Man who survived 9/11 tower attacks speaks to Hillsboro students

Hillsboro students had the rare privilege of hearing from survivor, Mark McGavran, on his experience at the September 11 World Trade Center disaster. Laura Fowler Paulus/Free Press
Hillsboro students had the rare privilege of hearing from survivor, Mark McGavran, on his experience at the September 11 World Trade Center disaster. Laura Fowler Paulus/Free Press
Guest speaker Mark McGavran gave a moving presentation on the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attack on America. USD 410 Superintendent Max Heinrichs knew McGavran from coaching him through all four years of high school in Minneapolis, Kansas. He brought McGavran to Hillsboro to share his experience with the students.

McGavran spoke with the middle school and high school students in the morning and then the elementary students in the afternoon. While most students were not even alive when the events unfolded years ago, they showed much interest as they listened quietly and asked many great questions.

The speaker brought the story to life as he gave statistics and explained just how massive the World Trade Center Twin Towers were. He then walked the audience though the events of the fateful morning with a timeline and photos.

McGavran was attending the second day of a conference on the 61st floor in the South Tower on September 11, 2001. He and other attendees had just walked out to a lobby for a coffee break at 8:41 a.m. and were still on that break when the first plane crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m.

No one knew what was happening exactly although they could hear, see and feel the ramifications of the impact.

“We knew there had been an explosion of some kind. We could see smoke and debris falling when we looked out the window.”

The conference attendees were soon evacuated although no one really knew what was going on. In the stairwell during evacuation, Mark overheard a security guard mention that a plane had crashed into the North Tower. That was his first hint of what was actually happening.

Around 8:55 a.m, everyone was instructed to remain in the building as it was now secure. At that point, Mark and the others were on the 47th floor where they found an office with phones. He had to make several attempts, but eventually, Mark was able to reach his parents to let them know that he was safe. He had barely hung up when he felt the building shake. He did not know it then but the South Tower that he was in had just been hit by the second plane into the 75th through 85th floors.

“We began evacuating quickly and we knew that something was drastically wrong, but it was orderly and eerily calm.”

Once they got outside, those evacuated realized just how serious the situation was.

“It was just like on TV where you see the men in uniforms and FBI jackets running to the building everyone else was trying to leave from,” said McGavran. “When people ask me when it became real, I tell them it was after we had left the building and we were listening to the radio that a parked car had turned up. The announcer began saying that the Twin Towers had been hit, the Pentagon had been hit and the United States of America was under attack. That’s when I knew that it was not just an accident.”

McGavran explained the shock they all experienced as they stood around not knowing what to do or where to go. He felt panic as he attempted to call his family from a local store but he could not get calls to go out.

“For me the hardest part was when you know you’re safe, but your loved ones don’t.”

He described what it felt like to watch the towers collapse.

“Everyone just had looks of horror on their faces,”said McGavran.

He summed up the experience explaining how difficult it was trying to get out of New York City to return home to Kansas. He and several others from the conference ended up finding a way to get to Pennsylvania so they could then take a train from there.

McGavran said that he has learned many things from his experience but it can all be summed up simply.

“It’s about not taking the little things for granted or letting little things fester for a long time. Life is short. There were a lot of people who woke up that morning and never got to go back home.”