September 9, 2021—Members of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health community recently reflected on where they were on September 11, 2001 and how their lives—and public health—have changed.
Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership
Former commissioner of public health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1997–2003)
I flew out of Boston’s Logan Airport to D.C. that morning to attend a National Cancer Institute (NCI) meeting as a member of their Advisory Board. But when the NCI Director suddenly announced— in the midst of his speech—that planes had hit the World Trade Center, the meeting was abruptly adjourned. We all exited the building, where I joined a dazed street crowd trying to figure out next steps. All airports were closed. I knew I had to return to Boston immediately to make sure my health department colleagues and my family were safe. I walked for miles before miraculously finding a hotel with a free room, checked in, booked a train home for the next day and turned on the TV news. Only then did I learn that two of the four planes in the 9/11 attacks had left Logan Airport that same morning, as I had—while a third plane had hit the Pentagon, only a few miles from where I was. That sent chills down my spine.
Only weeks later, the first anthrax death occurred in Florida, followed by more national cases and deaths. That’s when bioterrorism emerged as both a national security crisis and a public health crisis for all of America. For the rest of that fall, I, as the lead public health official in Massachusetts, worked closely with the governor and other top state officials to address the threat. There were thousands of cases of white powders being sent to terrified recipients. Samples needed anthrax testing and people needed protection. In the end, millions were traumatized despite no documented anthrax cases in our state. Over time, I discovered that my major responsibility as commissioner was to serve as “risk communicator-in-chief” through literally hundreds of press interviews. This experience only reinforced my tremendous respect for all public health professionals serving in the trenches in a time of crisis. It also prepared me for the next wave of emergencies that would follow in the years since— from H1N1 to Ebola and now to COVID-19.
Whenever a public health crisis erupts, resources often become immediately available that then fade over time. As a nation, we must do better. We desperately need a strong and revitalized public health infrastructure that can be sustained long-term to protect all people at all times. We can’t keep living with this boom and bust cycle in public health. It leaves us vulnerable and too many people will be hurt.
Lecturer on public health practice
Founding co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative
At that time, the focus of my work was on negotiation, conflict resolution and public health leadership. After the anthrax attacks that followed soon after September 11, my career went through a remarkable change of course. Congress appropriated two billion dollars to the CDC to work on bioterrorism preparedness, and a portion of that was allocated to schools of public health across the country, including ours. My colleagues and I in the Division of Public Health Practice were on the receiving end of a surprise one million dollar grant. We weren’t given clear marching orders, we were just told to get to work. My question was: What is the interface between bioterrorism preparedness and negotiation, conflict resolution and public health preparedness?
Knowing that Israel was on the front lines of these issues and had already done a lot of work on bioterrorism preparedness, I traveled there to learn from their experts, some of whom had been my students here at Harvard. I prepared a report that quickly circulated to public health departments across the country, and with that, to the CDC and Washington.
In May 2003, that interest from the CDC led to a request to David Gergen, then director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government, and to me. Would we establish, at Harvard, a joint HSPH-KSG platform to study, convene, and teach on matters of public health and homeland security leadership? The CDC provided the initial funding base. That led to the establishment of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.
Focusing on crisis leadership over the past two decades has changed my orientation, both professionally and personally. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and when I was very young, he told me about his terrible experiences in the concentration camps. He shared that he did this, ‘So you make sure it never happens again.’ That, of course, was a pretty tall life mission.
The deeper I ventured into bioterrorism preparedness, homeland security, and crisis leadership, the more I came to appreciate that this work was very much linked to that mission. Unfortunately, many of these perils, including our current COVID-19 crisis, present significant risks to our society. To rise above these threats and challenges, leaders must have the courage, capacities, and the confidence to meet them. It has been an honor, privilege, and life dream to be able to contribute to the preparedness of remarkable leaders, who themselves have written many important chapters in our country’s crisis response history.
Assistant director of academic programs and student services
I remember that the weather was lovely that morning when I walked in from the bus stop. I was working in the Office for Students at the time, and it was the second day of orientation. That’s usually quite a busy week for that office, however, there were a lot of departmental programs scheduled that day, so I wasn’t expecting it to be too busy. I was on my computer, and news popped up that something had happened at the World Trade Center. I called my husband and asked him to turn on the TV. He told me that a plane had hit the tower.
It was so hard to register what had happened, but I couldn’t really stop to think about it. I was getting inundated with calls and we had to decide if we were going ahead with programming for the day and the rest of the week. I remember people coming by with updates as things were getting worse and worse. Everyone was really shaken.
We decided to go ahead with orientation, and to add more programming to help students cope. Seating was set up in the cafeteria, and TVs were rolled in for people to watch. Over the course of the day, we pulled together a community forum for people to talk about their reactions, which took place later in the week. We just kept going that day, and tried to figure out how we could best support students.
Later that week, we learned that Paul Ambrose, who had graduated the year before and who many people knew, was on Flight 77 [which struck the Pentagon]. And, of course, our Muslim students were really struggling, so we set up supports for them. I also remember that students across the School were very focused on helping however they could. They set up blood drives and efforts to support recovery in New York. It was a tough time for everyone, but I feel lucky that I was surrounded by some very kind and good people.
Eirliani (Lin) Abdul Rahman, DrPH ’24
Senior assistant director, National Council of Social Service (Singapore)
The September 11 attacks reverberated across the Muslim world. I’m born and raised Muslim in Singapore, and even though we were far away from the sites of attack in the US, I think it’s fair to say that all Muslims were impacted by that day. In the days and weeks that followed, there were a lot of discussions about what it meant to be Muslim, and the difference between progressive Muslims and the extremists who carried out the attacks. I used to wear a hijab; I remember flying business class from Milan to London once and getting pulled aside to be searched. After all that hassle, I barely made it onto the plane. I can never forget the look of horror on the passengers’ faces when I got on and they saw my headscarf. I just brushed it off. I’m quite well-versed in Islam and I love engaging people on interfaith dialogues.
I was working in government at the time. Following the attacks, my desire to remain in public service was fortified. I remember reading about Sikhs being attacked in London and the U.S. because they wore turbans and how people couldn’t differentiate between them and Muslims. In my mind, diplomacy, especially “soft” diplomacy, with its focus on culture is a good way to promote understanding between peoples, so I decided to join the Foreign Service. In the space of a few years, I brushed up on my Arabic, and then learnt Mandarin, French, and Russian. I am fluent in my mother tongue Malay and English, and had learned German as a child. The first country I was posted to was Germany: there were hard conversations being had at the time about the integration of Turkish and new migrants amid the influx of Syrian refugees.
As a diplomat in Berlin, I worked on strengthening aviation security in Afghanistan in partnership with my German counterparts. Singapore also sent troops to Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led security mission, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). A close friend of mine still has two of her brothers in the country. Last month, when Kabul fell, I had no words, I was so upset. Since then, I’ve been channeling my energy into writing, particularly about what can be done for Afghanistan’s women and girls. There needs to be a more nuanced discussion of Sharia law both in the Muslim world and in the west. The U.S. government can work with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—of which Afghanistan is a member—to exert some pressure on the Taliban for an interpretation of Sharia law that will allow Afghan women to enjoy significant freedoms.
Erika Willacy, DrPH ’24
Lead for policy, innovation and communications, Division of Global Health Protection, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
I was in my first week of graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I was earning my MPH. I remember leaving home knowing that something had happened at the World Trade Center, but not that it had been hit by a plane. On my way to class, I worried about my best friend Almira, who got off the train every day at the World Trade Center and walked to her job.
While I was in biostatistics class, somebody sitting near me got a text message with news about the attacks. Classes were cancelled, and the rest of my day became endless calling, and watching all those images of people running and the buildings collapsing. My head started to spiral.
It wasn’t until 10:00 that night that I heard that Almira was ok. She was part of those throngs of people walking, just trying to get out of lower Manhattan. I remember thinking about what it would have been like to have been part of that confusion and that fear. I was in my early 20s and hadn’t thought much about mortality. One of the changes for me coming out of that day was the idea of how fragile things are.
I went on to work in refugee health at the CDC, and I think that my experience on September 11 helped shape my interactions with people. I realized that the way I felt that day is what some people’s lives are like all the time. How do they have the ability to be productive, to thrive as parents, or to feel hope or stability? I think in public health we can use these kinds of emotions to allow ourselves to think differently about how we engage with people and respond to the challenges they’re facing.
Christine Kendall, SM ’07, DrPH ’22
Founder and CEO, SmarterGive
I remember feeling that I had been living in a bubble and it had just shattered. I was a senior at Colby College in Maine. On that morning, I had just gotten back from a run, put the TV on, and saw the news. I woke up my roommates—one of whom was from New York—and we sat on the couch together watching the images on TV and trying to get through to loved ones on the phone. A year before, I had worked for a summer at Merrill Lynch, right next to the World Trade Center. I used to look at that building every day.
About a week later, my brother, who was a volunteer emergency responder in upstate New York got called in to Ground Zero to provide care for people who were working at the site. He was still in college at the time, and was never offered any kind of mental health services. He wound up going deep into emergency response work, but I think he dealt with the weight of what he experienced for a long time.
After graduation, I ended up in D.C., alone, in a job I didn’t love. I remember spending a lot of time reading the newspaper, especially the health section, and eventually realizing that I wanted to go into a field where I could help people. So, I went into development consulting, and eventually pursued my Master of Science degree at Harvard Chan School.
I think profound world events like September 11 take time to digest. It took me about two years to really understand the implications for my own career trajectory. Now, living through COVID-19, I think we’re all wanting to find the takeaways. But I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re still living it. People need time to mourn loss and trauma.
Photo: iStock/Kamil Polak