T. Ford-Ahmed was in her car, driving to teach her morning public relations class at West Virginia State College, when she heard a caller on a radio show saying an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center.
The DJ laughed, but it soon became clear that the caller was serious.
When she arrived on campus, Ford-Ahmed immediately ran into the student TV studio. Everyone was watching. She ran up to her classroom. Her students were watching, too.
"Some began crying," Ford-Ahmed said. "You could tell the hysteria was building.... At first, we heard that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania had gone down in Morgantown. So we thought the colleges were under attack."
Then one student asked the question: "What if they hit the chemical plant next?"
WVSC sits right next door to the Bayer plant, which makes agricultural chemicals. From time to time, chemical plants or tankers leak toxic fumes, and people nearby must seal themselves in their homes until the poisons dissipate.
But what if there was a full-fledged terrorist attack, the class wondered. Would people know how to survive?
Ford-Ahmed asked her students whether they knew how to "shelter-in-place."
"Out of about 45 students, about two held up their hands," she said.
"That's when the textbook went in the garbage."
It was, after all, a public relations class. The students decided to teach themselves, by embarking on a public relations campaign: teaching the people of the Kanawha Valley how to shelter-in-place.
It started in a class of 45 beginner-level students. Then, Gov. Bob Wise's office got in on the act, and asked the students to help promote a disaster handbook titled "Getting Ready" that is ready to be distributed to everyone in West Virginia.
Now, the word has gotten around about WVSC's public relations students. A Toledo, Ohio, marketing firm just contracted with them to do publicity for a client that wants an organization in every state to plant a tree at the same time.
"It all emerged," Ford-Ahmed said, "from that fateful morning."
Knowing how to survive
Immediately after Sept. 11, the students divided into teams. Each team came up with a campaign to teach people about sheltering in place. Then they voted on the best campaign.
The winner? "Sh.I.P. Happens"— short for "shelter in place."
Another class of Ford-Ahmed's, a class of advanced students, carried out the campaign. It included a how-to movie that is being shown to every class at WVSC this month.