Ten Years Later
By the time the second plane hit the World Trade
Center on Sept. 11, 2001, everything at UTSA had come to a
sudden halt. Hallways were quiet as people crowded around
televisions that had been wheeled into public areas.
“Astonishment is the word I would use to characterize
the general sense of how people felt,” said Dan Pena, UTSA’s
assistant police chief. “Shock. Dismay.”
President Ricardo Romo was giving a speech to 100 military
officers. At once, every pager in the room went off. The
room was cleared. “Instantly, we knew something terrible
had happened,” he said.
While students struggled to comprehend what was happening,
campus officials and security personnel went into
overdrive to make sure the university was secure and to
help allay fears. Police officers were stationed at the university’s
entrances to monitor traffic. Security was enhanced
in all the service corridors underneath campus buildings.
Alerts went out to the campus community through email,
updating everyone as the day went on.
“That’s probably one of the biggest where-were-you moments
that will happen in a generation,” said David Gabler,
associate vice president for communications. “The entire
university shut down for a period of time. The face of everybody
in the [John Peace Library] that I came across conveyed
that we would never be the same again.”
And the university did change. Over the last 10 years,
research focus has shifted to cyber security and infectious
diseases. Funding from the Department of Defense has
exceeded $35 million in the last decade. The university’s
emergency operations center has been beefed up and more
than $500,000 has been spent on upgrading security and
emergency notification systems.
“We lost a little bit of our innocence,” Pena said.
After Sept. 11 the unthinkable became possible. Then
came Hurricane Katrina, followed by the shootings at
Virginia Tech. Each event highlighted deficiencies in emergency
response and communications nationwide.
“I think what has happened probably in a lot of institutions
is the feeling of insulation has disappeared,” Gabler
said. “And I don’t think that means that we’re now living in
the grips of fear. But I think the awareness is there and there’s
a knowledge that we aren't necessarily immune now.”
So the university has prepared itself for the next emergency.
A reverse 911 system was installed in 2005, which
sends an alert to students, faculty and staff by telephone,
emails and text messages to cell phones. It was recently upgraded
to a new Emergency Notification System. The Giant
Voice mass notification technology was installed in 2007,
which relays emergency messages through outdoor speakers
and fire alarms within buildings.
The emergency management office expanded in staff
and all safety personnel are now required to take emergency
management education courses. The communications
staff also must take emergency communications training.
“We have changed our focus from how to catch the bad
guys or put out the fires to how do we coordinate within
our organization from a holistic preparedness and response
perspective,” said Lorenzo Sanchez, UTSA’s director of
emergency management. “We plan for university emergencies
from an all-hazards perspective, not just for singular
events such as terrorism, fires or flood. We’ve created a
program that can serve all occupants in our community, no
matter what happens on campus.”
There was a shift in research priorities as well. The Center
for Infrastructure Assurance and Security had been established
in June 2001 to address data protection. But after
Sept. 11, Romo decided cyber security would be a major
research component. That goal was enhanced by the creation
of the Institute for Cyber Security in 2007. The threat of
biowarfare also highlighted the need for study of infectious
diseases. In response, the South Texas Center for Emerging
Infectious Diseases was created in 2005.
Gradually, researchers have become more involved in
things like military medicine, robotics, trauma treatment,
regenerative medicine, stem cell work and energy.
drive a lot of research efforts
in any country,” said
Robert Gracy, vice president
for research. “I think
the idea is to look at society
and see the current
needs and project into
the future to determine
what we need to do.”
Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Romo began carrying
around cards in his wallet. They weren’t typical business
cards. Instead, they had a message of hope written by
Franklin D. Roosevelt and delivered in his 1941 State of the
Union Address. Called The Four Freedoms, it articulated
freedoms that everyone in the world should be guaranteed.
The fourth one is the one that resonated with Romo.
“The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into
world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to
such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation
will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression
against any neighbor—anywhere in the world,” Roosevelt
For Romo, that was a message that needed to be remembered
as the country dealt with the shock of terrorism. To
everyone he met, he handed them the card.
“It impacted me a lot,” Romo said. “Everyone has the
right to be free from fear. Ten years ago, the country, and
our university, was struggling to understand what had just
happened. There was grief, shock and definitely fear. But we
can’t let fear manipulate us, because that is terrorism. And
we couldn’t let the terrorists be successful.”
Today the country faces the same challenges it did 10
years ago. But what has changed is our awareness of the
problems, and our role to help make a difference, he said.
“There is still hate in the world. There are still misunderstandings
in the world,” Romo said. “The thing that
was important to me 10 years ago and remains important
to me now is that higher education is part of the solution.
We’re doing a really good job at UTSA of preparing the
next generation of leaders to spread the message of understanding.”