Remembering 9/11

Members of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering community share their experiences, 20 years after the September 11 terrorist attack.
Friday, September 10, 2021
Remembering 9/11

By Stephen Norris
Georgia Tech News Center

Many recall the places they stood and the emotions they experienced when hijacked planes struck New York City’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania — and yet the memories of September 11, 2001, represent an ever-changing legacy.

On a college campus like Georgia Tech, with each passing year, it becomes increasingly evident how 9/11 memories are shifting from recent remembrances to the chronicles of history. Each new entering class represents a growing generation with no personal recollection of those harrowing events 20 years ago.

The accounts and stories we now share play a crucial role in helping us all to commit to the promise of remembrance. The hope of this collection of stories — told from the perspectives of Georgia Tech voices who experienced that day firsthand — is not just to remember those lost but also to honor the bravery, resilience, and strength of those who endured that day that changed our world forever.

A Family Legacy for Current Student

Kevin Lewis

Kevin Lewis was only 1 when the 9/11 attacks happened just a few miles from his hometown on New York’s Long Island. His father, Andrew, was an officer working the overnight shift with the New York Police Department.

“He got off around 8 a.m. and had just been getting home,” said Lewis, a student in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

When word came that the World Trade Center was under attack, Lewis said his father got right back in his car and drove back into the city. He worked on recovery efforts at ground zero in Lower Manhattan for months after the tragedy unfolded.

“I remember my mom telling me that he was there day and night trying to recover people, then helping sort through the rubble, just doing everything he could to help the city recover,” recalled Lewis.

Lewis is part of a generation with limited personal memories of 9/11, but long-lasting effects from it.

“Everyone I grew up with was affected in one way or another, whether it was friends or family. Multiple friends I grew up with lost parents or family members on that day,” he explained.

The Legacy Lives On

But Lewis says he feels lucky he had 16 years of meeting his father’s squad mates, hearing stories, and learning about his father’s brave actions. In 2017, Andrew Lewis died from 9/11-related brain cancer attributed to breathing in the toxic chemicals in the air at the site of the destruction. His son, who was in his junior year of high school at the time of his death, decided to pay tribute to his late father in his college application essay.

“I didn’t want him to be forgotten. I wanted people to know about him and what he did,” Lewis said. “Everyone remembers the people who lost their lives that day, but there are so many people who lost their lives in the aftermath of it who don’t always get that same recognition and remembrance.”

Lewis says he wouldn’t be at Georgia Tech without his father’s example, and now he’s using his education to continue the example his father set for him. He is studying civil engineering and, this summer, took part in an internship program where he helped build a hospital.

“My dad instilled in me a sense of public service,” he said. “I want to make the world a better place for everyone else around me just like my father did. I wake up every day determined to be the son, brother, and citizen he was shaping me to be.”

Photos of Kevin Lewis and his father, Andrew Lewis. Photos courtesy of the Lewis Family
Photos provided by Lewis family

Inside the Pentagon During the Attack

General Phillip Breedlove

Before General Philip Breedlove began teaching courses on global issues and leadership at Tech, he was a Georgia Tech civil engineering student and ROTC cadet on campus. Not long after earning his degree, he was training to become an Air Force fighter pilot. That charted a path through the military that led him to the Pentagon, serving as the top assistant to the secretary of the Air Force.

“Thank you for allowing me to tell the story,” Breedlove said. “It’s important to me as a Yellow Jacket to share what I and other Yellow Jackets felt on that day. And it’s important to me as a former senior military officer that generations that weren’t really cognizant of the times understand what happened on that day.”

In his role, Breedlove was chief aide to the top official in the Air Force, Jim Roche. He recalls that, on the morning of September 11, 2001, his boss was meeting with members of Congress for a breakfast discussion.

“The crazy thing is that the subject was terrorism,” he said.

Breedlove was in his office, getting a head start on some work when, suddenly, members of his staff rushed in urging him to turn on the television in his office, saying there had been an accident in New York City.

“We turn on the TV, and I’m watching a replay of the first airplane hitting the building,” Breedlove said. He wrote a quick note and stepped into the breakfast meeting to slip it to Roche, promising to keep him updated. He returned to his office just in time to see the second plane strike the south tower.

“My staff and I agreed this was not an accident,” Breedlove remembered.

He then returned to the breakfast meeting to advise that they adjourn because America appeared to be under attack.

Gen. Breedlove describes his memories of 9/11

Pressing the Button

Breedlove and Roach started figuring out their crisis plan while they watched the live television coverage of what was unfolding.

“Then the whole Pentagon shook, and if you know the history of the building, it was built during World War II and there was no rebar in it,” Breedlove said.

Breedlove thinks that softness may have prevented an even worse catastrophe. Only seconds later, he recalled, an acrid smoke started entering the room. That prompted a once-in-a-lifetime decision.

“There was a button under my desk that was built for the Cold War, the nuclear war scare days,” he said. He instinctively pressed the button, and immediately special forces units rushed into the room to whisk the secretary toward a security bunker at the center of the Pentagon.

Breedlove says those inside thought a bomb had detonated.

As he and other top officials were being escorted toward the bunker, the group was fighting against a torrent of people trying to flee the building. As they approached the bunker, Breedlove heard someone cry out, “We have wounded! We have wounded!”

He said that he was “so proud of my uniformed brothers and sisters because almost everyone in uniform turned back to head toward the problem.”

Once in the bunker, one of the challenges was trying to plan for national defense with communication systems down. They used Blackberry mobile devices to find out that planes were being grounded across the country.

“It became apparent to us that an airplane had turned toward Washington, D.C. that was still airborne and was not answering,” Breedlove said.

He said that the decision was made to try and scramble fighter jets to intercept the plane, potentially taking it down to prevent it from flying into another location in the nation’s capital. Military officials now know they would have never been able to successfully stop that aircraft.

“We never had to face that decision because of the brave souls on that plane who overpowered their hijackers,” said Breedlove.

A Singular Purpose

Breedlove and his colleagues worked through the night. He recalled that it was 16 or 17 hours before they could communicate to their families that they were alive, but Breedlove said he saw triumph in the face of this immense tragedy.

“This was a time-altering piece of our history,” he said. “I have never seen America so united. I have never seen us with such singular purpose.”

And that’s why he wanted to share his memory.

“It’s important to bring this memory a little bit more to life for those who didn’t live it.”

(A full version of this story can be read on the Georgia Tech news page