A decade after attacks, Memorial Hall again site of student gathering
Published: Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 14:05
On Sunday night, hundreds of university students flocked to the steps of Memorial Hall to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. Almost 10 years earlier, the building was met with a very different scene than the uproarious chants of "USA! USA!" it faced for several hours after President Barack Obama announced the news to the nation.
On the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than 4,000 university students gathered on those same steps for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the attacks orchestrated by bin Laden.
University alumnus Frank Lee, who was a sophomore at the university in 2001, said he remembers waking up that morning and walking to the bathroom in Russell Complex, oblivious to what was happening 120 miles north of Newark. A friend stopped him in the hallway, told him to skip the shower, get dressed and turn on the TV.
"I remember watching the second plane hit and watching the towers come down," Lee said. "After that, no one really knew what to do, so everyone went to class. The classes that I went to were fuller than they were the rest of the semester."
Lee's ethics professor did not follow the syllabus for the day. Instead, he wrote "terrorism" on the board and engaged students in a 45-minute discussion about the news.
"It's probably my most vivid memory that day," Lee said.
After graduating in 2004 with a computer science degree, Lee, who now lives in Bear, earned a master's degree from the university's graduate school in the same field.
In September 2001, Ben Thoma was a sophomore visual communications major living in Brown Hall. He said he remembers an eerie feeling weighing down on campus after word of the attacks spread.
"I remember there was a vigil," Thoma said. "But what I really remember is that morning and waking up to the news, watching it on television and then thinking, ‘Do I go to class?'"
Thoma, originally from Trumbull, Conn., said he could immediately sense the attacks' profound emotional impact on the university community.
"I don't remember doing anything that day except going to the vigil that evening and gathering there," he said. "It was pretty easy to find someone affected by it directly. There were so many students from Jersey and New York and a lot of them had some tie to it."
Thoma hung an American flag outside his dorm window in commemoration of 9/11 victims. When he went to football games that fall, he noticed a stronger sense of unity in the stadium when attendees would sing the national anthem in unison before kickoff.
Thoma now works in New York City and regularly takes a train home to Jersey City, N.J. from the World Trade Center PATH station. On Sunday, he took the train home at approximately 10:15 p.m., an hour before crowds began to gather at Ground Zero after bin Laden's death had been confirmed.
"It was completely quiet," Thoma said. "I was right at the spot where most of the activity was, and then on my walk home I heard people talking about someone being murdered, but they didn't say who, and then I saw the news."
Both Lee and Thoma saw photos and video of the student celebrations on campus late Sunday night after the live announcement of bin Laden's killing, but their initial reactions were different.
Thoma, who covered the Memorial Hall vigil in 2001 as a Review photographer, said he felt proud of the footage of students cheering and chanting 10 years later.
"It made me feel good that the community still saw how important it was," he said. "There's also a sense that Delaware students are apathetic, and hearing that students went out and took to [The Green] in reaction, it made me feel good about the sense of importance, just the awareness that students had about how important it was as a moment in history."
When Lee saw the students rallying, he was appalled they were cheering and running through campus. But after some thought, he realized he probably would have reacted in a similar way if he were a college student today.
"Some of the people who were out there have had Osama as the boogeyman in their life since they were 8 years old, and I don't know what that feels like," Lee said. "My reaction was just, ‘OK, good. I'm glad we got him. What now?'"