John Follaco | September 09, 2021
Remembering September 11, 2001
The story of what transpired on the SUNY Brockport campus 20 years ago following the most deadly terrorist attack in United States history.
Marion Schrank remembers answering the phone on her desk on the morning of September 11, 2001.
“I’m okay,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.
The voice belonged to her son, who worked just blocks from the World Trade Center in New York City. Schrank, who was then vice president of student affairs at SUNY Brockport, had no idea what he meant. He urged her to turn on the news. Schrank ran upstairs to a conference room, joining colleagues in front of a television set.
Two hijacked commercial airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Both towers would soon collapse, killing more than 2,500 people. Another hijacked plane would later strike the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth aircraft crashed into an open field in Pennsylvania after its passengers and crew, having learned what was happening elsewhere in the country, tried to regain control of the plane. It was the largest, most deadly terrorist attack in United States history.
“We watched in disbelief, frozen. Too stunned to take action; until we did. We needed to take control…emotionally we felt helpless; we needed to act,” she recalls.
Senior leadership decided not to cancel classes. Instead, the provost urged faculty to use the time for open discussion to help students better comprehend the events of the day.
Tom Hernandez, now the dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Services, was a faculty member in the Department of Counselor Education at the time.
“I walked into class, I sat down…everyone was glued to their cell phones…and I just said ‘we need to talk. Something has happened that we can’t get away from. We can’t close this classroom door and pretend that that’s not happened. So let’s talk.’
“I gave them the space to be able to talk about their feelings, their fears… many were very, very frightened. They needed to tell their story. So I gave them that space.”
Meanwhile, student affairs staff placed counselors throughout the campus. Residential life staff were tasked with assisting students who needed to return home or who had loved ones in the downstate area and needed support.
“All of my staff were asked to be visible throughout the campus as the students were familiar with them. We sat in the dining halls, the Student Union, and in the various student gatherings spots on campus,” Schrank said. “We consulted with student government leadership and they worked with their various clubs and organizations to inform students and identify those that may have needed our attention.”
“I remember being here well into the evening,” said Karen Podsiadly, who is now SUNY Brockport’s director of community development.
While the entire community was rattled by the day’s events, there were two groups in particular that needed extra care: students from the New York City area and the international student population.
“We had students coming in – ‘I can’t reach my family.’ Whether it was mom, dad, sisters, cousins. You had students trying to get home, but you could not get into New York City,” Podsiadly recalls.
As details emerged from the attacks it became apparent that they had been perpetrated by a terrorist organization known as Al Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan. Podsiadly says campus leadership was concerned about potential backlash toward Brockport’s international students.
“It was a series of things throughout the day that we were reacting to,” she said. “We were thinking about how to protect those (international) folks.”
As the day wore on, the harsh reality of what had transpired took root.
“There was a hopelessness on campus; it was as if time stood still. It was eerily quiet; a foggy gloom in place.”
Hernandez drew a parallel to recent events.
“I remember driving home that afternoon because I needed to get my children from school. I noticed that there was nothing in the skies. No airplanes. There weren’t people on the streets. There weren’t cars on the streets. It was empty,” he said. “Now that I think about it, it reminds me of COVID when everything shut down. It was really kind of eerie and spooky.”
In the days that followed, the Brockport campus began to again show signs of life – as its community mourned the lives lost and looked to the future. American flags flew from residence hall windows. Students built a memorial garden. A candlelight ceremony was held at the campus mall. Faculty held forums and teach-ins. Many donated blood and volunteered their time. Others were called into service by the National Guard.
Slowly, life on campus began to return to normal.
The SUNY Brockport football team was slated to play Montclair State, which is located in New Jersey — less than 20 miles away from the site of the World Trade Center – on September 15. Brockport officials gathered to discuss whether or not the game should go on.
Current head football coach Jason Mangone was the offensive coordinator at the time.
“There was no right answer in terms of what to do. There was no playbook for how you should handle that situation,” Mangone said. “Do we play something as trivial as a game? Because your first instinct is to say no. But we as coaches, we as players, we as administrators, sat down and talked about it from our standpoint and then obviously we wanted the intake of what Montclair thought. Montclair was adamant that they wanted to play.”
So, just four days after the attacks, the Red Hawks arrived at Eunice Kennedy Shriver Stadium. Their presence was about much more than a football game.
“They felt to honor those that they knew and to show respect to the people that were affected they wanted to just kind of carry on and not let it put us on pause,” Mangone said.
University Police Officer Ryan Kelly ’05 played on that Brockport team. He and his teammates felt similarly to their peers at Montclair State.
“The attacks were meant to disrupt life,” Kelly said. “By us continuing to live the way we did…by continuing to move forward…we did not let them have that victory.”
Montclair State defeated Brockport 35-14 that afternoon. But what Mangone most vividly recalls took place after the final score had been settled.
“It took a little longer to get through the handshakes that day. The coaches talked a little while longer,” he said. “Maybe not even about what was happening, just about how everybody was doing. That was probably my biggest memory.”
Kelly says the events of September 11 helped inspire him to serve others.
“If 9/11 hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have gone down the same path. ”
Not long after graduating, he enlisted in the United States Army. He served four years in the 10th Mountain Division, based out of Fort Drum, NY. He was deployed to serve in Iraq for nine months.
He eventually left the military with plans to start a family. But he hadn’t lost his desire to serve. He was hired as a University Police officer five years ago.
“If 9-11 hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have gone down the same path,” Kelly said. “Seeing the constant images of what was going on overseas and seeing people signing up to go over there – it felt like my chance to do something that was helpful. I just couldn’t sit back here while other people were doing stuff. That drove me to the military.”
Every person and organization managed their response to the attacks in their own way. The 20th anniversary has given Schrank reason to reflect on the way SUNY Brockport chose to proceed.
“I am proud of our campus response,” she said. “Engaging everyone in the process through a reasoned approach, we were able to survive those days of chaos and hopefully provide some consolation and reassurance for our students going forward.”
SUNY Brockport remembers the lives of its alumni who perished during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We will never forget.
Shannon Adams ’98
Peter Milano ’83
Allen Upton ’79
Patrick Waters ’78