Alumna remembers father after his 9/11 death


Rachel Jacobson stands by her father Steven Jacobson who is holding her sister Miriam. Jacobson was killed at the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

As minutes ticked by, a family friend woke Rachel at 9 a.m. with a phone call. She said, “Turn on the TV, and call your parents.”

Rachel did as she was told and could not believe what she saw. Smoke poured from the sides of the World Trade Center towers. There was screaming and wailing in the streets of her hometown. Rachel watched as a tower collapsed in a billowing cloud of white ash.

“All the phone lines were busy,” Rachel said ten years later. “I couldn’t contact my mom. I was really disconnected, really far away. It was the first time I was away from home, so it was a really lonely morning.”

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and a moment that would define a generation had passed.

It would define Rachel, who lost a member of her family.

Steven Jacobson, Rachel’s father, was a broadcast engineer. He worked on the 110th floor of one of the towers.

“I even tried to call him,” Rachel said. “Obviously, nothing was going through.”

When Rachel was finally able to contact someone, her mind was in a haze. Awash in emotion, Rachel’s only option was to shut down.

“I talked to my mom, but she wasn’t there, really. She was emotionally disconnected. We all were,” Rachel said, struggling to remember. “We knew, but we didn’t really want to believe that he was in the building.”

Rachel and her boyfriend drove to Chicago, where he had family. They hoped to find a flight to New York.

“I didn’t know what to do. So we went to the airport, and there were thousands of people there. We went to the ticketing counter and I was like, ‘I need a ticket to New York now.’”

It took nearly a week for Rachel to find a flight. She spent those days glued to television sets, unable to believe and unable to pull away.

“It didn’t feel like five days. It felt like non-stop chaos,” Rachel said.

Rachel returned to a home completely unlike the one she had left behind when she went to college.

Two weeks after the attacks, Rachel’s father still had not been found. Her family tried to move forward and began making funeral arrangements.

“I kept thinking, ‘He’s coming back. Why would we plan a memorial service?’” Rachel said. “I was really angry that they were planning a funeral — that they’d lost hope that he was still alive.”

Rachel stayed a month in New York to be with her family and to attend her father’s memorial service.

Her professors allowed her to take tests and turn in classwork from home.

“I thought I was going to have to drop out of school. I was so scared,” Rachel said. “I will never forget IU’s response and support of the staff and everyone. . . I don’t think people know the little ways that it helped. People really came through.”

Rachel said she was more than ready to go back to IU after a few weeks in her home city. She said she needed to return to something normal.

Before she left Bloomington and after her return, the people who lived with her in McNutt Quad helped support her, as well. She didn’t have a driver’s license at the time, so fellow students drove her into town to shop. They also made cards for her and offered her time to talk and grieve.

“Everyone on my floor was so amazing. I knew them a week, and they were offering anything and everything they had to me,” Rachel said.

But it wasn’t easy. Rachel was labeled as the girl who had lost her father in the terrorist attacks.

She knew people talked about her when she was away, and people would start whispering to one another when she entered a room.

“Everyone had heard. They knew who I was. It isn’t something you want to be known for,” Rachel said. “I just wanted to be a normal college student.”

Rachel had come to IU to create an identity in a completely new environment. But after very little time to adjust, her identity was created for her based on her hometown.

Rachel’s father was found two months after the attacks. She went back to New York for his burial. By then she had rushed Sigma Delta Tau, which she said helped her immensely.

“SDT pledgeship kept me busy,” Rachel said. “It allowed me to meet new people easily and gave me an automatic network of women who soon became very dear friends of mine.”

One year later, the nation turned its memories to the attacks once more. Memorials, prayers and vigils echoed through the streets of cities from New York to Sacramento.
Rachel stayed in Bloomington for the first anniversary and several after.

“I didn’t go home for Sept. 11 until last year,” Rachel said. “I want to remember my dad for the good things. The good memories I have with him. I don’t want to remember him in the loss, because that’s not who he is.”

It took Rachel five years to come to terms with her father’s death. During that time she graduated from IU and joined a program in Israel that allowed her to study Hebrew and work.

Rachel is 27 now. She has her master’s degree in art therapy and certification in personal fitness training. She teaches individual and group fitness classes in Tel Aviv and loves every minute of it.

Rachel will not return home for the ten-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and she prefers it that way.

“I just want to remember him as a person — not another number, another person lost,” Rachel said. “I want to celebrate his life, not mourn his death.”

Follow the story about Rachel and her family with the conclusion to this two-part series, which will be published on Monday, Sept. 12.

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