By Jana Brown
Four words pulled students and faculty together on the campus of St. Paul’s School on Tuesday, September 11, 2001: “Go to the Chapel.”
The sky was clear and blue that day. Former Dean of Students Douglas Dickson recalls that Lily ’02 and Alex Weed ’04, of Alaska, had said good-bye to their father and Dickson’s houseguest, David, the night before as the elder Weed was due to depart the School grounds early that morning for the first leg of his trip home to Anchorage – with a planned stop in Los Angeles to visit his mother along the way.
Dickson was just settling into his morning routine in his office on the second floor of the Schoolhouse when word came in that a plane had struck the North Tower of New York City’s World Trade Center.
Matt de la Peña ’04 was a new Fourth Former navigating his initial days as a student at St. Paul’s. That morning, he recalls, as he was walking toward his math class in Moore, a pair of Sixth Formers rushed toward him from the Schoolhouse, screaming that America was under attack.
“I thought it was a joke, so I continued on to class,” recalled de la Peña, now a 26-year-old graduate student at DePaul University in Chicago. “When I got there, Mr. Dickson told us to return to our houses.”
At 10:45 a.m., students were ushered into the Chapel, where then-Rector Craig Anderson told them the information available at the time: Two planes had crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, and more hijacked planes were believed to be headed toward other targets in Washington, D.C. The St. Paul’s community prayed together.
“I have a lot of memories from that day, but the one that sticks out the most was how somber it was when we all gathered in Chapel after the attacks,” recalled de la Peña. “To say we were all in shock is an understatement. No one knew exactly what was happening. People were crying, talking, trying to make sense of the situation. When Bishop Anderson led us in group prayer, I think there was this inexplicable, unspoken moment that we all somehow understood: That we had become family.”
As he worked to coordinate contact between distraught students and their families, Dickson kept private his worry that David Weed had been aboard American Flight 11, the doomed aircraft that had been flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing all 92 aboard. Alex Weed was the roommate that fall of Dickson’s eldest son, Mackswell ’04.
“We thought David was on the flight,” recalled Dickson, who now heads the upper school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. “It became a micro-situation for me, trying to locate Alex’s father. That same drama played out among dozens of kids, with adults in the community trying to work with them to locate their families.”
Later in the day, Dickson would discover that David Weed had re-routed his itinerary at the last minute and had made a connection to Chicago out of Boston’s Logan Airport, averting a trip on the fated Flight 11.
Matt de la Peña was one of those students frantically trying to reach his father in New York that day.
“Mr. [Mike] Ricard [’89] was head of Armour House and he, along with the other dorm parents, made every effort to find ways for people to get in touch with their families,” de la Peña recalled. “They connected landlines to phone outlets, gave kids their cell phones. We did the best we could to keep each other calm. Looking back on it, if I had to be anywhere, if I had to be with people I trusted and cared for aside from my immediate family, I don’t think I would have wanted to be anywhere except St. Paul’s.”
Lauren McKenna ’03, who now lives in London, remembers that the students of Middle House gathered in their common room to support one another as the day’s news unfolded.
“The faculty were quite calm, and each of the advisers was placing calls to the parents living in and around New York City to touch base,” said McKenna. “We had an emergency Chapel meeting mid-morning and the Rector offered words of love and encouragement.”
On September 11, 2001, Sam Newman ’02 was only days into his term as Sixth Form president. He, too, learned of the attacks from a fellow student, one who burst down the hall of the Schoolhouse reporting that the Twin Towers had been hit.
“I took off straight for the Rector’s office to find out if I could help,” remembered Newman, who now lives in New York City. “I think I sort of went into action mode, as it fell to me to go into classes and find some of the students whose family members worked in the financial district and could not be located. One student, in particular, was worried because her father and two brothers were both working downtown that day and couldn’t be reached for quite some time.”
Will Dunn ’02 was a new prefect in Simpson House that fall. He learned of the terrorist attacks on America as he reminded a new student watching television during non-TV hours of the acceptable hours of viewing.
“I was told a plane had flown into the WTC’s North Tower,” said Dunn, who now lives in Chicago. “Like most people, we thought this was an accident – until we watched the second plane hit the South Tower. I went off to class, knowing the day would be canceled, which it was about 30 minutes later. We gathered in Chapel, and there was a real sense of confusion and concern. Bishop Anderson delivered a few short remarks, which I remember were some of his best.”
Former Dean Dickson also remembers the community gathering in Chapel that morning.
“The other aspect was the community just trying to understand what was going on, and pulling together in the process,” said Dickson. “St. Paul’s is blessed to have a wonderful place to do that, and that’s the Chapel. It’s sobering to think you have 500 kids to take care of. We used Chapel and residential life to begin processing the event as a community.”
In that same Chapel on the morning of September 12, 2011, new Rector Mike Hirschfeld ’85 shared with the community his reflections of 9/11, as the School marked the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Hirschfeld, then a college adviser, recalls that he was in his office on the third floor of the Schoolhouse that Tuesday morning. There, on receiving word of the attacks, he managed to tune in to the local coverage of New Hampshire’s ABC affiliate, WMUR, broadcasting fuzzily on a small black-and-white television in his office
“I remember gasping with [humanities teacher] Ms. Anny Jones as we watched the towers fall,” Hirschfeld told students and faculty in the Chapel during opening convocation. “I remember feeling helpless and physically sick. I then remember the School community meeting here in this Chapel – the center of our community – to be with one another.”
Hirschfeld also offered a remembrance of Lindsay S. Morehouse ’96. The lone graduate of St. Paul’s to perish on 9/11, Lindsay was a 24-year-old research assistant for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, working on the 89th floor of the South Tower. On June 3, 2002, the School dedicated a bench and adjacent memorial wall in her honor on behalf of the members of the Forms of 1995, 1996, and 1997. The memorial’s placement near the outdoor tennis courts was fitting, said her friends and family at the time, many of whom attended the dedication. Lindsay was a standout tennis player at St. Paul’s and then at Williams College.
“Today we remember,” Hirschfeld told the SPS community in Chapel the morning after the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “We remember those who lost their lives on that awful day. We remember the families who lost loved ones. And we remember Lindsay Morehouse of the Form of 1996. I remember Lindsay as an outgoing, friendly, kind, smart, tennis-playing new Fifth Former in Conover/20 who used to say ‘I am sorry, Mr. Hirschfeld’ preemptively when I saw her in the hallway at night, because she knew I was going to tell her to be quiet. I remember Lindsay’s joy.”
Like other defining incidents of the last century, the events of September 11, 2001, are forever burned in the consciousness of those who witnessed the tragedies in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., as they unfolded.
“I think many people lose a sense of severity during a crisis,” said de la Peña. “When you’re away from it, it’s difficult to comprehend the reality of the situation. With 9/11, however, I don’t think that was necessarily true. Wherever you were, whatever you were doing, the vulnerability was there, the anger was there, and so was the disbelief.”
For days after September 11, 2001, the American flag in the center of the St. Paul’s campus stood at half-staff, honoring the victims of the tragedy and serving as a reminder of the lives lost.
On that day, some students likened the attacks to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Others were reminded of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City six years earlier, in 1995. Dickson said at the time that, although the students may have seen similar tragedy played out in various disaster movies, most of them never imagined that something so real would happen so near to them.
One student, who preferred to remain anonymous that day, said, “This is one of those things your kids will ask you about in the future, and you will tell them where you were when you found out.”
For many, that place was the Chapel.