Many recall the places they stood and the emotions they experienced when hijacked planes struck New York City’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania — and yet the memories of September 11, 2001, represent an ever-changing legacy.
On a college campus like Georgia Tech, with each passing year, it becomes increasingly evident how 9/11 memories are shifting from recent remembrances to the chronicles of history. Each new entering class represents a growing generation with no personal recollection of those harrowing events 20 years ago.
The accounts and stories we now share play a crucial role in helping us all to commit to the promise of remembrance. The hope of this collection of stories — told from the perspectives of Georgia Tech voices who experienced that day firsthand — is not just to remember those lost but also to honor the bravery, resilience, and strength of those who endured that day that changed our world forever.
Michael Arad was only a few months out of grad school and had just moved to Manhattan as a young architect when tragedy rocked not just his own world but brought the entire nation to a standstill.
On September 11, 2001, he went to the rooftop of his building after hearing reports that a plane had hit the north tower at the World Trade Center. From that vantage point, he saw a second plane hit the south tower.
“Something certainly made me feel that I had to find a way to respond,” said Arad.
A poet might write. A musician would compose. Arad put pen to paper and started drawing.
“For me, my tools as an architect led me to think about what you could do here,” he said.
Two days after the attack, Arad found himself standing with strangers in Washington Square Park experiencing very raw emotions — many with their individual feelings of fear and loss but also with a collective unity that helped shoulder the grief.
“We weren’t facing the horrors we’d witnessed alone but as part of a community,” Arad said.
He says the response he saw in New York was in stark contrast to what the perpetrators of the attack aimed to accomplish.
“They hoped to sow fear, they hoped to sow division, and how we responded was the opposite of that. This country was never more united than it was after that attack.”
Healing Through Congregation
The experience of not only witnessing the attack but also seeing communities heal through congregation inspired Arad to develop his design for a memorial in the space where the twin towers once stood.
When an open competition was held to find a design for a 9/11 memorial, Arad already had his ideas ready to go. His vision directly contradicted the competition guidelines, which called for designs to sit in the former footprint of the World Trade Center some 60 feet below ground.
Arad felt something different was necessary for the memorial.
“We have to bring everything up here to meet the surroundings, streets, and sidewalks,” he said.
Arad credits lessons he learned at Georgia Tech for helping him hold true to his vision for creating a space that allowed people to come together and respond as a community.
In 2004, his design was chosen from more than 5,000 entries from around the world.
Now, 20 years after the attacks, Arad’s street-level design has created a memorial space that is easily accessible for the millions who come to take in the experience while also serving as a reemerged pass-through for thousands who live and work in the area.
“The simple thing of creating a public place for people to come together and respond as a community … I learned that at Georgia Tech years ago as an architecture student.”
Arad credits faculty members from Tech, including the late Doug Allen, who helped him think about the best way of utilizing urban spaces.
“There was an important balance to find,” Arad said. “How to commemorate loss and absence. We were not trying to build two new towers but to find a way to make the loss visible and persistent. You’re in the city, but you’re somewhat removed from it.”
The canopy of oak trees gives the memorial a park-like feel. But the two square reflecting pools represent the former footprints of the towers and mark the permanence of the void left by the towers that fell and the lives lost. Inside the pools are thundering waterfalls, which help drown out the sounds of the surrounding city, allowing visitors to reflect on the memories that the site holds.
“We have such clear, seared memories. How do you find a way to share that experience in a way that brings out the best in people?” Arad asked.
A critical component of that experience has been the bronzed panels that flank the reflecting pools on all sides, etched with 2,983 names of the men, women, and children who perished in the attacks.
“Encountering the names is at the heart of the experience. You have to be here to get a sense of the scale and the space to take it in,” Arad explained.
The Evolving Legacy
Ten years after the memorial opened to the public, and two decades after the attacks, Arad talked about an addition that was recently made to the memorial’s design to acknowledge the evolving legacy of September 11.
“We had not thought about the impact of 9/11 illnesses,” he said, referring specifically to thousands of first responders, workers, and residents who were exposed to the hazards left in the air around the World Trade Center site. In the past two decades, chronic illnesses have spiked, and thousands of deaths have been attributed to those toxic conditions in the aftermath of the disaster.
Arad and his colleague Peter Walker developed a design for a new glade at the memorial that sits roughly in the same space where a ramp at the Trade Center site once stood. During recovery efforts, the ramp provided access to those working at the site.
“Being able to speak to a constituency that was not addressed — to correct that shortcoming — was an incredible opportunity,” Arad said.
The glade features six stone monoliths that have been inlaid with steel recovered from the destruction. The stones defiantly rise skyward, their coarse edges representing the resilience of recovery workers: jagged and bruised but strong and enduring.
The collective of nearby residents, volunteers, and visitors have helped make the memorial a truly communal and shared space. When you visit, you may find white roses inserted into the names on the bronze panels. Honoring the person’s birthdate, the tradition originated with volunteers who work at the memorial — many of whom also experienced the attacks firsthand.
"During the next 20 years,” Arad said, “I’m hopeful the site will continue to have an impact on people and continue to be the touchstone that it is today.”
The memorial is a space that is now active and bustling yet simultaneously contemplative and hallowed, which can be attributed to the immersive design inviting each visitor to have their own response, and to feel their own emotions and memories.
“This is not something you visit once,” says Arad. “It has to be part of the lived experience, not just to say 'We’ll never forget' and never come back here.”
Georgia Tech is honored to have a retired four-star Air Force general on faculty.
Before Gen. Philip Breedlove began teaching courses on global issues and leadership at Tech, he was a Georgia Tech student and ROTC cadet on campus. Not long after earning his degree, he was training to become an Air Force fighter pilot. That charted a path through the military that led him to the Pentagon, serving as the top assistant to the secretary of the Air Force.
“Thank you for allowing me to tell the story,” Breedlove said. “It’s important to me as a Yellow Jacket to share what I and other Yellow Jackets felt on that day. And it’s important to me as a former senior military officer that generations that weren’t really cognizant of the times understand what happened on that day.”
In his role, Breedlove was chief aide to the top official in the Air Force, Jim Roche. He recalls that, on the morning of September 11, 2001, his boss was meeting with members of Congress for a breakfast discussion.
“The crazy thing is that the subject was terrorism,” he said.
Breedlove was in his office, getting a head start on some work when, suddenly, members of his staff rushed in urging him to turn on the television in his office, saying there had been an accident in New York City.
“We turn on the TV, and I’m watching a replay of the first airplane hitting the building,” Breedlove said. He wrote a quick note and stepped into the breakfast meeting to slip it to Roche, promising to keep him updated. He returned to his office just in time to see the second plane strike the south tower.
“My staff and I agreed this was not an accident,” Breedlove remembered.
He then returned to the breakfast meeting to advise that they adjourn because America appeared to be under attack.
Pressing the Button
Breedlove and Roche started figuring out their crisis plan while they watched the live television coverage of what was unfolding.
“Then the whole Pentagon shook, and if you know the history of the building, it was built during World War II and there was no rebar in it,” Breedlove said.
Breedlove thinks that softness may have prevented an even worse catastrophe. Only seconds later, he recalled, an acrid smoke started entering the room. That prompted a once-in-a-lifetime decision.
“There was a button under my desk that was built for the Cold War, the nuclear war scare days,” he said. He instinctively pressed the button, and immediately special forces units rushed into the room to whisk the secretary toward a security bunker at the center of the Pentagon.
Breedlove says those inside thought a bomb had detonated.
As he and other top officials were being escorted toward the bunker, the group was fighting against a torrent of people trying to flee the building. As they approached the bunker, Breedlove heard someone cry out, “We have wounded! We have wounded!”
He said that he was “so proud of my uniformed brothers and sisters because almost everyone in uniform turned back to head toward the problem.”
Once in the bunker, one of the challenges was trying to plan for national defense with communication systems down. They used Blackberry mobile devices to find out that planes were being grounded across the country.
“It became apparent to us that an airplane had turned toward Washington, D.C. that was still airborne and was not answering,” Breedlove said.
He said that the decision was made to try and scramble fighter jets to intercept the plane, potentially taking it down to prevent it from flying into another location in the nation’s capital. Military officials now know they would have never been able to successfully stop that aircraft.
“We never had to face that decision because of the brave souls on that plane who overpowered their hijackers,” said Breedlove.
A Singular Purpose
Breedlove and his colleagues worked through the night. He recalled that it was 16 or 17 hours before they could communicate to their families that they were alive, but Breedlove said he saw triumph in the face of this immense tragedy.
“This was a time-altering piece of our history,” he said. “I have never seen America so united. I have never seen us with such singular purpose.”
And that’s why he wanted to share his memory.
“It’s important to bring this memory a little bit more to life for those who didn’t live it.”
Most days you can find Kelly Griendling on campus preparing the next generation of engineers. She serves as a lecturer in Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering.
But 20 years ago, Griendling was on campus for a different reason.
“I had an 8 a.m. class. It was Psych 1000, which is the new GT 1000 now,” she said. She was only a few days into her first year as an aerospace engineering student at Tech when terror struck America.
“I was in class when the first plane hit the World Trade Center,” she said.
Her roommate informed her what had happened when she returned from class. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible aviation accident.’” She continued to have breakfast and returned only to find out another plane had hit the Trade Center’s south tower.
According to Griendling, that’s when the uncertainty started to build.
“It was not too long after that one hit the Pentagon. We didn’t have a TV in our dorm room. There was one in the common room down the hall,” she recalled.
Griendling says her entire floor was gathered around the television, waiting for any new details about what was actually happening. “Not too long after the second plane hit, Tech canceled classes for the day. At the time, I think we were all a little confused as to why this thing that was happening in New York made them cancel classes in Atlanta."
Worry and Fear
She tried contacting a friend in New York.
“We couldn’t get in touch with anyone,” she said. “The phone lines were all down. There was no Facebook safe spot check-in to make sure everybody was OK; that didn’t exist.” Details remained murky and that left many paralyzed with anxiety. “Just a lot of uncertainty, not knowing if we should all just go home,” Griendling said.
It was days before she and her classmates really got a handle on what had happened — and the magnitude. The realization that these attacks had been perpetrated by hijackers moved the general unease to worry and fear.
“Oh my gosh, we’re going to have a war now and what does that even mean to have a war against a terrorist organization instead of a nation?” she remembered asking. Conversations about the draft ensued. Griendling said ROTC students were directly affected.
Months after the attacks, Griendling also started seeing changes in her field.
The Lasting Effect
“The immediate impact was on security, of course,” she said. “The protocols have changed continuously since then, but they’ve never gone back to where they were pre-9/11.”
Stepped-up passenger screenings have become a mainstay for air travel now. “There’s a lot more behind the scenes that maybe people aren’t as aware of to keep flights secure: changes to air traffic control, changes to how flights are managed behind the scenes by the FAA.” Griendling also noted that 9/11 has had a profound impact on aircraft design, with an increased emphasis on security.
For those who don’t have a memory of 9/11, Griendling associates that day with other notable events from history like Pearl Harbor and the Challenger disaster.
“Every time you learn history, you learn about these turning points. I think 9/11 will have the same impact because it had such a dramatic shift on the way we lived, the way we handled foreign policy, the way we handled defense,” Griendling says.
Sharing those vivid memories for Griendling is a way for those, like her, who experienced 9/11 to hold true to the promise not to forget what happened that day.
“You’re certainly not going to find anyone who’s unaware of what happened that day and the consequences that it had.”
Kevin Lewis was only 1 when the 9/11 attacks happened just a few miles from his hometown on New York’s Long Island. His father, Andrew, was an officer working the overnight shift with the New York Police Department.
“He got off around 8 a.m. and had just been getting home,” said Lewis.
When word came that the World Trade Center was under attack, Lewis said his father got right back in his car and drove back into the city. He worked on recovery efforts at ground zero in Lower Manhattan for months after the tragedy unfolded.
“I remember my mom telling me that he was there day and night trying to recover people, then helping sort through the rubble, just doing everything he could to help the city recover,” recalled Lewis.
Lewis is part of a generation with limited personal memories of 9/11, but long-lasting effects from it.
“Everyone I grew up with was affected in one way or another, whether it was friends or family. Multiple friends I grew up with lost parents or family members on that day,” he explained.
A Legacy Lives On
But Lewis says he feels lucky he had 16 years of meeting his father’s squad mates, hearing stories, and learning about his father’s brave actions. In 2017, Andrew Lewis died from 9/11-related brain cancer attributed to breathing in the toxic chemicals in the air at the site of the destruction. His son, who was in his junior year of high school at the time of his death, decided to pay tribute to his late father in his college application essay.
“I didn’t want him to be forgotten. I wanted people to know about him and what he did,” Lewis said. “Everyone remembers the people who lost their lives that day, but there are so many people who lost their lives in the aftermath of it who don’t always get that same recognition and remembrance.”
Lewis says he wouldn’t be at Georgia Tech without his father’s example, and now he’s using his education to continue the example his father set for him. He is studying civil engineering and, this summer, took part in an internship program where he helped build a hospital.
“My dad instilled in me a sense of public service,” he said. “I want to make the world a better place for everyone else around me just like my father did. I wake up every day determined to be the son, brother, and citizen he was shaping me to be.”
Writer: Steven Norris
Photos: Getty Images, Brice Zimmerman
Videography: Brice Zimmerman, Steven Norris, Evan Atkinson
Design: Brice Zimmerman