September 11, 2001 remains one of the most pivotal points in American history. On Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, the nation will mark the passage of two decades since the day that changed our lives forever. Events are planned across the nation and at the 9/11 site of the Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Millersville University Communications professor James Machado was an eyewitness to the attacks on The World Trade Center. At the time, he was working for Yahoo! He was tasked with recording and editing web videos of presentations put on by investment firms in Manhattan. He recalls attending a Yankees game with his father the evening of September 10, but the game was rained out. The next morning, Machado was to record an 8 a.m. meeting at the World Financial Center, located directly across the street from Ground Zero. Luckily, his meeting was delayed until 10 a.m.
Machado remembers turning on his TV while getting ready to leave for work to see the newscast about the first plane striking the north tower. At that time, some reports mistook the attacks as an accident caused by a smaller, private plane. After seeing the news of the first plane, family and friends urged him not to go into work.
“I thought, I am probably not even going to be able to get to work… I called my boss who told me he expected me to come to work if I wanted to keep my job. So, I went to work.”
During his commute on the subway, the south tower was hit. Being underground at the time, Machado did not realize what had happened until he got to his office in Midtown where he saw his colleagues gathered around the TV. By that point, his 10 a.m. shoot was no longer going to happen. Like so many other locals that day, his plans to go into work unfortunately turned into plans on how to escape. Machado was aware that there were still airplanes that had not been accounted for. He recalls hearing the sound of the first tower collapsing all the way from Midtown.
“I oriented myself, and realized I was right in between Times Square and the Empire State Building. Remembering what they had just said on television, about how many planes were unaccounted for, I made the determination that I needed to leave. So I gathered up my things and tried to get off the island.”
Machado left his office on West 40th Street & 6th Avenue and traveled by foot to the George Washington Bridge on the far north side of town. The 7.5 mile journey took him nearly all day due to distance, commotion and traffic happening throughout the city. Buses and trains were shut down for the day. First responder vehicles were busy transporting their workers to the site of the crashes. Additionally, almost all communication systems were impossible to use due to the flood of calls and texts being sent to and from the city at the time.
“My family couldn’t get in touch with me. I couldn’t get in touch with anybody. So, I didn’t actually know what was happening. I couldn’t get off the island in normal ways. I was out of luck getting off the island. So I decided to just walk north.”
While waiting for his turn to get on a bus shuttle off the George Washington Bridge, Machado met a man who had made his way from the Financial District all the way uptown . The man he met was not allowed to bring his bicycle onto the shuttle, and Machado was hesitant about boarding a bus at the time. They managed to flag down a car and hitch a ride to the other side of the bridge going into New Jersey. After finding a working payphone, Machado was able to get his father to pick him up and take him to his house. After 12 hours of being in New York, he finally got home safe.
“I was dressed for work, wearing a suit and dress shoes. When I got back to my parents house at 8 p.m I went to take off my shoes. The sole of my shoe peeled away. They had melted from walking so far.”
Machado notes that a majority of the students he currently teaches were either not born yet or are too young to remember what happened. He says that 9/11 was world changing and unforgettable for him. However, it has since become a story from history for many Millersville students. Twenty years has faded the shared experience of 9/11 that he once had between with students. As a result, he is dedicated to contextualizing the event and his experience during it so that his students have a better perspective on it.
“It’s become a historical event. It is something that has become like an abstraction. When you look at old television or news footage, it has this patina of a previous era. The way I might look at the Zapruder film of JFK being assassinated. I can’t relate to it as much because it is from so long ago.”
In the context of teaching communication, Machado says society’s access to information is one of the most monumental changes between now and then. After communications services were rendered unusable after the collapse of the first tower, nobody on the ground in Manhattan could tell exactly what was going on. Information on what happened, where to go, or what was true and what wasn’t was up in the air. This left citizens relying on their own instincts. Machado contrasts this with current times where smartphones are commonplace.
“To expand access to information and to communicate has the ability to do incredible good in the face of a crisis. What it also means, is that it has the potential to cause harm through misinformation and disinformation. We experienced on September 11 massive amounts of misinformation that caused people to make decisions that cost them their lives.”
Machado takes responsibility to teach his students how to appreciate their greater access to information, but also how to sniff out the difference between what is true or fabricated in the media they consume.