By Lauren Ingeno
Classes at the George Washington University closed on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, as those in Washington, D.C. watched smoke rise from the Pentagon and held their breath, waiting to find out if another act of terror might strike.
But instead of turning away in fear, more than 3,500 people from the GW community came together on Kogan Plaza the following night, holding candles and solemnly reflecting during a student-organized vigil.
Twelve years later, around 350 GW students, faculty, staff and friends who attended the Sept. 11 remembrance vigil showed that the nearly 3,000 people — including nine GW alumni — who died on that sunny Sept. 11 morning, have not been forgotten.
“This evening is about unity, remembrance and hope,” senior Julia Susuni, president of the Student Association, said to the crowd gathered on University Yard on Wednesday night.
Those three themes ran throughout the evening’s program, as attendees stood still and silent, listening intently to songs from the GW Troubadours and the Phillips Octet, a shared invocation from campus clergy and reflections from those who had personal connections to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In his opening remarks, President Steven Knapp said he commended GW students who have “continued to take the lead” in promoting “a culture of mutual respect” for those of all backgrounds and faiths. GW students, he said, give him “bottomless hope for the future.” Dr. Knapp cited the annual interfaith dinner, hosted by students from various religious organizations on campus, as one example of this mutual respect students have for one another.
He also thanked those who served during the annual Freshman Day of Service that took place last Saturday, which was established in 2009 in response to a call for a national day of service and remembrance from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Rear Admiral David Thomas, Jr., a retired officer in the United States Navy whose father graduated from the George Washington University Law School in 1975, was serving in the Pentagon on Sept. 11. After a hijacked plane struck the building, Adm. Thomas was among those who crawled back into the rubble to rescue survivors.
Vice Admiral (retired) Mel Williams Jr., the senior associate dean for military and veterans initiatives, introduced Adm. Thomas at the vigil, calling him a “servant leader” and a “hero.”
But when Adm. Thomas addressed the crowd, he spoke not of his own bravery, but instead of his “profound and overwhelming sense of gratitude” for the many acts of kindness he witnessed 12 years ago — including the taxi driver who gave him a free ride home at 2 a.m.
“For me, service to our country has very little to do with a uniform,” Adm. Thomas said. “Thank you for your service to our country. It’s what makes our country great.”
It was Michael Massaroli’s first day of first grade on Sept. 11, 2001, he told attendees at the vigil. By the time he woke up that morning, his father had already boarded the express bus to lower Manhattan. Mr. Massaroli, a sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said he cannot remember his final word to his father, but he expects it was probably “goodnight.”
Mr. Massaroli’s father, who shared his son’s name, was working on the 101st floor of Tower 1 that day.
“Some people say that the attacks on September 11th and their aftermath have shown the worst side of modern humanity,” said Mr. Massaroli.
But Mr. Massaroli said he disagrees with this assumption.
“The world’s response to these horrific acts of terror in the days, weeks, months and years after, showed that love, togetherness and persistence will always triumph in the face of hatred and evil,” he said.
As the sun set on University Yard, the candles of nine student volunteers were lit as the names of the nine alumni who died in the Sept. 11 attacks were read aloud. Those students then lit the candles of those in attendance, until the entire yard was glowing with light.
After the vigil, students exchanged hugs with one another. Mr. Massaroli said he could feel the support from everyone around him.
“It was just so touching to see that people still care 12 years later about an event that may not have directly impacted them,” he said. “I’m glad I am part of a community that feels this way.”