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9/11: Fall and Rise
Dung Hoang

9/11: Fall and Rise

A tragic autumn morning in 2001 and a decade’s worth of repercussions for public health

That Was Then

On that Tuesday, on a big screen in the Bloomberg School, Patrick Breysse and Alison Geyh watched as the second World Trade Center (WTC) tower collapsed.

“It hit her right in the heart,” says Breysse, an Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) professor.

“She said, ‘We have to do something.’ I stepped back, let her run, and she took the lead,” Breysse says, recalling the morning of September 11, 2001. Immediately, Geyh, PhD, then an EHS assistant scientist, mobilized a team to travel to ground zero and conduct some of the first environmental health assessments performed at the site.

America’s illusions of safety went up in smoke like the debris burning in lower Manhattan’s pile of rubble. News anchors wept on screen. Military planes patrolled the skies. Civilian flights were shut down. The country had no idea what to expect next.

“Like the rest of the world, the public health community was largely unprepared for this kind of event,” says Thomas Burke, PhD, MPH, now associate dean for Public Health Practice and Training at the School.

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS ‘73, then dean of the School, had been literally out to sea during the attacks, aboard the Queen Elizabeth II. He returned to find his faculty stunned but eager to marshal resources. “[Tom Burke] was with me when it hit me,” he recalls. “The School has to organize itself as an institution critical to the acute problems requiring public health.”

“I vividly remember watching them pull a torso out of the pile. There was a teddy bear in the rubble. I thought, ‘These are the remains of private lives. Part of that dust is human remains. We’re breathing people.’” —Patrick Breysse

With colleagues, Burke began to organize faculty teams with the primary mission of training and education in preparation for threats. Locally, he reached out to public officials and developed relationships with the Baltimore Mayor’s Office, the police force and firefighters.

Then, on October 2, 2001, terror struck again. A photo editor at The Sun, a supermarket tabloid in Florida, was diagnosed with anthrax. By October 17, two senators had been targeted and 31 Capitol workers had been diagnosed with anthrax. Once again, the School and the nation went on high alert. This time for bioterrorism. “[But] by the time of anthrax,” says Burke, “we had a network in the School… For the first time, first responders and police were working with public health practice [professionals].”

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