Special Issue: 9.11.01 - Let there be light

by Cathy Cockrell and Daniel Hernandez


candlelight vigil

Candles glow during a vigil for the victims of the terrorist attacks, held on Sproul Plaza on Sept. 11. About 2,500 people attended the event.
Rob Katzer photo

20 September 2001 |

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, we woke up innocent and soon learned with disbelief of events that would alter us forever.

Fourth-year student Anna Sieminski awoke to a radio alarm clock, then an announcer saying the World Trade Center was no more.

Dean of Students Karen Kenney didn’t switch the channel fast enough when her 5-year-old daughter came through the door, around 6 a.m., and asked what she was watching on TV. “Some really bad people wanted to hurt other people,” Kenney said. It was the hardest part of what would be a long day, “trying to explain the concept of evil” to her daughter.

History Professor Leon Litwack, whose generation was marked by the Kennedy and King assassinations and the death of student protesters at Kent State, learned from his TV that the war, this time, had come home.

We woke up innocent, learned the terrible news, and then kept learning more.

By 9 a.m., a somber meeting of the Chancellor’s Cabinet had convened — with student leaders, this time, at the table. The meeting’s thorniest issue was whether to close the campus or remain open. There were many questions and unknowns. Which was best for students? What were other UC and Cal State campuses doing? What about the governor’s decision to close state buildings?

Not to mention that a fourth hijacked airplane, still in the air, could conceivably be headed for California.

It was decided that keeping the campus open was the best way to support students at a time when support was needed most. The other UC chancellors — polled in a conference call — agreed that all UC campuses would stay open. So did Berkeley faculty leaders, who voted unanimously to endorse the decision in a meeting quickly convened by Academic Senate Chair David Dowall.

All across the campus, meanwhile, we felt our hunger for information and connection.

In the basement of Evans Hall, InformationSystems &Technology staffers monitored network traffic, web access and e-mail use — all of which had gone through the roof.

In the bindery and press room at UC Printing, radios are normally banned. That rule was suspended for the day.

“There was an atmosphere of disbelief,” said Plant Manager Richard Hall, a Vietnam veteran and a campus employee for nearly 30 years. “We decided it was better to let people know what was happening.”

We found our desire for leadership and consolation, in a time of uncertainty, more compelling than our grievances.
At the Free Speech Movement Café, amid the ghosts of protesters past whose images decorate the walls, students congregated to watch the news. When President Bush addressed the nation, a remarkable silence filled the room as viewers of all persuasions listened.

We saw the business of our daily lives in a different light — suddenly made to seem more inconsequential or more grave.

“This all feels so insignificant in relation to our national disaster,” Human Resources staffer Jane Griswold prefaced an e-mail to a campus colleague about a routine business matter.

Near midday, Custodial Services’ Michael Seals solemnly lowered the flag at California Hall, then at Sproul — positioning Old Glory precisely at half-staff, cords taut, as he was trained to in the Army Reserves. Bystanders watched in silence. “Usually they ask who died,” said Seals. “This time, no one asked.

“You always feel sad about having to lower a flag; there’s always a death behind it. It felt unusually different this time.”

We were reminded of our history, cautioned to heed its lessons.

At International House, 400 residents met in the auditorium for a quickly organized gathering. The message: remember World War II, when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps and the voice of I-House was one of the few in the nation raised in protest. In the coming period, when intolerance is likely to thrive again, how can current residents do any less? We need to comfort each other, staff emphasized, irrespective of national background.

We glimpsed of the depth of emotion in our own, and others’ hearts.

Around noon, several female students arrived on Sproul Plaza with markers and bright pieces of posterboard, saying it was important that people have a place to come together. Other students saw them, stopped, crouched on the ground to write down messages of confusion, anger, hope and raw emotion: “Ashamed of human race” … “Eye for an eye has no end” … “Peace and strength to all those that are suffering” … “My heart broke today and I can't even find all the pieces” … “War is hell.”

Chancellor Robert Berdahl and other administrators joined in the dialog with students to ask and answer questions — why was the campus open, were Muslim, Palestinian and Arab students safe?

There was talk of a student-initiated candlelight vigil that evening. Student Life staffers helped with the devilish details.

Maroly Arias, assigned the task of finding 2,500 candles, called Bay Area church suppliers and candle wholesalers until she located an Oakland retailer with a large cache of candles. Cal Corps Director Megan Voorhees, along with a Student Life intern, made a run to the Fruitvale district to pick them up. The candles, they discovered, were not in boxes. The two began counting candles by hand and placing them in a shopping cart.

We saw the swiftness of word-of-mouth, the power of poetry and music.

Just before 8 p.m., students began converging on Sproul Plaza in droves. They sat on the ground where generations of Berkeley students had gathered to express themselves. Candles were passed out, lighted. A microphone appeared.

Many eyes filled with tears as music hovered over the students, who formed a bowl of light: ASUC Senator Joanne Liu singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the UC Men's Octet with “Lonesome Road,” the California Golden Overtones singing “Lean on Me.”

Then ASUC President Wally Adeyemo spoke. Then the Chancellor.

He’d read students’ messages earlier in the day, and shared the text of one: “‘Fiat lux once meant we here would illuminate the darkness of ignorance. Our task is not finished. The light must outshine the hatred everywhere. Fiat lux in every heart and mind.’

“These are the things you have written, you who are filled with noble conviction and not merely blinded by intense passion,” Berdahl said. “So let us light these candles tonight with the resolve that we will illuminate the darkness of ignorance.”


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