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UAlbany Alumna and 9/11 First Responder Dr. Terri Tobin: Her Perseverance is “Off the Charts”

The University at Albany will observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with “UAlbany After 9/11” on Friday, Sept. 9, at 12:30 p.m. in the Main Theatre of the Performing Arts Center. Through stories, videos, music, and art, UAlbany will share how the world – and the University – changed post 9/11. This is just one of the stories we’ll feature.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 5, 2011) -- As a first responder on 9/11, Theresa C. Tobin was literally blown out of her shoes. She suffered serious injuries, as well as a setback to her doctoral studies. Tobin, a deputy inspector in the New York City Police Department, never gave up, and this past May graduated from the University at Albany with a doctorate in criminal justice.

UAlbany alumna Terri Tobin of the NYPD

UAlbany alumna Terri Tobin's resilient attitude helped her recover from injuries sustained on 9/11, and persevere until she earned a doctorate in criminal justice.

“Terri is amazing,” said Distinguished Research Professor David Bayley, Tobin’s dissertation adviser and an expert on community policing. “It took 20 years to attain her Ph.D. while working fulltime as a New York police officer, being steadily promoted, up to her current rank of deputy inspector.  Her dissertation was interrupted by 9/11, in which she was seriously wounded and won a medal for her bravery.  Her perseverance is off the charts.”

Since 2001, Tobin has had surgery each year and had two-thirds of her teeth replaced. At one point, she joked with her oral surgeon: “I didn’t know we were going to be in a long-term relationship.” She sees herself as one of the lucky survivors of 9/11, noting that many have suffered more, especially burn victims. Her resilient attitude helps her cope. “I didn’t want 9/11 to be the defining moment of my life,” she said. “It helped me appreciate that life can change on a dime.”

Tobin is the highest ranking female ever to receive the NYPD Medal of Valor. In addition, she was honored for her heroism with a Special Congressional Recognition, the National Press Photographers Association’s Public Information Officer’s Award, and the Liberty Award from the National Organization for Women.

That Fateful Day

On the day of the attacks, she was a lieutenant assigned to the public information office. She had just escorted a news photographer from the South Tower and was heading out to the car to grab her sneakers. Suddenly, the South Tower pancaked down. She was literally blown out of her shoes, up and over a concrete barrier from the force of the implosion, and carried across the street.

“I know there is no logical reason I should be alive now – given my location when the first tower imploded,” she wrote of her experience.

Buried in concrete debris up to her waist, her Kevlar helmet split in half, she had concrete embedded in her skull. Tobin managed to extricate herself, and later evacuated about 100 people from a nearby apartment building. Finally another emergency worker noticed she had a large shard of glass sticking out of her back, between her shoulder blades, and Tobin was sent by police boat to Ellis Island, and then transferred to a hospital.

At the hospital, the surgeon told her the good news was that they would operate right away. The bad news: She had blunt force trauma to her head, and they couldn’t give her anesthesia.

Tobin has written about that day in a chapter “A Terrorist Attack: Response and Reflection” in the book Perspectives on 9/11. “One of the lessons I have learned as a result of September 11 is that we are all connected,” she wrote. “Not one of us suffers without all of us suffering.” She lost a 33-year-old cousin, a firefighter, in the attack.

Committed to Law Enforcement

Tobin’s father was a police officer, and four of the five children in the family are in law enforcement, including her late brother-in-law. “The joke in my family is that my father forgave my sister for not being a police officer, because she married one,” said Tobin. Her brother-in-law survived a shooting on the job, but passed away in 2005 from complications that resulted from his injuries.

A 28-year veteran of the NYPD, Tobin is devoted to a career in policing. Since her graduation from UAlbany, she continues as an adjunct instructor at Molloy College, where she has taught for a dozen years. Tobin earned a master’s degree from the School of Criminal Justice in 1988, has a master’s in social work from Fordham, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Marist. She graduated from the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Va., and the Police Management Institute at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. Tobin gave the keynote address at the School of Criminal Justice undergraduate recognition ceremony in 2002.

Reflecting on the death of Osama bin Laden, she said, “For the family and friends of those who perished on September 11, 2001, the death of Osama bin Laden has allowed them to feel that justice has prevailed. It also sends a strong message to terrorists that the United States will be unwavering in its commitment to root out those responsible for causing harm to innocent people, no matter how long it takes. As a law enforcement officer, I believe our vigilance needs to remain critical and am very proud of the NYPD’s efforts in helping to thwart 12 plots of terrorism since 9/11.”

Of her UAlbany education, Tobin said, “I studied at UAlbany because of the School of Criminal Justice’s national standing and the quality of its faculty. I truly believe they are top-notch and they have been so supportive of me. They have the best faculty, bar none.” The School is ranked No. 2 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Theresa Tobin’s story will be featured in CNN’s “Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11” on Sunday, Sept. 11 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.  

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