December 20, 2001

Cornellians in New York

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Tara Ganguly ’03 remembers a calm walk from the subway to work on the morning of Sept. 11.

“I remember looking up at the World Trade Center and just kind of marveling. It was a beautiful, crisp day,” she said.

Minutes later she witnessed the first hijacked plane crash into one of the twin towers.

“I didn’t know what to do, because it was our second day of work,” said Ganguly, who works at the District Attorney’s office four blocks east of the Trade Center. She is one of 28 students participating in Urban Semester this fall, a program where students live and study in the city while working at an internship.

Chirag Choksey ’03, an engineering student working this semester through the cooperative (co-op) experience, exited the subway at Wall Street just after the first plane crashed.

“[With] the buildings being so tall I really couldn’t see the smoke or anything from the crash when I started to walk toward my work. All I noticed were thousands of pieces of paper floating in the air and on the ground,” Choksey said.

He and 14 other students worked in New York this fall to gain experience in their fields of interest.

Priyanka Sengupta ’03, also a co-op student, was waiting in New Jersey for a PATH train to New York when she noticed a crowd pointing across the Hudson River to “a tiny hole” in one of the towers.

Beneath the World Trade Center, another student, who wished to remain anonymous, exited the PATH train and was told to evacuate the building. Once outside, “I looked up to see people jumping/falling out of the tower. It was the most horrible sight that I had ever seen,” she said.

“The streets were filled with people, all walking in the same direction, sometimes stopping to stare in disbelief and fear at the burning towers,” said Hwan-Ting Lee ’03, also a co-op student. “We saw the top of the [second] tower lean a little, then crash down collapsing onto itself…. Several people behind me yelled ‘No!’ in a tone of almost denial.”

The students tried desperately to contact their families, but cell phones were out of service and lines of people stretched from every pay-phone.

They searched for different ways to get home. The co-op students had apartments in the city or New Jersey, while the Urban Semester students lived together at the Weill Medical College dormitory, Olin Hall.

“I just turned around and literally ran all the way to midtown for a train home,” Sengupta said. “There I waited for an eternity, unable to reach my parents or my boss. I just prayed that no more planes would come crashing down on us,” she said. “Finally the train came and everyone packed in and I was home.”

“I walked home 20 blocks,” said Ladin Yurteri ’03, an Urban Semester student. “My roommate [Ganguly] walked home 80 blocks.”

The cohesive group of Urban Semester students rallied together back at their dorm. “We all waited for the next person to come in and tell their story or whatever,” Yurteri said. “We looked to each other for comfort because our friends were back in Ithaca.”

Meanwhile at Cornell, the assistant director of the co-op program, Deborah Worley, tried to locate the 15 engineering students working in New York City. Eleven of the students were in the financial district surrounding the Trade Center.

“Within two days, we had everyone accounted for. Most people responded that same day” to phone calls and e-mail messages, Worley said. The co-op office sent word via e-mail to all co-op students saying that their classmates in New York were safe.

Sam Beck, director of Urban Semester and a senior lecturer, was riding on a bus from Providence to New York when the attacks occurred. Traffic into the city was blocked, so the bus turned around and headed back to Providence.

“I spent that evening and the next day trying to locate everybody,” Beck said. No one from the Cornell undergraduate programs was injured in the attacks.

The focus of both the co-op and Urban Semester programs is to learn through experience. Sept. 11 “accelerated that kind of learning, … enriched and deepened it,” Beck said. When he returned to the city, he and the students discussed what had happened. He prompted students to think about how the attacks fit into the framework of American foreign policy, such as the conditions that led up to the attack, Beck said.

He added that getting a better sense of what New Yorkers are really like — not “brutish, uncaring [and] highly individualistic … was another sort of learning issue for students.”

Beck also mentioned that “No one opted to leave [the program].” Nor has Urban Semester’s enrollment for next semester been negatively affected by the terrorist attacks. “I fully expected not to have too many students in the spring, but I’ve turned students away,” Beck said.

Many students did not return to their job sites for a week following the attacks. However, after the initial delay, most were unaffected by the attacks.

A few Urban Semester students were displaced, and the co-op student working at the World Financial Center was unable to return to her job because of damage to the building. She was relocated to a branch of the same company, back home in San Diego.

Students returning to their previous places of work saw immediate changes upon their return.

“My first day back to work Wall Street felt like a war zone,” Lee said. “The air smelled of smoke, and the streets were filled with the National Guard.”

Some students were fearful that they were still in danger.

“We’re right above Grand Central Station, so I’ve been fearing ever since the attack that something’s going to happen — that there’s going to be a bomb or something,” Yurteri said. “I’ll never be as carefree as I was.”

Several students noted increased security checks at their offices since the attacks. However, “daily life is gradually getting back to normal,” said Ray Huang ’03, a co-op student.

“The only time I think of the attacks is if I see one of the fliers for people missing,” Choksey said. “The pictures are always of the person with a giant smile on their face and seemingly very happy. It’s hard to believe that they are gone.”

Despite their experiences in New York after the attacks, the students who witnessed the attacks remarked at the city’s resilience.

“That night, people were at restaurants and at bars,” Yurteri said. “The rest of the country stopped, but New York kept beating, because that’s the way New York is.”

— Shalini Saxena and Michael Van Wert contributed to this story.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder