'Our lives' revisited: How 9/11 perspectives have changed in past five years

Saturday, September 10, 2011 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:09 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 11, 2011

COLUMBIA — Retired telecommunications worker Greg Heifner recalls thinking during the 9/11 attacks: "What am I going to do with my life now? Am I going to just stay on my farm and clip coupons, or am I going to get actively involved in making a change?"

He chose the latter, and now runs a company that helps restore communication after disasters strike.

Five years ago, the Missourian spoke to Columbia residents — including Heifner — about how the 9/11 attacks changed their lives ("Our Lives: Five years later," part one and part two). In the days leading up to the attacks' 10th anniversary, the Missourian touched base with some of the people we spoke to in 2006, to see if and how their perspectives had changed. This is one of two stories.

Greg Heifner, founder and CEO of Orbital Data Net Inc., a satellite communications company based in Columbia

In 2006, he said: "I want to be able to help people and make a living at the same time. I don't think those two are mutually exclusive."

Greg Heifner recalled watching events unfold on Sept. 11, 2001, and thinking of ways his engineering background could help.

"When the buildings came down, they didn’t have the ability to even talk to each other," he said. "The police department couldn’t communicate with the fire department who couldn’t communicate back to the National Guard. I thought that was ridiculous."

Inspired by the loss of communication among emergency responders who arrived at ground zero, Heifner used his experience in communications technology to launch Orbital Data Net Inc. in June 2002. The company restores communications in the aftermath of disasters by using satellite technology.

The first major contract signed by Orbital Data Net was with the state of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Six years later, seven states use the networks as do agencies like NASA, the American Red Cross and the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Besides Katrina, Heifner’s company has aided communication during disasters including hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008 and the tornado in Joplin in May.

Although his company’s expansion has been slow, Heifner said he is satisfied with the progression.

“Its really been unfolding so far as I planned it,” he said. “It’s proving itself more and more valuable.”

David Currey, director of International Students and Scholar Services and assistant director of the International Center at MU

In 2006, he said: "There was a perception that the U.S. was closing its doors (but) maybe we have turned the corner."

As he watched the events on 9/11 unfolding from the International Center's conference room, David Currey remembers worrying for his students.

“I think there was a normal anxiousness that reactions to the 9/11 attacks could result in some type of reaction or retaliation toward anyone that might look like they were from the Middle East,” he said.

Although all the students who temporarily withdrew from MU during fall 2001 returned in the spring, international enrollment dropped after the attacks and remained static between 2003 and 2006.

“MU’s plateau was actually a better scenario than the dramatic declines many U.S. institutions experienced during that same time frame,” Currey said. “International students may have felt that the U.S. was making it more difficult to obtain students visas, though this was not the case.”

When Currey was interviewed in 2006, he was beginning to see enrollment numbers increase; that upward trend has continued.

MU has an estimated 1,800 international students this fall — up from 1,314 in 2001, a nearly 37 percent increase. That number includes about 800 visiting scholars — from more than 100 countries, Currey said.

Mark Prelas, MU nuclear engineering professor

In 2006, he said: "We've talked about 9/11 a lot because the class is on terrorism, and it is the largest terrorist attack we've ever had."

Mark Prelas was teaching his course, "Science and Technology of Terrorism," when the attacks occurred.

He said that though the course had only 17 students enrolled at the time, the 40-seat room was often full after the attacks. The course has been offered every semester since; about 30 students typically enroll.

Prelas has noted a shift in the reason students enroll in his course.

“At first, it (9/11) was some sort of an event that was rare, and they were more curious than anything else,” he said. “Now, we get students who want to have a background in this because they think it will help in future jobs. We have people who think it will help them in terms of their interest in political science, medicine, law, journalism. There’s an impact on all professions that having a class like this is useful.”

Prelas said the course material has been changing because of  the changing nature of terrorism. To keep the material current, he and his co-instructors, Dabir Viswanath and Tushar Ghosh, bring in experts from campus and from out in the field.

The first change has been the terrorists’ targets, he said. The attacks on the twin towers began a trend of terrorists targeting large numbers of civilians rather than more concentrated, military-related targets.

Technological advances have also changed terrorists’ methods, he said. Terrorists groups have used the Internet to post information on who to attack, where to attack and instructions on how to make weapons.

“In 2000, we didn’t have smartphones — we had cellphones,” Prelas said. “The smartphone is a great tool for networking and being connected, but it’s also a great tool for being used as a weapon.”

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