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The Night America Won

Everyone wants to be a part of history. On May 1, 2011, a little more than nine and a half years after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, almost 6,000 Penn State students got their chance.

Flooding the streets of Beaver Canyon in downtown State College, the Penn State community banded together for more than three hours by swinging American flags from makeshift poles of curtain rods or tree branches and wrapping their arms around each other as they belted out the national anthem, celebrating the death of one of the most infamous terrorists in modern history.

Rumors began to swirl late Sunday evening that Osama bin Laden, the leader behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had died. By 11:30 p.m., United States President Barack Obama confirmed to the millions of Americans waiting anxiously by their radios, televisions and computers that bin Laden was indeed dead. Even before the confirmation though, Penn State students used social networking to their advantage, sharing pictures, video and text through Twitter, Facebook and their cell phones, ultimately encouraging more and more students to take part in the festivities downtown. Growing from just a few dozen at 11:15 p.m. to well over 2,000 students by 11:45 p.m., students showed up in their finest threads: costumes ranging from Captain America (shield and all) to Gumby (the green bendy guy), from a Jersey Shore wannabe running around in American flag boxers to a demonstrator wearing an Obama mask.

Marie Donnelly, a Penn State senior majoring in marketing, brought a wooden spoon and a large soup pot to the celebration, leading the crowd in a rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Some students threw toilet paper (the cheaper, college version of confetti) from their balconies, leaving paper trails hanging from the sidewalk trees, waving in the wind as if in celebration too.

Other demonstrators were more physically active on the streets than Donnelly: A dozen students were seen jumping vigorously on an Audi car unfortunately parked outside of Cedarbrook apartments…that is, until the roof of the car started to cave in, sending the partygoers sliding off in all directions like an avalanche. One male student wearing a yellow wig, skin-tight cutoff jean shorts (à la Daisy Duke) and a backward red-white-and-blue hat ran through the streets, pumping his fist and chanting along the with crowd, “USA! USA! USA!” With an oversized American flag waving behind him, he stopped to scream, “These colors don’t bleed, these colors don’t run!” referring to the good ol’ stars and stripes that decorate our national symbol. Before he ran away, he declined to give any name except “Uncle Sam.”

Doug Moppert, a Penn State junior majoring in telecommunications, agreed with “Uncle Sam.”

“I’ll tell you what. Look around. Like Joe Pa said on his 400th win. LOOK. A. ROUND. It’s amazing here. Everything about it—the tradition, the love, the pride. Why not celebrate being American?” asked the half-naked Moppert, wearing only American flag boxers.

Meanwhile, several students started a bonfire on Beaver Avenue, tossing cardboard boxes, scrap paper, sweaters and even a wooden chair into the pile, causing the flames to grow instantly higher. Fariha Iftekher, a Penn State freshman majoring in pre-med, watched in awe as hundreds of viewers quickly gathered around the fire, forming a circle and jumping around it as if partaking in an African tribal dance.

“It’s crazy!” Iftekher screamed, in an effort to be heard over the noise. “People are jumping over the fire!” she added, as several brave souls took running starts and leapt across the dancing flames.

The fire was over as quickly as it started, though, as police arrived to the scene, asking the booing and jeering crowd for bottles of water to extinguish the blaze.

According to State College police Chief Tom King, off-duty officers were called in, as well as Penn State police and officers from the Ferguson and Patton townships. There were very few incidents, according to King.

“It’s always a concern with large crowds, but I think the crowd is in a celebratory mood. They’re excited, they’re happy. Intoxication levels are not high… I mean, the people are walking with cups of coffee and not bottles of beer, and the lack of intoxication makes a difference,” said King.

Penn State students weren’t the only ones celebrating into the wee hours of Monday morning; State College resident and State Platters co-owner, Hartej Singh Sawhney enjoyed taking a backseat view, watching the festivities from the safety of the sidewalk.

“This is going to be a great day for the history books. It’s a day to be remembered worldwide and we should admire our troops for working so hard year after year,” Sawhney said.

“9/11 changed every single one of our lives. We are the generation that will remember 9/11. For Osama to be gone, it’s a new chapter, a new era,” he added, before being interrupted by more screaming from the crowd.

By 1:45 a.m., most of the crowd had dispersed, choosing instead to retire to their dorm rooms or apartments and to continue studying for their 8 a.m. finals. But despite the quieted streets, some students will remember this day forever, including Craig Miller, a Penn State senior majoring in marketing, and Sean Banks, a Penn State senior majoring in economics.

“This is the day that America overcame 9/11, that America overcame terrorism. This is the day that America got back on top of everything,” said Miller.

Banks echoed Miller’s comments, adding that it had been a very emotional night for him.

“Its almost 10 years later right now, and for anyone who can really remember what happened 10 years ago, it’s just…” Banks said, pausing to search for the right words. “It’s just really powerful.”

“Today, we finally accomplished something that we’ve been trying to do for a decade, for half our lives—we were all 11 or 12 when 9/11 happened. And it was a memorable experience in our life and we all know where we were when that happened. But today, we’ll all know where we were when we finished it. We finished the job today. And this is gonna be a day that I remember for the rest of my life.”

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About the Author

Becky Perlow

Becky is a feature writer for Onward State. Currently on her victory lap (read: fifth-year senior), she studies both journalism and hotel/restaurant management at Penn State. She hails from Charm City, Maryland, and as a rabid Ravens fan, she isn't afraid to insult the Steelers QB ("No means no!"). She also loves to travel -- she's been to 26 countries and counting!

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