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Arts & Culture

20 Years Later: WVU Professor Who Experienced 9/11 In New York City Looks Back

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The south tower of the World Trade Center, left, begins to collapse after a terrorist attack on the landmark buildings in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Gulnara Samoilova)

While many Americans watched the events of September 11, 2001 play out in real time on television, some West Virginians experienced the tragedy firsthand.

At least five people with ties to the state died in the events that played out in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Mary Lou Hague, originally of Parkersburg, former WVU Quarterback Chris Gray and WVU graduate Jim Samuel all lost their lives after a pair of planes crashed into the Twin Towers.

Shelly Marshall, the wife of a Morgantown native, died while working at the Pentagon. Huntington native Paul Ambrose was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Defense Department’s headquarters.

But there were some West Virginians who were spared in the chaos, forever imprinted with the sights and sounds of one of America’s darkest days.

Business Meeting In Manhattan Leads To A Glimpse At History 

On September 11, 2001, then-West Virginia University economics professor Tom Witt was in New York City attending a conference. By that afternoon, he was on the phone with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Beth Vorhees.

“Tom, take us through it from the very beginning. This morning — what happened?,” Vorhees began.

“I’m attending the National Association of Business Economists annual meeting here in Manhattan. It was taking place at the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel,” he told Vorhees.

While eating breakfast just before 9 a.m., Witt and the others at the conference heard what he described as a “muffled explosion.” Chandeliers shook from the ceiling.

Startled and confused, Witt says those at the conference made their way onto the streets of Manhattan to try to figure out what was happening.

Tom_Witt_Informal_Head_September_2006.jpg
Tom Witt via Twitter

He told Vorhees he then witnessed a second plane strike the other Twin Tower and then watched other gut-wrenching scenes that have been etched into America’s collective memory of that day.

“I was in shock as well as everyone else around me. I recalled one of my neighbors, Herb Morrison, who was the voice of the Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey, who said ‘Oh, the humanity!’” he said.

Vorhees, known by many as the matriarch of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and as someone well-versed in the history of radio, said she had also recalled the famous line from Morrison’s reporting of the Hindenburg’s explosion in May 1937.

Witt said he was unable to reach his wife, who was with him on the trip to New York City. Vorhees asked him about being separated from his wife amid the chaos of that day.

“I haven't even talked to her,” he told Vorhees. “But she has called my office and said that she's safe, which was a great relief to me — and I've got to connect up with her here very shortly.”

Then, while Witt was on the air, those he was with told him it was time to get moving towards somewhere safe.

“Where are you going? “Oh, can I go with you?” Witt could be heard speaking to someone nearby.

Vorhees then ended the interview as Witt headed off through the streets of Manhattan.

A Memory That Still Lingers 20 Years Later 

With the nation shaken and air travel halted as a result of the terrorist attack, it would be days before Witt and his wife would be able to make their way home to Morgantown. But while trapped in New York City, locals offered them clothes to wear and a place to sleep. He says, despite the tragedy, a sense of community, camaraderie and goodwill had overtaken New York City and the collective national experience.

Twenty years later, Witt looks back on the events of 9/11 and recalls a sense of confusion in the moment. As chaos reigned, he recalled that no one on the ground knew what we know now.

“At the time it occurred, we weren't quite sure what had happened. That day in New York City, it was a very clear blue sky,” he said.

Shortly after the attack, Witt said he saw fighter planes overhead — not sure whether the United States had been invaded. He noted that airspace across America had been shut down.

The only thing you saw were military planes — and they were too far up to determine whether they were friend or foe. So the immediate thing that goes through your mind is: ‘Is the United States under attack?’” Witt said. “When we look back, in retrospect, that was an attack on the United States, by foreign entities — the first time that had happened in a very long time.”

Months later, Witt was in a meeting with colleagues at WVU’s College of Business and Economics when he was interrupted with a phone call from a New York City police officer.

“He said, ‘Well, we've gone through over a million tons of material from the World Trade Center hotel, and we found your briefcase and would you like your briefcase returned to you?’” Witt recalled in a recent interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“In that briefcase was the bill from the Marriott Hotel, which had been charged to me but had not been able to reimburse through the West Virginia State purchasing system,” Witt added. “When I got that briefcase — and I got that singed bill out — I processed, finally, my reimbursement for my travel. And I think it was in record speed.”

Since then, Witt has donated his briefcase and its contents to WVU to be archived — so that future generations can get a glimpse into his experience of that day.

Over the course of years, Witt has stayed in touch with other 9/11 survivors — particularly those who attended the same conference that brought him and his wife to New York City.

“I think the way in which most of us have been able to keep in touch — successfully, like it or not — has been through Facebook, and being able to support each other, as we pass critical days and challenges in our life,” he said.

As an eye-witness and a survivor of one America’s darkest days, Witt said he’s thought a lot about how his own experience on 9/11 shaped him.

“It's easy when you go through an event like this, to say ‘That is going to affect me for the rest of my life,’” he said. “And certainly it has affected me in some ways, but I decided I'm not going to let it define my life.”

Witt said he believes America and the world has changed dramatically since September 11, 2001.

While the rise of the internet has allowed humans to connect more and more closely, Witt said he’s noticed a diminished collective experience amongst Americans. He said that has come into focus as the nation seems as divided as ever — especially in the midst of another shared crisis.

“I think the type of sense of community that we saw on that day, I wish we had continued with that today,” Witt said. “But it seems to me that we've actually lost a lot of that community — [based on] the events that have transpired since that time and the environment in which we live under a pandemic.”


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