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magazine home > archives > winter 2002 > features

After terrorists guided planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September, killing thousands of innocent people, University of Memphis alumni, faculty, staff and students were quick to respond with help ranging from medical services to fund raising.

9/11 Helping Hands
by Greg Russell & Amy Clarkson

Tennesse Task Force members
Photo by John Selberg

Tennessee Task Force members John B. O'Neill Jr. and Paul Nickl ('91) stand in front of a gaping wound in the Pentagon.

Tina Santi Flaherty was under attack.

Ruthless killers on a devious mission of unheard magnitude had catapulted the best-selling author's world into total chaos. "I didn't know if we were going to have to make a run for it," says Flaherty. "I honestly was fearing for my life."

The date was Sept. 11, 2001, and terrorists had crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, killing thousands of innocent people and forever changing the lives of many Americans.

Flaherty had begun the day at an animal clinic in Manhattan, just a few miles from the towers. She had taken her dog, Ashleen, for tests, when she first heard the sirens.

"The vet came out and said, 'one of the towers had been hit,'" she recalls. "I thought it was just an accident. Then he came in again and said a second plane had hit it and they think it is terrorism."

The news jolted Flaherty into a state of panic. She grabbed her dog and ran down five flights of stairs before jumping into her car.

"My first thought was 'where are they going to hit next?'" she says. "I was wondering if I would get out of this alive. I just wanted to get home - it was the longest 30 blocks I have ever driven."

Flaherty spent the rest of the day watching television news reports from her apartment overlooking Central Park. "I prepared an emergency kit because I didn't know if we would have to flee the city or not."

Flaherty is the president and CEO of the New York City-based Image Marketing, a company that specializes in communication training. She won the University's Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000 and served as the first female vice president for three of the nation's leading corporations, including Colgate-Palmolive. Flaherty co-hosted the afternoon dance party "Big Beat" on WMC-TV before moving to the Big Apple in the late 1960s.

"Now, any time I hear a siren, I wonder if they have hit again," she says. "Your whole perspective has changed. Some of my friends have been to eight or nine funerals. Anytime I hear an airplane, I wonder if it is us or them. Everything is different now."

Flaherty did her part to help with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy. As a board member of New York City's prestigious Animal Medical Center, she granted veterinarian services to the many search and rescue dogs at the Ground Zero site.

"Anything we can do to help out," she says.

Flaherty was one of many University of Memphis alumni to lend support; others rushed to do their part in easing the effects of the tragedy.

A Nickl to Help

U of M alumnus Paul Nickl ('91) struggles to find words to describe the devastating scene in the nation's capital, where 190 people died after a hijacked jet rammed into the Pentagon that day.

"It was a really nasty situation," he says. "The fire raged for days - 70,000 pounds of jet fuel had exploded. The building was burned north and south of where the plane hit, and bodies were everywhere. The jet penetrated all the way into the first two rings of the building and punched a hole in the third."

Part of the Tennessee Task Force organized by the Federal Emergency Management Association, Nickl and dozens of other Memphians, including several U of M alumni, arrived in Washington, D.C., to help search for victims and clean up the wreckage.

Nickl says he was unprepared for the amount of devastation at the military headquarters, part of the worst attacks in national history.

"We were there for a couple of days before I had time to really think about what was going on," he recalls. "We had a mission, so we were focused on that. But for me, it was about the fourth day, when it just hit me."

Crowd welcoms returning TTF members
A crowd cheers the safe return of TTF members. Local rescuers spared no time getting involved - they were deployed immediately on Sept. 11, and returned home on Sept. 20.

The Tennessee Task Force, along with one from Maryland and two from Virginia, was charged with assisting the military in securing the building and searching for victims. The work was sobering and challenging, Nickl says. As the group shored up the inside of the building, they discovered victims of the attack.

Whenever they found a body, soldiers arrived at the scene to remove the bodies, he says.

The Pentagon attack, coming just an hour after two jets crashed into the twin towers at the World Trade Center, thrust the United States into a war against the terrorists responsible for thousands of deaths in a single day.
But for Nickl and the other Tennessee volunteers, the focus the first few days was on helping federal officials secure the badly damaged building. They drew on expertise they had obtained in dealing with structural collapse from hurricane or earthquake damage in other disasters.

Although the group trains together extensively, the trip to the Pentagon marked the first time the task force was deployed to a disaster. For Nickl, an information technology expert for PricewaterhouseCoopers and volunteer firefighter for Germantown, Tenn., the trip remains etched in his

"What I remember - what pops into my head most often - is the sheer amount of devastation," he recalls. "None of us, even firefighters who have been with the fire department for years, had ever seen anything like that. Just the sheer magnitude, the amount of damage, the people ... it is unforgettable."

A Wright Move

Memphis Grizzlies basketball player Lorenzen Wright ('96) has faced formidable foes while playing in the NBA, but he says none stack up to the evil nature of terrorists. So when he had an opportunity to help with relief efforts, he quickly jumped at the opportunity.

Wright and several other Grizzlies traveled to cities throughout the South signing autographs for donations and auctioning basketballs to raise money.

"Every little bit helps," says Wright. "Maybe the most important thing is showing that we care and we appreciate what the firefighters and rescue workers are doing. It is a show of support."

The money raised by Wright and the Grizzlies went to the 911 Relief Fund and to police associations.

Straight From the Heart

On campus, faculty, staff and students were quick to help, too.

Communications Services Director Curt Guenther was one of 200 people who donated blood to help the victims of the attacks.

"Giving blood was a tangible way for me to help the victims and to express my concerns for them," says Guenther. "Had my life's circumstances been different, I could have been one of those people in the towers or the Pentagon. That is a sobering thought.

"Giving blood was also a way for me to overtly express my support for the nation. On a very personal level, I think it was a way of helping me come to grips with the almost incomprehensible events that I watched that day."

University President Shirley C. Raines requested a moment of silence throughout campus to honor the victims; a candlelight vigil was also held at the Administration Building.

United We Stand

Task force member Michael Lambert (BSEd '99), a Memphis firefighter who also went to the capital, says the incident united the country like he has never seen before.

"We go because we love people and want to be there when people need help," he says. "No matter if it is a rescue or a medical, we do everything we can to fight for someone's life - we are the Lord's working hands. That is what makes America great - people helping others. America will stay number one for that reason."

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