“When was the last time you spoke?” What was the last thing they said to you?” “How do you know they were inside the World Trade Center?”
This line of questioning will forever be ingrained in the mind of USF Adjunct Professor Bonnie Silvestri. In the weeks following the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, she worked for the Death Certificate program. As a then-representative of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, she was responsible for speaking with grieving families about their loved ones who had gone missing since that fateful day. Silvestri was required to gather evidence and determine the likelihood that they were inside the World Trade Center when it collapsed or on one of the planes that crashed into the twin towers.
“Reading the affidavits burned the eyes. Each person was required to recount his or her loved one’s routine and last contact to demonstrate that the victim had indeed been in the building. They had to prove to the court what they could probably hardly admit to themselves – their certainty that a person they love could not have survived,” Silvestri said. “One mother recounted her daughter’s last words: ‘Help me, mommy,’ before the line was cut. I get a chill whenever I think of these words, and then I remember the torment this mother will live with the rest of her life.”
It’s a professional experience that no one could have ever imagined, yet one that has helped shape how Silvestri teaches her service learning and law courses on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.
“It was incredibly stressful to go through what happened on Sept. 11th, so being able to go to the Family Assistance Center and listen to other people’s stories and to realize that I had skills that I could offer to help them or make them feel a little bit better was very healing for me,” Silvestri said. “Being able to offer my legal background to help in the aftermath of Sept. 11th helped me discover in a very visceral way that service to others is a very powerful thing. It influenced the way that I teach, particularly service-learning classes. I talk about this in my courses to emphasize to students that serving others in the community can help them better understand social problems and devise more effective ways to achieve positive change."
Throughout the campus courtyard, 2,977 flags were placed this week in honor of each of the lives lost. Former U.S. President George W. Bush was in a Sarasota second-grade classroom when he learned that the country was under attack. Since then, the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus has hosted annual memorial services. For the 20th anniversary of 9/11, there was a remembrance ceremony open to the public with guest speaker Garrett Lindgren. As a former New York City firefighter, Lindgren arrived at the World Trade Center north tower just after the collapse and worked at ground zero for months until he sustained career-ending injuries while searching through the rubble.
Thousands of firefighters and EMS workers continue to experience breathing problems caused by persistent exposure to dust and smoke during rescue efforts at ground zero. USF Health pulmonologist Dr. Gaetane Michaud joined USF Health from New York University, where she had been treating many patients with residual lung damage from the caustic dust and debris that cloaked much of New York after both of the World Trade Center towers fell. Now in Tampa and on faculty at USF Health, she is beginning to see similar patients, as many from the New York area have retired and moved to Florida.
“The true impact of 9/11 on health may never been known,” Dr. Michaud said. “One of the most important things survivors should know is that exposure could be from being there on 9/11 as well as from recurrent exposure to ground zero for up to six months following 9/11. And there were many, many young people who were exposed or those who moved on from New York who might be having problems now and they aren’t connecting those conditions back to their exposure.”
The terror attacks have inspired countless careers at USF. Elizabeth Dunn, instructor in the USF College of Public Health, was a senior in high school in Texas when the tragedy unfolded. As a volunteer with the American Red Cross, she led efforts to raise more than $60,000 at her school. She currently serves as the faculty advisor for the American Red Cross Club at USF.
“That definitely influenced the direction I was going in terms of my career. After working with the Red Cross, I realized how much I enjoyed mobilizing people and coming together,” Dunn said. “It provided me with the opportunity to work alongside others to take action and do what we could to help those impacted by the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York from our little town in Texas. Then in 2012, I was able to deploy to NYC with the Red Cross in response to Hurricane Sandy.”
Dunn now teaches Homeland Security and Emergency Management courses to include exercise design, which focuses on how to test plans and policies by creating an emergency response scenario, such as a mass shooting or natural hazard event, allowing agencies to practice how they’d work together in a real-life situation. The students learn how to build a more resilient community by understanding what it takes to coordinate the response and recovery efforts needed to protect our critical infrastructure sectors that are vital to national security, such as healthcare and public health systems, emergency services or the energy and communications sectors.
Students have worked alongside community partners from the Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management, Florida Department of Health (FDOH), TECO Energy, American Red Cross, Tampa International Airport and the Morsani Ambulatory Surgical Center on USF’s Tampa campus to develop and participate in various exercises. They get further hands-on experience serving as evaluators during the FDOH annual full-scale exercise that includes 40-plus agencies and more than 500 actors who deploy to 16 hospitals across Hillsborough County to test their responses to a mass casualty incident.
The students have also participated in various exercises that involved individuals from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Coast Guard and MacDill Airforce Base, which is home to United States Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command – the military arm responsible for protecting American security interests, especially in the Middle East.
Many of USF’s student-veterans joined the military to fight the War on Terror. Wayne Taylor, assistant director of veteran services and coordinator of the Military Families and Veterans Success Center on the USF St. Petersburg Campus, has made it his mission to ensure that veterans receive the support and healthcare that they deserve. He joined USF in 2020 after serving multiple tours, including to Afghanistan, throughout his 20-year career in the U.S. Army.
“I can’t speak for all veterans, only myself. Occasionally, I am fortunate enough to represent our student veterans and our military-connected student population who are impacted from military service,” Taylor said. “Many are frustrated with our departure from Afghanistan, especially because many cannot relate to the atrocities we saw under Taliban rule. Young girls will no longer have an opportunity to go to school, as they age education and work are no longer options, but instead are faced with a life of servitude. We remind our student veterans that any Afghans who might have come to the United States or any other country might not have had that opportunity without us being there. They made a difference.”
Taylor recently launched ongoing “safe space” meetings for USF student veterans who served in Afghanistan to openly discuss their emotions surrounding the troop withdrawal. Some of the students relived the shock and anger of experiencing the evils of the Taliban and concern that their sacrifices of the past will not make a difference in the Arab nation today. The meetings are also open to Afghan students from all three campuses.
Also on the St. Petersburg campus, Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi serves as an assistant professor of international relations and political science. He said he was inspired by the post-9/11 wars and especially by the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation techniques," or torture program. His research focuses on the tension between security and human rights, examining how international law affected the U.S. national security system’s use of torture during the War on Terror.
“When stories about the U.S. use of torture began to surface from 2004-2006, I wanted to understand why the U.S. would set up such a system and if and how laws – international and domestic – affected U.S. behavior,” Jimenez-Bacardi said. “I was an undergrad at the time, but those wars and counterterrorist operations motivated me to get a PhD to try and understand why and how they were set up the way that they were and why and how they evolved.”
Jimenez-Bacardi is currently working on a book, “Speaking Law to War,” in which he explores whether, why and how states comply with their international obligations during times of great threat. He expects it to publish in 2023.