosenhein, and I decided to evacuate the Willson Residence Hall and to assemble all students and faculty in the Juilliard Theater (now the Peter Jay Sharp Theater). There the dean told everyone they should stay in the building until we had a better sense of what our next steps would be. In the midst of this traumatic environment, the Twin Towers disintegrated before our eyes: the south tower at 10:05 a.m., followed by the north tower at 10:28. I recall a sickening, defenseless feeling when I realized that there were thousands of men and women in the two towers.

We decided to serve all occupants of the Juilliard building an improvised lunch at noontime, which was miraculously put together by the Aramark cafeteria staff. At about 4 p.m., I learned the disturbing news that Gordon Davis, then president of Lincoln Center, had announced that the campus would be evacuated. Regrettably, he had overlooked the fact that the Willson Residence Hall housed more than 400 students from both Juilliard and the School of American Ballet. As the afternoon turned to evening, no further attacks occurred around the nation, and I had to make the decision as to where our residence hall students would sleep. The initial concern of an attack on the Juilliard tower having diminished, we advised students that they could return to their rooms at around 7 p.m.

Automobile traffic was not permitted to enter Manhattan on Wednesday, September 12, but I was able to get to Juilliard via Metro-North and the subway, which was working north of 34th Street. The School was officially closed and the community was dealing with the tragedy in different ways: a large group of drama students was on its way to ground zero to give blood (sadly, the destruction of the towers and their inhabitants was so complete that very little blood was ultimately needed). A group of string players led by a freshman named William Harvey went to the armory where families of the missing and first responders were gathered (see “The Healing Powers of Music,” a reprint of the article he wrote about that day). Many students tried to block out the horror by simply practicing.

Wednesday noon there was a meeting of the Lincoln Center Council at which each C.E.O. of the Center’s constituents was present. Lincoln Center was still closed, but there also surfaced, for the first time, a need and desire to respond to the tragedy by reopening its halls. Bomb threats were the order of the day for the rest of the week—including at Juilliard, where we evacuated a portion of the building at one point. The city was tense, yet there was a transformation as well. Cars and taxis rarely honked their horns; people seemed to go out of their way to be polite with a held door, a smile.

President Bush visited ground zero on Friday and gave his famous challenge to the perpetrators of the terror attack through a borrowed bullhorn. As time moved on, I was concerned that our audiences would be hesitant to come to concerts because of the fear of congregating in large crowds, but the exact opposite occurred. Our concerts were filled to overflowing. New Yorkers clearly wanted to come together as a community and to experience the considerable power of the arts to provide solace in troubled times.

As we commemorate the 10-year anniversary of this tragedy, I cannot say with any assurance that we have changed as a people, independent of the many security procedures we endure today. The tragedy reflected the worst of what humanity can embody, but also showed us that New Yorkers can be wonderfully resilient and caring human beings. I recall these events with deep personal sadness. Juilliard’s longtime catering manager died as he worked at Windows on the World, a popular restaurant on the top of the north tower. A young man who had played in a baseball league with my son perished as a passenger on the first plane that flew into the tower. Although human history has shown us that horrors like 9/11 will reoccur ad infinitum, I only wish that those who suffered through that day might remember the part of their own persona that embodies the best of what humanity can be.

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