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Butler professor reflects on living in New York City on 9/11

Dr. Catherine Hagerman Pangan was a classroom teacher in NYC on 9/11. Her school was close enough that the street around her building was filled with smoke.

INDIANAPOLIS — Two decades ago, Butler professor Dr. Catherine Hagerman Pangan moved from Carmel to New York City to begin her doctoral work in education. Then, 9/11 happened, and her life was turned upside down. 

Pangan has never sat down for an in-depth discussion about all the things she experienced on that Tuesday morning 20 years ago — until now. 

For this Indiana teacher, it was the ultimate lesson in history.

“It feels like yesterday,” Pangan said. “It feels like it just happened 24 hours ago. I was hesitant to do this interview because it still feels so raw after 20 years.”

Pangan was inside the World Trade Centers just two days before 9/11. She was sightseeing, trying to get to know her new city. 

“I moved from Indiana to New York City six days before 9/11, and the experience completely changed my life,” Pangan said. “My first day of class was 9/11, and the Twin Towers are falling. I remember that people there didn't run. They just started walking really quickly, like ants just scattering. It seemed like the world turned upside down.”

Pangan was all alone in New York City. Her husband was still in Indianapolis wrapping up his job, and she had no way off the island of Manhattan. 

“I didn't want to go out anywhere because I wasn't sure what was going to happen next,” Pangan said. “My apartment was in between two streets, and one street had the incoming fire trucks that were covered in ash.” 

Because cellphone service was down in Manhattan, Pangan wasn’t able to contact her husband for a few days. 

“I just remember that feeling of relief, getting to hear his voice,” Pangan said. 

In fact, she still has the shoes she was wearing on that day 20 years ago, and they’re still covered in the dust from Ground Zero.

“The smell of ash and burning steel is something that I will never get out of my mind,” Pangan said. 

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Eventually, negatives turned into positives, and she discovered something completely unexpected in the heart of New York: Hoosier hospitality.  

“Random strangers would stop you on the street and say, ‘How are you doing? Did you lose anyone? How's your family?’” Pangan said. “People that just came together in such incredible ways, and that feeling also will stick with me forever.”

Pangan stayed in the city for four years, only coming back to Indiana after she got pregnant with her first child. 

“Ironically, my son is named Hudson for the Hudson River,” Pangan said. “He’s now 16 and a junior at North Central High School. I have a daughter who is 10 years old, and the reason I'm doing this interview is for her. She wanted to hear the story 20 years later.”

When Pangan eventually walks down memory lane again in Manhattan with her husband and two kids, she's going to make sure it’s a positive experience. 

“I can't wait to get back to New York City so we can explore together, and I can show [them] the places and the people that helped shape my life from that time forward,” Pangan said.

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