David Schroeder, Ph.D., was living in New York City when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. Twenty years later, he reflects on his own experience that day and in the years that followed, as well as on how it shaped him as a professional, as an educator, and as a person.
Sept 7, 2021
David Schroeder, Ph.D., was a doctoral candidate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York when he awoke one Tuesday morning at his apartment in Harlem to news reports about a plane crashing into a building. He immediately felt confused, and he wondered what, exactly, the news reports meant. Had it been an accident?
The date was September 11, 2001. The plane, it turns out, was American Airlines Flight 11, and it crashed into the North Tower of the iconic World Trade Center.
As he and his roommates watched the news, their perspective and understanding of the situation changed when they saw the World Trade Center’s South Tower hit by a second plane. They now knew that America had been attacked, and Dr. Schroeder says that’s when the dialogue shifted.
“We knew something was happening,” he said, recalling that day 20 years earlier. “We were warned to stay out of the subways. It was very anxiety producing, and we wondered what to do.”
‘We sat there feeling frustrated, helpless’
They had heard on the news that, because so many people had been hurt, there was a need for blood donations. They hurried to a local hospital, and there were so many people there that staff were taking people’s phone numbers, promising to call later if they needed them to donate.
But Dr. Schroeder found that making those calls – at least locally – was proving to be difficult. While he was able to make calls outside of the city, reaching anyone in New York was nearly impossible because of all the calls now being made.
“We sat there feeling frustrated, helpless,” he recalls. “Then we saw the tower fall, and my roommate and I both said simultaneously, ‘the whole world has now changed.”
Determined to help those who had fled from the towers – and the first responders who had run to them – Dr. Schroeder and his friends headed as far south in the city as they could. They saw people getting food and water to the rescue workers. For a few hours, they joined them, handing out as many supplies as they could. They were later told to go home.
After meeting up with friends on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Dr. Schroeder continued to watch the coverage on television, stunned. His memories of what they saw, experienced, and discussed – including what one of his roommates said, in particular – are still vivid, 20 years later.
“You could smell it, and you couldn’t escape that,” he said. “A roommate had just returned from Kosovo, and she said something very chilling: ‘I haven’t smelled anything like that since I was in Bosnia.’”
‘An ultimate low matched with an ultimate high’
That smell, Dr. Schroeder said, lasted for weeks following the attacks, a recurring olfactory reminder of the tragedy that he remembers experiencing anew each time he went outside. It forced him to repeatedly reprocess and relive what had happened. There were also auditory reminders – such as sirens and the sounds of heavy equipment – as well as myriad visual reminders.
One of the most painful things he saw in the days and weeks that followed were the photos of the people who were still missing that were posted outside hospitals. Families who had lost loved ones in the towers posted their pictures with a phone number for anyone who recognized the person to call.
“It was horrific,” said Dr. Schroeder. “It was a direct representation of a family’s suffering. The walls outside the hospitals were covered."
Though he is quick to point out that his story is “not nearly as devastating as those of some who were deeply impacted by the attacks on 9/11,” Dr. Schroeder is very much moved by everything he experienced that day, as well as in the years that followed. He saw intense pain and suffering, including the loss of hundreds of members of the John Jay community. But, despite the devastation, he also saw reasons to have hope and faith in others.
“It’s a horrible, horrible thing to have seen, but I’m grateful I saw how people responded to it,” he said. “Watching people as they came together, connected, really saw each other was incredible. It was an ultimate low matched with an ultimate high. People acted in ways that were so giving and caring in response to such hatred.”
‘What you do in that space defines who you are’
Dr. Schroeder’s experience in New York changed him, shaping his career path and his dedication to public service and to education. He says it impacted everything he has done leading up to developing and overseeing the University’s “UNCommon Course,” which enables students to explore critical issues while reflecting on their own biases and experiences.
What he learned from the attacks on 9/11 impacted his role as an educator and informs what he wants his students to learn from the tragedy. Concerned about the backlash that Muslims faced following the attacks, he says that responding to a situation based on hate and fear not only can make the situation worse, it can be dangerous.
This belief was reinforced by one of Dr. Schroeder’s students on the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. While leading a trip in Seville, Spain, with several students, including Max Giaccone ’14, he learned that Giaconne had lost his father in the World Trade Center.
“Max did not let what happened to his father turn into hatred for Muslims,” said Dr. Schroeder. “If someone like Max, who lost his dad, can make this distinction, there’s no reason why the rest of us can’t. I was blown away by his level of self-reflection.”
This September, 10 years after connecting with Giaccone and 20 years after the attacks, Dr. Schroeder is continuing to remember and reflect on what happened on 9/11. He is also committed to ensuring that his students – tomorrow’s public servants and first responders, many of whom are too young to remember the day of the attacks – can still learn from 9/11 and that they are prepared to respond to such a disaster with self-awareness.
“I want students to know that we’re not escaping the next few decades without another terrorist attack,” he warns. “Allowing it to generate hate within us becomes dangerous in ways we don’t recover from. What we need to focus on is between the stimulus and the response, because what you do in that space defines who you are.”