West Virginia University wasn’t shielded from the terror that shattered the nation 10 years ago.
Two WVU alumni – Chris S. Gray and Jim K. Samuel Jr. – went to work in the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11 and were among the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks.
One prominent WVU professor and researcher – Tom Witt – barely escaped the carnage. Witt and his wife had stayed at the Marriott Hotel nestled between the Twin Towers.
All the while, the University was missing its leader – then - President David C. Hardesty Jr.– who arrived for a meeting in Washington, D.C. right as one of the hijacked planes plummeted into the Pentagon.
The WVU community will reflect on the tragedy of 9/11 with a series of campus eventsfrom Thursday through Tuesday.
But the lives affected by 9/11 will remain forever changed, whether it is the 10th, 20th or 50th anniversary of the attacks. Those affected were Mountaineers, too.
For the umpteenth time, Tom Witt recently retold his account of escaping the Marriott Hotel at the World Trade Center minutes before the towers crumbled on Sept. 11, 2001.
But this time, the conversation turned a bit eerie.
Witt, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at WVU, recalled his initial thoughts from that day. He’d been staying at the Marriott Hotel at 3 World Trade Center, a 22-story steel-framed structure sandwiched between the Twin Towers.
Witt was having breakfast at the hotel ballroom on the final day of a national economists’ conference when he heard something that sounded like “an elephant landing on the roof.”
He fled the building and noticed smoke billowing from the neighboring North Tower. Witt called his WVU office from a payphone. He wanted to report that something terrible was happening, though he wasn’t sure what.
While on the phone, he saw it: a jetliner penetrating the second tower.
“It’s nothing you expect to see in reality, maybe in a movie,” Witt recalled from his office at the Jackson and Kelly Building in Morgantown. “To be there in person and to see these horrific events, you get a fight-or-flight feeling. In this case, there’s nothing to fight.”
As Witt continued this interview, the building began shaking.
“That sounded like an earthquake,” he stated calmly. “Is that an earthquake? That was an earthquake.”
Witt quietly but hurriedly left the building and didn’t re-enter until he knew it was safe.
His assertion was on target. An earthquake measuring at 5.8 on the Richter scale had hit Virginia, and its force was felt throughout Morgantown.
It was that sort of poised, on-the-spot thinking that guided Witt away from the scene of that unthinkable disaster 10 years ago.
When he woke up that fateful Tuesday morning in Room 1040 of the hotel, Witt and his wife had their minds set on traveling back to Morgantown that evening. It was the last day of an annual conference for the National Association for Business Economics.
“The hotel bill was under the door that morning,” Witt said. “We were finishing up the week and getting ready to come back when our lives changed forever.”
The Marriott Hotel at World Trade Center is often forgotten in 9/11 discussions. It connected the North and South towers, and was also destroyed in the Twin Towers’ collapse.
About 1,000 guests stayed at the hotel that day. Approximately 50 people, mostly firefighters, died in the hotel.
That “elephant landing on the roof” sound Witt heard was the landing gear from American Airlines Flight 11 crashing atop the hotel.
Witt’s wife, Grethe Myles, who is hearing impaired, was in the hotel room 10 floors above him when the loud thud occurred. She saw flaming debris falling past the window and knew she had to get out of there.
Myles ran down the fire escape and was directed into the South Tower before making it out safely. She ended up walking across the Manhattan Bridge to a Brooklyn carwash.
Meanwhile, Witt joined a group of six other economists from the conference and they marched north, passing numerous emergency vehicles heading to the scene.
Not knowing whether either had survived, Witt and Myles were finally reunited more than six hours later.
Their trip home to Morgantown was postponed until Friday (Sept. 14, 2001), and a bond trader and his family invited them to stay at their townhouse for the time-being.
Now 10 years later, Witt hasn’t lost sight of what matters most in life.
He’s held onto personal mementos recovered from the wreckage. Four months following the attacks, Witt got a phone call from a police officer who found his belongings at the World Trade Center site: a crushed Palm Pilot, external hard drive and that hotel bill.
“All of our lives have changed as a result of 9/11,” Witt said. “Different people react to tragedy in different ways. I’ve tried to be positive, continued to work and remained a contributor to society and WVU’s mission. I try not to let what I experienced on 9/11 define me, as much as the things I have done in life since then.”
David C. Hardesty Jr.
The grim reality of two hijacked commercial airliners smashing into the Twin Towers in New York City didn’t instantly set in for Hardesty on that morning.
Hardesty wasn’t in New York. He wasn’t in Morgantown, either.
Hardesty, his wife Susan and two assistants had flown to Washington, D.C. on a University plane. He was going to a meeting with then-U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. while she had an appointment at the Argentinian embassy.
Approaching the nation’s capital, the pilot turned to Hardesty and told him a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. At the time, Hardesty assumed it was a private plane, or an accident. When he heard about a second plane striking, Hardesty thought the chaos was localized to New York City.
After landing, Hardesty and one of his assistants drove toward the Pentagon when they encountered a loud thump. Perhaps, they ran over an animal or object in the road, he thought.
Once arriving at the Capitol, the pieces began to fit.
Hardesty saw smoke coming from the Pentagon. All government buildings had been evacuated.
Maybe the events in New York City were connected to what was happening in Washington, D.C. that morning.
Back in Morgantown, someone phoned in a bomb threat to the new administrative building on campus. Without its president on site, WVU had to deal with these issues. The University persevered through it all.
“I pay tribute to the people who took charge and gave direction on campus,” Hardesty said. “You have to have a strong staff in place with a contingency plan in the event that the president is out of town.”
With his meeting with Sen. Byrd cancelled and a nation in distress, Hardesty scrambled to find a way home to Morgantown. With the airports closed, rental cars stored in big lots at those airports were unavailable. Hardesty hired a driver to bring them back to West Virginia later that evening.
After a long day, there wasn’t time to breathe for Hardesty once he made it home. The Daily Athenaeum staff urged the president to hold a memorial service on campus. On Sept. 14, around 7,000 people showed up on Woodburn Circle for a somber 9/11 ceremony.
Hardesty spoke. It was his job to comfort the University community in such a time of uncertainty.
“You could hear a pin drop,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t have time to think things through. Sometimes you have to say what’s on your mind. You’re either prepared for that or you’re not.”
In ending his speech on Sept. 14, 2001, Hardesty told the crowd, “And so today, we grieve for the thousands who have been needlessly lost. We all are deeply saddened, and we join fervently with the millions who pray for peace in the world. But even as we grieve, and even as we seek to understand, we will stand united in our search for justice. We must look into our own hearts and summon the individual and collective courage and strength we will need to keep America the home of the brave and land of the free – and keep the flame of freedom alive in the world. Because we are Mountaineers, we can do nothing less.”
Within the University population, certain groups needed extra attention. Hardesty worried about the international students on campus.
“I remember going to a luncheon and seeing a foreign student in the corner crying in fear he’d be harmed by an American,” he said. “We had foreign students wondering if they were going to be blamed. We had to worry about them. I tried to make it clear to everyone that we not overreact. We had to continue to protect the rights of those who had nothing to do with it.”
The attacks spurred several changes at WVU, Hardesty said, including stricter regulations at sporting events and bomb-sniffing dogs.
“We got more active in national security affairs and developed world-class degrees and programs that use technology to aid in national security,” he added.
Hardesty will speak at “Remembering through the Arts,” a 9/11 ceremony set for 6 p.m. Sunday at the Creative Arts Center. There, he will reread his post-9/11 speech from the Sept. 14, 2001 ceremony.
Hardesty learned several lessons, as an individual and as a leader of a University.
“We learned lots of lessons, from dealing with ambiguity, recognizing it, being transparent with your population, and making counseling available,” he said. “It was a remarkable coming together of the University community.”
On Sept. 10, 2001, Chris Gray left Greg Hunter a voicemail message to call him back. The two friends – Gray, a former backup quarterback at WVU, and Hunter, owner/publisher of Blue & Gold News – planned to meet up for the WVU-Maryland football game that coming weekend.
Hunter, swamped with work that evening, didn’t have a chance to return the call right away.
The following morning, Hunter slept in later than usual. He turned on the TV as he crawled out of bed.
He saw the images. The flames. The destruction. The horror.
He knew that Gray – the friend who tried calling him hours earlier – worked at the World Trade Center.
Hunter picked up the phone and dialed Gray’s number.
He sent Gray an email.
He tried calling Gray’s fiancé. He couldn’t reach her, either.
Looking back, Hunter thinks it’s a good thing he didn’t touch base with the fiancé, who was likely devastated and as worried as anyone else.
“I knew he was a foreign exchange broker and I knew where he worked,” Hunter said. “I didn’t know the name of the company he worked for, though. But since that day, the company name is engrained in my head.”
That company is Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage firm that lost 658 of its employees on Sept. 11, 2001.
Gray, who graduated from WVU in 1994 with a master’s degree in teaching physical education, was one of those employees.
“When I heard the president of Cantor Fitzgerald say later that day that anybody working there for the company was gone, I realized it was pretty hopeless,” Hunter said. “Where Chris was?he wasn’t in harm’s way. He was right in the middle of it.”
Hunter met Gray in the summer of 1989.
Gray was a sophomore at WVU and Hunter, who had recently graduated from WVU, was in his second year running Blue & Gold News.
Oddly, their friendship didn’t grow on the football field or at press conferences where the journalist followed the ins and outs of Mountaineer football.
Instead, their friendship flourished on the softball field, playing on the same softball team.
“Summer softball is a big social thing,” Hunter said. “You go play softball and go out afterward and goof off. I was young and single, he was young and single, and ran around together and did guy stuff. He had such a personality. He was literally one of the funniest guys around. Some of his material was off-color humor that I can’t share in a family setting. I’d never met anyone who didn’t like Chris. He was outgoing, nice and funny.”
At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Gray personified athlete. Although he served as a backup quarterback as a Mountaineer, the Miami Dolphins still saw something in him and offered him a free agent contact. He never got a chance to officially make the team, but receiving such an offer seemed quite a feat for a backup college quarterback.
Hunter last saw Gray at his wedding in the summer of 2001. Gray planned to get married the following summer.
“It’s sad to think about the situation he died under,” Hunter said. “I still can’t watch any documentaries about 9/11. I’ve tried to block it from my mind. I remember him as the person he was – a happy-go-lucky guy. I think of that instead of the tragic situation.”
Gray worked at Cantor Fitzgerald for just a year. He applied his master’s degree by teaching for a while, but became a stockbroker in order to make more money, Hunter said.
“He worked his way up the ladder,” Hunter said. “I don’t think he really liked it, but it was good money. He was going to suck it up and do it for a while. He lived in Hoboken (N.J.) and didn’t like the commute to New York. He would’ve been back in West Virginia in a year or two.”
For the 10th year in a row, WVU alumnus Brian Martin and his pals will meet up in October for some golf in Middletown, Md.
And for the 10th year in a row, one of their best golfing buddies – and best all-around buddies, for that matter – will be absent.
That friend, James “Jim” K. Samuel Jr., a 1993 WVU graduate in finance, is the reason why several of these guys are friends and avid golfers.
While attending WVU in the early-1990s, Martin and Samuel both worked at Lakeview Golf Resort & Spa outside Morgantown. Martin worked with banquet services while Samuel was a chef there.
It seemed like the perfect time for the two friends to take up golfing.
“We started playing all the time,” said Martin, a 1994 advertising graduate. “After graduation, he’d come down and stay with my family and we’d play a lot of golf.”
The annual golf event, held at Hollow Creek Golf Club, is dedicated to Samuel, who died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Proceeds help fund a scholarship in his name.
Samuel, a New Jersey native, worked on the 92nd floor as an assistant commodities broker with Carr Futures.
Martin, who was attending a community college in Maryland, was visiting friends in Morgantown one weekend when he met Samuel, who lived in Braxton Tower.
The following year, Martin transferred to WVU and he, Samuel and other friends rented a house together on Pearl Avenue.
A shared love of Mountaineer sports, particularly football and basketball, bonded the friends even more. They traveled to the Sugar Bowl their senior year, and drove to Panama City, Fla. for a spring break adventure.
“Growing up through college, you find a niche and a group of friends, and no matter where you go, you always stay in touch,” Martin said. “Jim and I stayed in touch, even after graduating.”
Martin also credits Samuel for helping him meet his future wife, Laura.
“Jim was there the night we met,” he said. “He kept telling Laura to hang out with me.”
Though Martin moved to Maryland and Samuel went to New Jersey, they still saw each other once or twice a year – for a round of golf, at least. They spoke on the phone frequently, and Martin noticed that his friend was getting pretty serious with his girlfriend, Jackie. He told Martin he was thought Jackie was the one.
Then Sept. 11 came.
“One positive thing to come out of this is that it brought all of us friends back together,” Martin said. “We know that every Columbus Day (the day of the golf tournament), we’ll see each other.”
A seal of WVU is currently located in the circular drive at the Erickson Alumni Center in memory of Samuel.
By Jake Stump