It was 189 years ago when this last happened: a major attack on the continental United States by a foreign enemy. Following the British and American conflict during the War of 1812, Fortress America seemed impenetrable.
Tuesday’s attack woke us from that nearly 200-year calm.
It shocked many with its violence against American civilians, and it horrified more because it was achieved with American planes.
“It’s a tragedy beyond comprehension,” said USM President Richard Pattenaude on the day of Sept. 11-9-11. “There’s a great feeling of hopelessness.”
And the numbers that stretched across headlines and television sets last week were also great. Numbers such as the 110-story tall twin towers of the World Trade Center crumbling to heights below two stories. Or the over 5,000 civilians still missing from the incident, compared to the 2,403 soldiers killed 60 years ago during an attack on Pearl Harbor. Or the combined 23,000 gallons of fuel carried by the two Boeings that collided into the two towers; fuel with the explosive power of 750 tons of TNT; fuel that caused 47 floors to burn up to 4,000 degrees.
In the Woodbury Campus Center in Portland Tuesday, students lined walls in a hush while staring at the breaking television images.
“I was just sitting here in shock,” said Peggy Grenier, a senior political science major. “We just think because we’re the US we’re infallible.”
Dormitory halls on the Gorham campus were empty, and the only sound penetrating the eerie silence came from the news stations.
“I am outraged by the attacks,” said Ian Brodie, an undeclared freshman who gathered with others in the Brooks Student Center. “It just seems so senseless to me, all those innocent lives taken by terrorism.”
And the often and anxiously reported numbers went on.
Before Tuesday the most tragic loss of firefighters in the nation was 27, when in 1947 two ships docked at Texas City, Texas, blew up after fuel sparked. On Wednesday, three New York Fire Department companies, five of the city’s most elite rescue crews and up to 30 fire companies from surrounding areas were missing in the 16-acre site of the former twin towers. Estimates Friday reached 350 rescue workers missing – nearly 30 times the number of New York City firemen ever lost in one day.
By Saturday 152 dead were found in the New York City rubble, but nearly 5,000 people were still unaccounted. At the Pentagon, 189 people were believed killed following Tuesday’s plane crash. The number rivals the region’s bloodiest day during the Civil War.
Even before such staggering estimates were reported, students at USM wondered how they would continue business as usual.
“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to think of anything else,” Grenier said, before walking off to class Tuesday.
That morning, through a decision by Interim University of Maine System Chancellor Don McDowell, classes were kept open at USM.
“It’s better to provide them with an opportunity to deal with this,” he said Tuesday. “We have a different kind of responsibility. We have to be responsive to the students.”
“We made the University a place for people to gather and talk informally or formally,” said USM Provost Joseph Wood.
And for some, it provided an opportunity to stay informed and share the sad news.
“I found out in between classes,” said Sarah Cloutier, a sophomore psychology major. “We had heard so many different things, no one could concentrate.”
Officials, assuming many students would not go to class, agreed that the absent would not be penalized.
USM eventually closed at 4 p.m., but it was informal as students gathered to converse in classes and common areas.
Professors threw the daily syllabus to the wind as the week continued, and opened discussion to the students and the catastrophe.
“I think it’s not inappropriate to have conversations focus on it,” Wood said. “We’re still having conversations, but it’s become clear to me that we need to start focusing on an academic point of view.”
And the phone lines and Internet lines were abuzz with talk.
Internet traffic slowed and major news sites were jammed Tuesday as people searched for details about the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Technicians for MSNBC.com removed graphics from the site to allow users to access the news faster.
Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesday, about 21,350 calls jammed the 20 lines of USM’s emergency voicemail messages to see if classes were cancelled, said Dennis Dunham, director of Telecommunications.
“We had so many folks trying to use those messages,” he said.
The day before, the line received 9,904 calls during that same time period. Even on severe snowstorm days, Dunham said, “It’s certainly not the 21,000 Tuesday.”
And then there are the numbers of retaliation and rebuilding.
Last week, Bush administration officials prepared to ask Congress for $20 billion in immediate emergency funds to help a shaken nation recover from terrorist assaults. And architects of the World Trade Center, built between 1966 and 1971, were rallying support to rebuild the six-structure complex.
On Friday, pushed by public support, the U.S. Senate voted 89-0 to give President Bush the power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” to respond to the terrorist attacks.
“The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts,” said President Bush Tuesday in a speech to Americans. “I’ve directed the full resources for our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice.”
And in a television poll conducted by FOX News, Americans showed 83 percent support in favor of all-out war.
“We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” Bush said. “America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world and we stand together to win the war against terrorism.”