Sep 11, 2012

My Personal Recollection: 9/11 through the eyes of a Brooklyn teenager

It started out like an ordinary Tuesday morning. It was a warm, sunny day in September. People rushed about on their way to work. For the kids, summer vacation had finished last week and they were on their way to school, meeting new teachers and new friends. No one expected what was about to happen.
Dyker Heights Intermediate School

At Dyker Heights Intermediate School we had a second period class on American History with Mr. Oiring. I was looking forward to the class. I've always liked history. He always wore his black kippah to his classes. We all entered the room and took our assigned seats. Mine was the first seat in the fifth row. Once we were all seated Mr. Oiring, who was sitting at his desk with his hands folded together, addressed our class. "Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a terrible accident."

My innocent twelve year old mind thought, "did someone get hurt? what kind of an accident had happened? was it a car accident? how many people were involved? are they going to be OK?"

Mr. Oiring stood up and spoke again. "It seems that an airplane has crashed into one of the Twin Towers." He said that he had looked out the window and had seen one third of the World Trade Center hidden by black smoke. He said that he did not know any more details. The window shades were closed so there was no way of seeing what was happening, despite our fifth floor classroom providing a good view of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

This was a serious accident. Plane crashes always involve many deaths. I remembered TWA Flight 800. It had exploded over New York one evening in 1996. 230 people died and the tragedy was all over the news for months. Being just twelve, I used this tragedy as an example of what I could expect to learn about what had just happened at the World Trade Center.

Mr. Oiring began the class but I cannot remember what we discussed that day. Towards the end of second period Mr. Andros, the Gym teacher, showed up by the classroom door and called Mr. Oiring over. They exchanged words just outside the door for a few seconds and then Mr. Oiring returned inside. What he said next has become one of my most vivid memories of my time at. "Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been informed that another plane has crashed into the other tower. Both planes were passenger planes that had been hijacked. One of the towers has collapsed. Another plane has just crashed into the Pentagon and the Pentagon is on fire. One section of the Pentagon has partially collapsed. Ladies and gentlemen, we are under attack."

I was too busy trying to grasp the significance of what I had just been told to care about the other kids' reactions. We were being attacked by someone. Someone evil enough to have struck the World Trade Center and powerful enough to have struck the Pentagon. Clearly we were now at war, but with whom?

Mr. Oiring tried to start the class but there was another interruption. This time it was an announcement over the school's PA system. Madeleine Brennan, our school's Principal instructed our school's teachers to close all doors and not to allow any strangers to enter the classrooms. Later on I found out that this was due to dozens of parents frantically trying to get to their children. New York City schools have a very strict protocol for releasing minors into a guardian's custody during school hours. Mr. Oiring continued the class but there was another announcement. This time our Principal instructed teachers to leave their phone boxes open for the rest of the day.

As the morning progressed, we continued with our other classes as close to normal as possible. Every now and then the phone boxes would ring and our teachers would answer the call. They would call out a student's name and tell them that they were to report to the main office.

By lunchtime we still had very little idea about what was going on. We did find out that the North Tower had collapsed as well. We talked about what we thought this meant about the future. We all agreed that we would find out that many people had died and that we were at war. I compared what was happening in our city to Pearl Harbor. As we talked, our Dean, Mr. O'Farrell, would call out students' names from a list via a megaphone and instruct them to report to the main office, just like the calls in the classrooms. When lunch was over, we climbed up the stairs and I noticed a group of about forty kids all trying to huddle close to the hallway windows. I asked a friend of mine what they were doing and he told me that they were looking at the smoke and debris from the towers because it had reached downtown Brooklyn.

After lunch, our next class was Language Arts with our teacher Ms. Schimé. The phone rang just like it had in all the other classes and she called out my name. It was my turn to go to the main office. I met up with my mother who told me that she had spent the entire morning trying to get to me but couldn't because there were so many parents trying to get to their children as well. I identified her as my mother to comply with protocol and she signed some papers. I was now going home but I was still confused about what was happening. As she walked me to her car, she led me past a massive line of parents. The line started just outside the main office on the second floor, made its way down the stairs, into the lobby, out the front facade, and circled the school. These were the parents of the approximately 1700 students still inside.

When we got to the car my mother explained that she was listening to the radio when it all happened. She had stopped at a gas station in the morning that had a view of the towers and she saw the fire and smoke coming out of the towers. She told me the air over Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn was filled with smoke, dust, office paper and other debris. She told me that she had heard of the collapse of both towers and she said that the media had made a list of 100 likely targets that they thought might get hit if there were more hijacked planes. These targets included the Empire State BuildingBrooklyn Bridge, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, two nuclear power plants in the New York area, The Sears Tower in Chicago, the White House, the Capitol Building, and even targets as far away as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico were feared as being in danger of attack. This was just after noon and no one knew much about what was happening which only added a sense of mystery to an overwhelming sense of peril.

The FAA had stopped all commercial and private planes from taking off and diverted every flight in the air to land at the nearest airport, something that had never been done before. But there were still about a dozen planes in the air that were out of contact with the FAA and were feared hijacked. Everyone feared the worst. As time went on, they were intercepted and told to land. The crews aboard these planes had not been informed of what was happening.

An Air National Guard F-16 Falcon flies
over New York City on Sept. 12, 2001.
I arrived home and would spend the next hours, late into the night watching what was happening on television. The two explosions and collapse were about to be played over and over for hours and days until they would become permanently etched into the minds of every New Yorker.  Initially, 50,000 were feared dead. Two aircraft carriers were stationed just outside of New York City. They said they were worried that a plane might try to hit one of the nuclear power plants. Soon after, F-16 fighter jet engines roared through the sky, reminding us of our vulnerability and turning the busy New York City sky from a commercial one into battlefield. The sound of commercial jet engines that is a part of the city's sound was replaced by the thunderous roar of war planes. Some flew so low and so fast that they shook the ground.

Early in the afternoon the New York City government decided to suspend classes for the rest of the day so that parents could pick up their children right away without waiting in massive lines. My father, a Dean at a different school, arrived home shortly thereafter. He had spend all day trying to get in contact with us but couldn't. The antenna at the top of the World Trade Center was an essential part of the city's communication network. The antenna's destruction affected phone, radio and even television signals. No one could get in contact with family members or friends.

Later in the afternoon, I saw as World Trade Center Building 7 collapsed on live television. I remembered the building from past trips that I had made to the World Trade Center, some as early as 1993. But the last trip I made was in June of 2001, just two months ago. It was a school trip that our sixth grade teachers organized. After the towers collapsed, news helicopters flew over ground zero and filmed the disaster from above. I remembered back to the school trip. I had leaned against one of the windows on the 110th floor and looked down at the city. It was the same exact view that I was seeing now as the helicopter looked down on ground zero, except the towers were gone and the rest of the buildings were severely damaged, but I was sure it was the same view. The surrounding buildings were all in the same spots and looked about as far down as I had seen them. This realization stunned me. Just two months before, I had stood not too far from where this helicopter was filming ground zero from.

View of WTC before and after September 11th, 2001

All schools would be closed the next day but a few hour into the night my mother insisted that I go to bed and stop watching the news. I tried to sleep that night, but the images and adrenaline kept me up.

Similar to what I saw over the city
Early the next morning, my father took me to a roof to get a clearer view of Manhattan. The sight was tough to bear. Where the towers had stood all my life now emerged a plume of grey smoke that rose as high as the towers had. It then extended through the horizon. It paralleled the horizon and was just as infinite. As we stood on the roof a flight of four fighter jets flew over us. The patrols would continue for months. New York City would never be the same.

Many people at home and abroad tend to politicize this issue. Nothing is going to bring back 3,000 dead or undo the horror we all witnessed that day. We can save the discussion about whether we need more or less civil liberties or whether we need more or less foreign intervention for another day. The dead deserve a moment of silence and let it be a silence of any political discussion. Today, let us remember the victims, celebrate the heroes, and support their families.

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