How Could This Happen?

Disbelief. Horror. Grief. Anger.

These are just some of the emotions that have overtaken members of the HBS community since the terrorist tragedy on September 11.

As the word spread on Tuesday, students left class to gather around television screens in Spangler and watch as two of the tallest buildings in the world crumbled to the ground, taking with them countless victims. There was utter silence, except for the drone of the CNN reporters, who could scarcely find their own words to describe the events.

By 10:10 a.m., word spread that classes had been cancelled for the day, and students dispersed to contact friends and relatives in New York and Washington, or simply to help each other cope with the enormity of the events. As both planes that hit the towers came from Boston, the fear was even greater. Who from the HBS community was on one of those planes?

Yet these events defied acceptance, and even comprehension. All of the trappings of sorrow were present: flags at half-mast, outpourings of sympathy, tears. But somehow this was different. Bigger. The victims at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon weren’t people in a far-off land; they were just like us. Thousands of people just like us.

The attacks did not just affect close friends, family, and acquaintances. By any twist of fate or chance in the past, we might have been in those buildings on Tuesday as well. Perhaps that is the reason why the sense of loss is so profound.

A Surreal Day

Tuesday morning began as usual, with RC students in their last week of Foundations and EC students in their third X class day. Students in Prof. Segel’s 8:30 a.m. Real Property Asset Management course were comparing the development of Boston’s Fan Pier with that of Battery Park City in New York. They watched a short video of the complex, which sits on landfill deposited in the Hudson River during the excavation of the Trade Center’s massive foundation. Students walked out of class to discover that what they had just seen on video was about to collapse because of two hijacked planes.

Thoughts immediately turned to friends and family in New York, and few were interested in the triviality of class. The HBS faculty and staff responded quickly, canceling classes and opening the Spangler Grille and auditorium for TV viewers. Dean Clark, who was traveling in New Mexico, attending the funeral of his father-in-law, sent an email to the entire campus explaining the decision as a way “to allow concerned students, staff, faculty, and other participants time to absorb this information, understand what is happening, and get information on people about whom they may be concerned.” Updates on resources available to the community continued throughout the week.

By 11:30 a.m., HBS and University Health Services made grief counselors available for students in the Williams Room, but most students chose to confide their concerns with one another as they watched the events unfold, frightened that further attacks might still occur.

Another email from the Dean’s office at 1:30 p.m. provided a more comprehensive list of resources available to students, including further counseling. Members of the Harvard Christian Fellowship were asked to organize a community-wide prayer service at 3:30 p.m. in front of the Class of 1959 chapel. At least 200 students, staff and faculty attended the ecumenical service. The gathered group prayed together and gave members of the community the opportunity to mention the names of those they were concerned about. HBS partner Amanda Bourne sang a hymn, and the group sang the hymn “Amazing Grace” while holding hands.

But most of all, the service was about a community coming together in the face of tragedy. Father Tom Doyle, ND and former Rector and professor at Notre Dame who was asked to lead the ceremony said, “I’ve only been at HBS for four weeks, but it is clear to me that HBS truly is a community.” As members of that community, “it would be a great tragedy if anyone thought that they need to suffer or endure this alone.”

Pat Light, Director of MBA Program Support Services also spoke. “There is no one right way to feel, but what we do know is that support makes a difference,” she said. “You need to take care of yourself at this time, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you will not be able to care for others who might need help.”

With nearly all activities on campus cancelled and few able to focus on their cases, there was nothing to do but watch as the tragedy unfolded on television. At 8:30 p.m. President Bush spoke to the nation from the Oval Office after spending much of the day on Air Force One, dodging a terrorist threat on his own life.

“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve,” Bush said. With an eye to nations that support terrorism, he said “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them.” This raises the likelihood of a significant military action when the identities of the terrorists and their backers become known.

The Day After

Although classes had resumed, little other than the tragedy was on students’ minds. All professors addressed the issue at the beginning of their classes, making it clear that the normal expectations of required attendance and engagement would be temporarily placed on hold.

In some classes, current events proved more significant than the case topics at hand. In Prof. Jason Scott Smith’s Creating Modern Capitalism class, the professor asked his students to decide if they preferred to discuss the attacks or the case on IBM and the Watsons. “It really brought us together as a group,” said Mary Moses, NE.

“I felt it was an appropriate decision to make. If ever there’s a day to tear up the script, Wednesday was the day,” Prof. Smith said. “Twenty years from now, the students will still remember that class.”

On Wednesday, we learned that all HBS students and faculty were accounted for and safe, but thoughts kept returning to HBS alumni who might have been in the areas. Web sites sprang up as message boards where classmates could check in. By Friday, there were 356 entries from the Class of 1999 and 246 from the Class of 1998.

While many concerns about relatives and friends were alleviated through email, phone calls and message boards, there were plenty of people whose colleagues or loved ones remained among the missing. Rev. George Salzmann, a member of the Harvard Catholic Chaplaincy who had been consoling other members of the Harvard community all day, including a woman at the education school whose fianc‚e was on one of the doomed planes, explained the situation. “We’re still in a state of suspended animation, an eerie tranquility,” Salzmann said Wednesday. He said he had encountered several “nice surprises,” where people’s friends had missed planes or woken up late, but that the other stories had not yet been told.

The events were the topic of conversation at lunchtime. Students focused on the longer-term impacts on both the country and their own lives.

“It really puts into perspective what’s important,” Logan Metcalfe, NE said. “You focus much more on friends and family instead of a career.”

While international leaders described the attacks as “a declaration of war on the civilized world” and pledged their willingness to assist in any retaliation attempt, there was some trepidation, particularly from international students. These concerns centered on the fear that the U.S. would retaliate quickly with its own form of violence. “The reaction should be measured,” Manuel Medina, NB of Ecuador said. “We don’t want to kill innocent people in return.”

Moving On

While autho
rities worldwide continued to investigate the terrorist conspiracy behind the attacks, President Bush declared Friday a “Day of Remembrance and Prayer”. He asked Americans to gather in their chosen places of worship at noon in memory of those who perished.

The bell atop Baker Library rang out for several minutes as noontime arrived, joining a chorus of other bells from across Boston and Cambridge, while approximately 1,000 students, faculty and staff gathered in the rain in front of Baker for HBS’ own memorial service. Foundations classes ended early and several afternoon EC classes were cancelled to allow everyone to attend. Prof. James Cash, representing Dean Clark, and Stacey Childress ‘00, the Director of the Initiative on Social Enterprise, discussed the tragedy.

Childress saluted the heroism of the rescue workers, as well as the passengers of United flight 93 who apparently averted an additional attack. “These were ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” she said.

Cash concluded the service by quoting these words: “We believe in tomorrow. We believe that we have the power to make tomorrow different than today. We believe that poverty need not be permanent…We believe that we can have a share in bringing that day closer by the way in which we live.

“The world may smile at our dream, but no matter. We believe.”

Last week was extraordinarily difficult for everyone, but it has definitely strengthened the bonds that bind the HBS community together. This sense of community will be tested again in the coming weeks and months as the world deals with the consequences of this terrorist act.