COC professor shares what it was like in Manhattan on 9/11

Professor Julie Johnson holds up a newspaper at College of the Canyons on Wednesday as she recounts her experiences in downtown Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. Dan Watson/The Signal

It’s reminiscent of a black-and-white, silent film. Everything in sight is covered by a smoking mix of soot and dust. No cabs pass by, only sirens. Crowds of people cry and run. 

It’s chaos. A quiet chaos. 

That’s how Brooklyn native Julie Johnson, a history professor at College of the Canyons, described to a group of students at the institution Wednesday her own escape from Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 — the day that changed America forever. 

Eighteen years ago, the twin towers of the World Trade Center were struck by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack in lower Manhattan in New York City, resulting in 2,753 deaths and billions in economic losses, according to the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum. 

Johnson was in midtown Manhattan, working in the banking industry, when she received a phone call from a friend asking what was going on at the World Trade Center. 

“I looked up, and I realized as I was looking up that people were starting to do this gasp thing and phones were dropping,” Johnson said. “There’s this moment, I don’t know if I can explain it, where there’s this astonishment and then concern.”

Johnson described how many — as they watched live news coverage on television after the north tower was struck — felt “this hole in their stomach as to, ‘What does this mean?’” since the World Trade Center had already been the target of a terrorist attack in 1993 during a truck bomb explosion that killed six people. 

Her initial instinct, she said, was to switch from her high heels into her sneakers, knowing she would leave work and start running to her husband and beloved dog, Luke, both of whom were at separate locations at the time. 

The journey to her loved ones and on to a safe place once reunited was perhaps one of the most frightening moments of her life, as she felt, like many, that she would probably die that day, Johnson said. 
She vividly recalls when the Pentagon’s attack was announced via a radio that belonged to a street vendor, and when a firefighter yelled to her and a crowd to “Get back; gas leak!” 

Attendees listen at College of the Canyons on Wednesday as Professor Julie Johnson recounts her experiences in downtown Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. Dan Watson/The Signal

“Lower Manhattan, where the towers were built, was actually (a) landfill. There were tremendous concerns that southern Manhattan was precarious to explosions because of the fires that were burning in the World Trade Center,” she said. “We started to run. I had never been so scared in my life. I remember thinking every manhole cover that I saw, as I was running, I thought was going to explode. I was certain I was going to die.” 

Despite the terror of Sept. 11 and the chaos that unraveled for weeks and months thereafter, Johnson said it was how people took care of each other after the attack that really made an impact, calling it “the most amazing display of humanity I had ever seen.” 

The professor, who has offered the “History and Memory of 9/11” conversation to students in the past, said she hopes students take the time to remember someone from Sept. 11 and “Never Forget.” 

Student Drew Rodriguez said he appreciated Johnson’s presentation, as hearing from a primary source offers “a window to more empathy towards the situation and what you can do to help others in similar situations.”

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