From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Feature
Jeannie Thomas

Jeannie Thomas, head of the English department, encouraged her students to collect the stories of people affected by 9/11. They are now housed in the Library of Congress.

The Memory Collectors

By Kristen Munson

A decade ago USU students undertook the painful, but necessary, process of archiving 9/11. They compiled hundreds of hours of interviews with ordinary Americans about an unimaginable moment in the nation’s history. For some alumni, the project grew from an optional classroom assignment to an exercise of the heart.

Everyone has a story about where they were on September 11, 2001. A decade ago, many of the students in Jeannie Thomas’ folklore class took part in a nationwide effort to collect these narratives and preserve them in the U.S. Library of Congress.

The audio interviews they submitted exist on permanent display online and capture first-hand accounts of the terrorist attacks, as well as the memories of people who witnessed them on television and felt what many Americans felt that day: disbelief, loss, and shock. Thomas, a professor of English, invited her students to participate in the effort because she didn’t want those experiences to ever be forgotten.

“Everyday people make up the bulk of history,” she said. “For those of us alive during 9/11, it was an unforgettable day, like the day when Kennedy was shot. It was an important moment of history for students to be able to step in [and help]. It’s been 10 years, but I still remember that morning.”

Her lesson plans originally included an assignment to make paper airplanes. Instead, the class talked about what had happened. Later at home, her three-year-old son slapped the television repeating, “Bad, bad!” at the footage replaying across the screen.

The next day, Thomas received an email from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress asking folklorists and ethnographers around the country to record the thoughts and feelings of ordinary Americans following the terrorist attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people, brought down the World Trade Center, wounded the Pentagon, and jerked into focus the nation’s sense of security and identity. It was the second time in history everyday Americans would be asked to contribute their stories.

A Time of Mourning

Ann Hoog received updates on the attacks from a tiny black and white television in her office at the American Folklife Center. She and her colleagues watched news reports of planes crashing into the Twin Towers and learned that another plane was believed to be headed their way.

“Nobody quite knew what to do,” she said. “It was kind of a weird day because of how we left the library. You didn’t really have any closure with anybody or know how they fared.”

The next day her coworkers gathered to talk about the events.

“It reminded me of the Pearl Harbor project,” Hoog said, referring to an effort led by folklorist Alan Lomax the day after the December 7, 1941 bombing.

He sent a telegram to other folklorists, asking them to collect the reactions of their fellow Americans. Hoog, a folklife specialist, suggested her office try a similar project.

“It was a way that we could do something—something that we knew how to do that could preserve these stories and reactions,” she said.

Her boss supported the measure and helped draft a call for participation, which they posted on a listserv for folklorists around the country: At a time of national crisis and mourning, one wonders what positive action could or should be taken? As folklorists, what might we contribute to the future? We ask you to document the immediate reactions of average Americans in your own communities to the September eleventh terrorist attack and to what many have called ‘an act of war.’

They had no idea what the response would be.

“Here it was a time of mourning and we were asking people to talk. I wasn’t sure whether people would want to do interviews,” Hoog said. “It turns out they did.”

Submissions to the September 11, 2001 Documentary Project came from across the country and from a military base in Italy. The archives hold about 800 interviews, graphic materials including photographs and drawings, as well as news clippings, written narratives, and e-mails.

Professors like Thomas used the request as a teaching tool in their classrooms. The midst of tragedy may seem like a strange time to push for details, but it is precisely those details that need to be recorded. Folklorists try to fill this role.

“Right in that immediate trauma people do need to narrate,” Thomas said. “If you have a story and you want to tell it, we will be your ears. A folklorist wants to document the everyday as it is, as it comes, warts and all. You get powerful beauty that way.”

Never the Same

Julie Dethrow Brady, ’03, was walking up the steps to Old Main for her first class of the day when she saw the American flag flying at half-mast. She suspected a congressman had died and wondered who might have passed. When she arrived at a classmate told her about the attacks. Brady was stunned.

Afterward she went to the student center where people had gathered to watch the news. She stayed for several hours. Later she tried studying, but couldn’t. In the days and weeks afterward, Dethrow Brady observed her peers and wondered what would happen to them—if they would enlist, and for those who did, how their lives would play out. When the opportunity to participate in the 9/11 Documentary Project arose, she knew she wanted to capture the perspective of the everyman.

“You knew that day that life was never going to be the same,” Dethrow Brady said. “I wanted to get the stories of those who were not there, but who still experienced 9/11. Their stories are living history.”

Dethrow Brady, an American Studies major, compiled six interviews for the project. One person has since died but lives on in the national archive. He was a realtor who worked with her mother. On the morning of September 11 he was getting ready for work and watching the news as he dressed. After viewing footage of the two planes hitting the towers the man swapped the tie on his bed for the American flag one in his closet.

“I just felt that it was a time to make that statement,” he told Dethrow Brady.

The man, a Boy Scout leader, had two sons of draft age. He immediately thought of them and all the boys he had taught citizenship duties to over the years. He pledged to wear the American flag tie until the leaders of the Taliban were captured or killed as a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice innocent people were called upon to make.

“Until then, I’m wearing that tie,” he said in the recording. “That’s my little gesture I’m making and will make forever if that’s how long it takes.”

Every once in a while a person writing a book or a news story about the national archives will track Dethrow Brady down, wanting to know more about her interviews. And they all ask the same question.

“They always want to know what happened to him,” she said.

After graduating the next semester, Dethrow Brady headed to Washington D.C. with hopes of securing a job on Capitol Hill.

“Participating in that documentary project played a huge part in my decision to move East,” she said. “It shaped my political ideology.”

Her gamble paid off. While she did not end up working on the Hill, she did secure a job she enjoyed and met the man who would become her husband. They now live in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the American Folklife Center where her collection is housed.

‘It was Incomprehensible’

Robert E. Koger III, ’04, was asleep when the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. His wife, a nursing student, had left the radio humming on her way out the door. Koger half-listened to it from bed, but began feeling something was different about this morning.

“I noticed the [deejays] weren’t playing music,” he said. “They were talking about a plane crash.”

Koger turned on the television suspecting it was an accident. A few moments later he watched as a second plane steered across the screen.

“When you saw the second plane hit the whole world changed,” he said.

Koger sat and just watched the news, unsure of what to do or where to go. A few days later when Thomas presented the idea of documenting people’s experiences of 9/11 he felt it was something he needed to do.

“I really believe in oral history. I really believe in people telling their stories,” he said. “Nobody is going to forget 9/11, but I thought we had to have these stories for posterity.”

As a political science major, Koger was particularly interested in hearing what legislators around Utah had to say. He spoke to Douglas Thompson, then the mayor of Logan, who was listening to the radio when he learned of the terrorist attacks. He flipped on the television to what he thought was a replay of the first plane striking the north tower—it wasn’t.

“I didn’t know what to think,” he told Koger. “How could this possibly be two accidents?… But then it became very obvious that they were not accidents, and that it was on purpose. And then the horror set in and it was just almost incomprehensible.”

Thompson tracked the events between meetings, realizing the situation was worse than he could have imagined. However, he watched the community respond with unifying force. Church leaders from across denominations organized a memorial service for the victims of the attacks—two of whom were Logan residents.

“We have been doing things as a community that we not done before in the past,” Thompson said. “Feelings of patriotism are higher now than any time I’ve seen before in my lifetime and I hope that that will continue.”

Congressman Jim Matheson also agreed to be interviewed for the project. He was on Capitol Hill when the attacks occurred. Upon being evacuated from the the house building, Matheson could see smoke rising from the Pentagon.

“It’s a very powerful image and something I am sure I will never forget,” he told Koger.

Matheson and his staffers went back to his apartment to watch the news.

“I am glad we were together during those hours after it happened. It would be a tough situation to deal with and I think collectively being together was probably a good thing,” he said.

That night he could not settle his mind. Matheson tied on his sneakers and headed out for a run along the Washington Mall. It was empty. Smoke continued to rise from the Pentagon.

More than a Bottom Line

Koger recalls not only where he was on 9/11, but where every person he interviewed was and what they were doing.

“Their history I will never forget,” Koger said.

He has never again listened to the tapes and has no desire to revisit them. When the tenth anniversary came around he kept the television off.

“I really lived 9/11 every day that semester,” Koger said. “I think about it every day.”

Participating in the documentary project changed the way he thought about politics. He gained a lot of respect for the few politicians who did agree to share their stories with him—particularly Congressman Matheson who offered him an internship. After graduating, Koger went to work for Mitt Romney, then the governor of Massachusetts. Looking back, he regrets that more has not changed in the decade since.

“On 9/12 we were all Americans, no matter what you believed,” he said. “Since that time we have now become more divided than we were on 9/10.”

While Koger is still involved in politics, he has found nonprofit work is a better fit. For the past three years he has organized blood drives for the American Red Cross.

“It is a really rewarding career,” he said. “I like to think that it is taking care of a person, rather than a bottom line, and that is how I want to live my life.”

A Really Long Morning

Just after 7 a.m. Jennifer Erickson’s roommate at USU came to tell her that a plane hit the Pentagon. She immediately tried calling home. Erickson’s father, a Pentagon police officer, was working patrol when a Boeing 757 crashed into the western side of the building. For several hours she would have no idea if he was safe, if he was even alive.

“It was indescribable not knowing,” Erickson, ’02, said. “It was a long morning, a really long morning. It’s that six long hours that I probably remember the most when I reflect about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Erickson functioned in the dark. Cell coverage was down, leaving her cut off from her family on the East Coast. She took comfort in watching the news and looking for her father in the footage.

“I believe the media did an excellent job that day,” she said. “When you could not get through to loved ones across the country, you could turn on the television or the radio and find out what was happening. It’s the contributions of journalists around the world that we can thank for keeping us informed. It gave me a greater sense of pride to be part of that communications field.”

As news editor for the Utah Statesman, Erickson recognized it was a historic moment that needed to be documented. When Thomas announced the oral history project, Erickson knew she wanted to participate. In a way, maybe she needed to. She began collecting stories of the police officers at the Pentagon who saw terrible things and who needed to tell someone about them. The first interview she conducted was with her dad. Afterward, officers began lining up to talk.

“It grew like wildfire,” she said. “I was willing to interview as many people who wanted to be interviewed. I knew this was the type of information that we were going to cherish five, ten years down the line.”

Erickson was immersed in the stories of everyday heroes who went to work that day and just did their jobs. Some, like her father, pulled people from the burning rubble of the Pentagon. Others, like her father, still carry guilt that they did not do enough.

“This was the first time many of them reflected upon it, what they heard, what they felt, what they smelled—what an honor [for me.] It was truly an honor to be a part of that,” she said.

Terrible Things

The week before the tenth anniversary Erickson listened to the interview she recorded with her father. It was the first time in nearly a decade.

“I still get that same lump in my throat and knot in my stomach when I listen to those tapes as I did 10 years ago,” she said. “There are no words. There are no words for it when someone describes the horrors. There were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, who didn’t come home that day. I got a special opportunity to gain insight into one day that changed everything. The beauty of this project was that it was raw, it was vivid—it was real.”

No one contributed more interviews to the national archives than Erickson. Although much of the mainstream media focused on the events in New York, Erickson concentrated on events in Washington.

“I think that she did a great job interviewing people who were in a very difficult position,” Hoog said. “Jennifer made a really valuable contribution to the collection. She filled in a gap that included what happened at the Pentagon, especially to the police officers there.”

Erickson conducted most of her interviews over the phone. She spoke to Chadwick Brooks, a police officer who was filling up his patrol vehicle when he saw a plane flying very low across the sky. It clipped a telephone pole as it went down and headed towards the Pentagon. Everything was in slow motion.

“It felt like a lifetime,” he told her. “Just knowing that there were people on that plane at the time as they flew over me—I know they had to see us.”

He confessed he would never get over the sight of watching the plane strike the Pentagon, knowing there were people onboard—and that he will always wonder what they were thinking.

“I wish I didn’t see it,” he said. “To know something like that is happening but there is nothing you can do about it, but watch people plunge into a building … it hurts. Even though they were strangers on a plane, it was like they were family members.”

The Enormity of it All

Erickson’s interview with her father Donald Brennan is the longest, spanning two tapes, and is perhaps the most haunting. He was having breakfast when he heard over his police radio that a plane hit

the Pentagon. Brennan ran to the crash site, past people screaming, through billowing smoke, and into the building. People were lying on the ground and sprinkler systems were pouring water. During the interview he confessed it was the first time in his police career he didn’t know what to do.

Brennan told his daughter how he came across a man with a head injury. But he was pulled in multiple directions by people needing assistance and could not recall what happened to the man on the ground. He believes he gave instructions for people to carry him out, but he can’t be sure.

“I wondered, you know, did I leave him to die? And what kind of police officer am I to leave a guy who needs my help?” he told her. “My only regret is I wish I stayed with him. And that’s something I am going to take with me a long time. I don’t know his name. I can’t even picture his face, but he needed my help. And unfortunately, for whatever reason, because of the enormity of the situation, I left him. And I can’t believe I left him.”

Brennan does remember guiding some people out and being pushed back by the smoke. It took several days to fully extinguish the fire. When the officers were finally allowed back inside Brennan waded through water, body parts floating around his feet.

“I wasn’t prepared for that,” he said. “The first night I had nightmares. Nightmares of what I saw. Nightmares of people burning, asking for help. I talked to other officers—they had nightmares, too.”

At home, when he removed his boots he realized all that he was carrying with him on his soles. He threw them away. Two months after, Brennan expressed regret about what he could not do that day.

“I wish I had firefighting equipment. I wish I had a smoke mask. I feel if I had the right equipment I could have got more people out of the building,” he said. “It was so dark. There was no power and there was no light. Usually if you could see a light at the end of the corridor, you know where to go. But these poor people didn’t know where out was.”

A plaque still exists in the Pentagon called American Heroes, listing all those who perished in the attacks. When it was installed, it was like seeing ghosts. He felt the building was haunted afterward. Mysterious fires would occur. Water main breaks. A building unsettled. He struggled with the idea of some families not having any remains to bury. When people asked if he feels like a hero, he could not say yes.

“We did what we were trained to do: save lives,” he says at the end of the tape. “And with a catastrophic event like this you save as many people as you possibly can. There’s questions if, when, why and should have done and could have and well-I-didn’t. That one individual bothers me, it will bother me for a long time.”

When she looks back at conducting interviews for the documentary project, Erickson feels it helped people like her dad to talk about their experiences.

“He said it was therapeutic. He was talking about things he hadn’t talked about before,” she said. “It was nice to be an outlet and to be entrusted with this story.”

Jennifer Erickson

Jennifer Erickson and her father Donald Brennan, a retired Pentagon police officer, read his story in The Washington Post. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Erickson.

Never Forget

Erickson’s dad was profiled in The Washington Post for the tenth anniversary in an article titled “The wounded man.” He hung up his badge in June after giving 30 years to the job. After the attacks, she periodically visited him at the Pentagon, occasionally seeing those whose stories she collected. She and her dad still talk about 9/11 often.

“He could never shake that feeling—did I do enough? He thinks about [that] person [with the head injury] to this day,” she said. “It’s my hope and prayer that he will find peace. I know that he was there to save people. I believe he did all that he could. He’s my hero. He’s always been my hero. In doing this line of work—serving as a police officer—he has always been willing to give it all.”

While journalism was always going to be Erickson’s career path of choice, the events of 9/11, and her participation in the documentary project, reaffirmed her decision to become a reporter. Erickson understood the importance of capturing the memories of others who were there, who saw, and who lived it.

“Those stories are what define that day,” she said, adding that these narratives are important to share with individuals who were not part of the 9/11 generation.

The project serves as a learning center for those whose only access to 9/11 exists through archived footage and videos on YouTube. Erickson believes it is important to share it all.

After graduating, she worked as a reporter for a newspaper before turning to work for the Army where she’s held various positions over the past seven years. She is now the public affairs officer at Fort A.P. Hill, Va..

“I believe it’s a great honor and privilege to allow people to tell stories,” Erickson said. “Now, I still get to tell the stories of everyday American heroes.”