The right place at the wrong time

How 9/11 changed UWindsor history professor Rob Nelson’s life forever

Gord Bacon

Everybody has a story about where they were on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorist attacks struck the United States.

For University of Windsor associate history professor Rob Nelson, his 9/11 story is a lot harder to believe than most.

In the weeks leading up to 9/11, the 40-year-old Vancouver native had just completed his PhD at Cambridge University. He was in the process of sending his PhD paperwork from his home in Toronto when he signed an eight-week research contract with the CBC’s investigative news program, The Fifth Estate.

Having specialized in German history, Nelson was to research East German operatives known as Stasi agents residing in Canada during the Cold War. It was a story he would never begin.

After mailing in his PhD, collecting instructions for his research project, and getting situated in is new office on Monday, Sept. 10, Nelson would begin his first day at The Fifth Estate on Tuesday, Sept. 11. But his career path would head in an unforeseen direction.

“I’m in my office … working away, and my wife calls and says, ‘something is happening, what is going on, what are they saying there?’.”

His wife, University of Windsor communications professor Kim Nelson, would go on to tell him that the first tower of The World Trade Center in New York City was on fire, and she had just seen American Airlines Flight 175 strike the second tower on the news.

“I set the phone on the desk … I opened the door from my office … and people were literally running down the hallway with papers flying out of their arms– it was like something out of a movie. I closed the door and all I could say to my wife was, ‘I’ll call you back’,” said Nelson.

Shocked, Nelson would spend most of the day sitting with some of the top journalists in the country. CBC personalities Linden MacIntyre, Jim Williamson and Neil Docherty were among those gathered around the televisions, according to Nelson.
“Maybe an hour after the second tower had fallen, people were walking through the streets, dusty, with paper flying through the air. Someone said, ‘that’s exactly what Kuwait City looked like in 1991.’”

“We’re all sitting out there watching everything with the towers and someone comes out of their office and says, ‘they just hit the Pentagon’, and nobody is reporting any of this because they’re too busy trying to confirm everything. Finally, enough people just said , ‘no, this is happening, they hit the Pentagon,’ … now it was a question of what’s next?”

Nelson said it wasn’t until the end of the day that he would realize how sensitive the information he had been exposed to truly was, and how much it would affect the world from that day forward.

“I remember it was a real shock … at around 11 a.m. they showed the stretchers lined up and the staff at the closest hospital in Lower Manhattan … talking about how they were ready for the wounded to come. They waited, and waited, and nobody came.”

“Slowly it dawned on everybody in the news room; either you got out or you didn’t. There were people who were injured, sure, but there weren’t thousands of wounded. The death toll was almost total,” he said.

“The very eerie thing for me was then leaving the Toronto (CBC) headquarters.Walking home through the University of Toronto campus and just hearing people mention things that they had heard or seen, I had this really weird feeling that none of these people really know how big this is. I felt like a different person … I had been in the middle of this story all day and I just kept thinking, ‘nobody gets just how much the world has changed.’”

“The next morning I had an awkward feeling. Now, I’m supposed to go to the Library at the University of Toronto and get books out on East Germany, and read about Stasi agents in Canada?”

Without any other instructions, Nelson began his research at the University of Toronto’s John P. Robarts Research Library. But Nelson’s German research assignment would suddenly take a backseat to yesterday’s events.

“By 11:30 a.m. I get an email from the office saying to head down there immediately … I get there and they tell me that nobody in the building speaks German and there are reports out of Hamburg that some of the hijackers had been there.”

I felt like a different person … I had been in the middle of this story all day and I just kept thinking, ‘nobody gets just how much the world has changed.’ – Rob Nelson

In no time, Nelson was re-tasked to the documentary team that would have three weeks to compile an original story on 9/11.

“The first Fifth Estate of the season would have something to do with Sept. 11. It was supposed to air on Oct. 3 … they knew Germany was going to be involved, so it was like, whoever you are, you’re now on this team,” he said. “Lyndon Macintyre was the host, Neil Docherty was the main producer … this team of awesome journalists, and here I was.”

His new position would have him compiling research, conducting interviews and tracking down people from around the world.

“After a couple weeks we caught an incredible break … a fixer (local guide) in Beirut knew the uncle of Ziad Jarrah, the pilot who crashed the plane in Pennsylvania (United Airlines flight 93) … the uncle could get us an interview with his (Jarrah’s) father. So we built a one hour biography,” he said.

“The crew was on a plane to Beirut within 24 hours, and I stayed back in Toronto and quarterbacked things. As they flew to Beirut I was setting up things in Germany. When they were on their way to Germany I began setting things up in Washington.”
“I was just thrown into this– phone on the desk, no questions asked.”

The result of Nelson’s efforts was the post-9/11 documentary titled The Pilot. Nelson had hopes of writing on history in the future, but knew the success wouldn’t measure up to what he achieved by working on the 9/11 story for CBC.

“I’ve made this four-minute clip on the history of civil war in Lebanon that over a million people watched the first night it aired … I will never have an effect like I had in that one show again.”

“To land in the pinnacle of investigative journalism, I knew how crazy lucky I was. It was a really difficult choice to leave because it had been an incredibly exciting year.”

Nelson, who has become somewhat of an expert on Ziad Jarrah and 9/11, is still consulted by the CBC. He served as an associate producer for The Fifth Estate for over a year before accepting a two-year post-doctorate position at the University of British Colombia.

Nelson has been an associate history professor at the University of Windsor since 2005, where he teaches various courses on history, international relations and warfare.

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