HLS grapples with tragedy, pauses to mourn


On Tuesday, September 11th at 8:45 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, beginning a hellish day that will be burned into the nation’s memory. At Harvard Law School, classes already in progress continued, oblivious to the scenes occurring just 200 miles away. As morning classes ended and word spread, hundreds of students gathered in Harkness Commons to watch in horror as the Twin Towers tumbled to the ground.

By 10:45 a.m., 17 minutes after the north tower collapsed, Dean Robert Clark ’72 and J.D. Dean Todd Rakoff ’75 had decided to cancel classes and alerted the school by email.

Students, like others around the nation, reacted in their own ways. Some, almost immediately, started delivering announcements to the crowd gathered in the Hark about donating blood. Others just watched the images as they unfolded on the Hark’s two large televisions. Within hours, T.J. Duane ’02 delivered one-page copies of The Crimson carrying wire stories on the attack and information on how the University was responding.

Many students desperately tried to get in touch with relatives and friends who were in New York or supposed to be traveling at the time. The usual greeting of “hello” was replaced by a grim question, “Is everyone you know alright?” Unfortunately, the answer was often, “I don’t know.”

Dean Suzanne Richards recalls seeing students frustrated as mobile phone circuits were overwhelmed and students were unable to dial out. As the visible anxiety of students grew, the Dean of Students opened up telephones at her office, the Board of Student Advisors, and the Office for Student Life Counseling for students to use to contact relatives and friends.

Around 11:45 a.m., 20 minutes after United Airlines reported that Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania, it was announced that a second television screening room had been opened in Hauser Hall and that Prof. Phil Heymann ’60 would be speaking about the government’s response to terrorism. Students, some hoping to escape from the images on television, followed Heymann into Pound where he discussed ways to prevent terrorism and the options for responding.

Later that evening, President Bush addressed the nation at 8:30 p.m. saying that “thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil.” Half an hour after the president’s comments, a group of students gathered in Langdell North for an interfaith prayer service for the victims, their families and the nation.

The shock hadn’t dissipated by Wednesday when classes resumed. Class discussions were dominated by the attack, the response to it and, of course, the legal implications.

Pulling Together

For many students the only way to deal with a crisis like this is to do something. Some students have concentrated on organizing a blood drive.

“We feel like we can make a difference,” Dean Richards said of those involved in organizing a blood drive.

Other students have decided to respond to the suffering that they saw on campus. The HL Central organization has set aside a fund that students can draw on for costs that arise out of dealing with the tragedy. The fund is designed to pick up costs for things like transportation to be with family. HL Central is also considering chartering busses to New York City to reunite students with friends and relatives in their area. Students can also use the organization’s website (www.hlcentral.com) and rideboard to see whether fellow students are traveling to New York and willing to take passengers.

Coping with the Trauma

Like the rest of the country, Harvard Law School was in shock — a shock that has still not worn off.

Mark Byers, the Director of the Office of Student Life Counseling, said that anyone can be affected by the trauma of what happened: students who lost friends or relatives, grew up in New York, worked in the World Trade Center or hoped to, or just watched the images on television.

“I have absolutely no idea how many people [were] affected,” Dr. Byers said. “Partly because they don’t know yet the extent of the casualties, and partly because people define loss in different ways. I think the first reaction is that if everyone you know is personally safe, then everything is okay. I think it only begins to hit you later that everyone has experienced a loss — a loss of innocence, a loss of hope, a loss of community.”

While the school usually does not have to deal with the emotional impact of world events, Richards emphasized that “this seems certainly different than anything we’ve ever seen.”

It may take a while for students to realize the impact of what happened.

“It takes a while for the penny to drop,” Byers said. “I think the hidden losses take a while to develop. We’re feeling our way along with everyone else.”

Both Byers and Richards emphasized that the school has resources to help students deal with the trauma and that they are personally available to help students. In addition to the Office of Student Life Counseling, students can turn to the Dean of Students office and support provided by the University Health Services such as walk in counseling and crisis-management groups.

“If groups of students feel that services are needed, please contact us,” Byers said. “We remain available. Knock on the door.”

Dean Richards has already been dealing with students personally affected by the tragedy. She said that students can also go to her if their friends are dealing with tragedies in their lives, but none had come to her office for those reasons yet.

While the personal counseling is important, Dean Richards said that Harvard’s real strength is the support that the law school community can provide to itself.

“I’m hopeful that we will draw together as a community and that we will support each other as a community,” she said.

Richards said that she would carefully monitor the campus to make sure that all students felt welcome. She also said that Harvard Law School was a well educated and open community.

The Dean of Students Office will also be trying to ensure that students feel safe on campus. While Dean Richards has left security arrangements up to the Harvard University Police Department, she said that she hoped students would talk to her if they felt unsafe.

Additional reporting by Meredith McKee.

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