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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

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.”

A living flag presentation at the Sept. 10 football game against McMurry University paid tribute to military servicemen and women.

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.

“Genuine, well-articulated and well-understood national priorities 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.”

Essential Message

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 wrote.

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.”

–Lety Laurel

Above: On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, 100 UTSA Army and Air Force cadets gave a living flag presentation at the football game against McMurry University.


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