A Day in the Life
Disclaimer: This article is an account of the events of September 11th, 2001 as seen from the perspective of a high school student in school two blocks from the World Trade Center Complex. I included an extended intro below the article (italicized text) that gives further context. So please enjoy, or you know, do whatever it is people do when they read a piece they’d rather not read.
I don’t remember my trip to school on the morning of September 11th, although I imagine I spent it hoping I would fall asleep on the train. I loved the idea of unintentionally missing school. Fresh off a three day weekend, I was set to join Mr. Bank’s chemistry class for lab — the class I had attended for the first week of school didn’t work out for some reason or another. As far as I can now tell the first half of the lab went as planned. I assume this because I don’t remember it.
The second half of lab started with Mr. Bank giving a demonstration at his station in the front of the classroom, which was oriented such that facing front meant facing the windowless north wall. The rectangular teacher’s station was set directly south of the blackboard, with a television set hovering perilously above it. The thirty or so students in the lab were crowded around the station and facing north as Mr. Bank demonstrated how to use a Bunsen burner to bend glass into chemistry shapes.
In the middle of the demonstration a student burst in from the hall, interrupting the delicate proceedings to frantically inform the class that “they bombed the World Trade Center.” The class moved with stunned curiosity from the walled façade of the north side of the classroom to the windowed façade of the south side. The south side of the room, as I then realized, had a perfect view of the northernmost World Trade Center. I was a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, located two blocks northwest of the World Trade Center complex. All chemistry classrooms were on the ninth floor, and half of them faced south. This gave the south facing classrooms an unimpeded view of the top half of the north tower.
When we reached the window we saw a gaping hole two-thirds of the way up the tower, in the shape of a snarling mouth. Fire was brimming around the edges. Other students spotted jumpers fleeing the flames (luckily for me I had poor eyesight and refused to wear glasses, so the finer horrific details escaped me). All we could do was stare.
As the students migrated south, Mr. Bank flipped the television to the morning news which informed him that a small plane had inadvertently crashed into the north tower. With this knowledge he re-gathered the class at the front of the room and (given the circumstances) calmly finished his lesson, after which he attempted to send us back to our stations in order to replicate his results. This failed of course, and we all returned to our window posts. Because of the position of the radiators below the windows, we were literally able to post up at the window as one would do at a bar. Feeling defeated by — but not angry at — the students, Mr. Bank returned to his own television post. We were in those positions when a few students exclaimed that they saw a second plane, a fact to which I was extremely skeptical. Moments later a loud bang shook the classroom.
A minute before our lab was first interrupted there had been a backfire-like shudder from the street. Perhaps a few students batted an eyelash, but no one recognized the noise as anything exceptional. That had been the first plane.
The explosion that accompanied the noise was mesmerizing. From our angle the north tower largely obstructed our view of the south tower. Consequently, when the south tower was struck the north tower appeared as a cartoon character whose mind was blown, with fireballs emanating from its ears. Except it wasn’t a cartoon fireball, it was CGI, something out of Independence Day. The flame was yellow, orange, and red, with hints of blue and dark smoke immediately billowing at its edges. It was twenty to thirty stories tall on the building’s east side, and descended over time as gravity took hold.
I remember everybody shaking. The television initially claimed it was another small plane, and perhaps a terrible air-traffic glitch. First of all, that explosion was not the explosion of a small plane; second, the plane was obviously a passenger plane and everyone (except me) saw it; and third, this was no accident. Some students started crying. I didn’t. I wanted to, but couldn’t.
By way of the loudspeaker, Stanley Teitel, the school’s principal, made multiple announcements regarding the events and the status of our school, most of which implored students to stay inside the building and continue with our day as planned. Mr. Bank was distraught, and imposed no direction over us for the remaining thirty minutes of our class. When the bell sounded to end the period the loudspeaker instructed us to continue on to our third period class. Many of us listened. We didn’t know what else to do.
On my way downescalators, I came across an old friend from camp. He was shaking and crying as we approached each other. I don’t remember what we said, or if we hugged, but the interaction remains one of the most intensely emotional memories of the entire day.
My third period was history with Mr. Davila on the second floor. Although the classroom was on the south side of the building we had no view of the towers. Mr. Davila never showed. Neither did a sub. Still most of the students remained in the classroom. We turned on the television, eventually settling on CSPAN, where through a computer rendering we discovered that the Pentagon had also been struck by a plane. A few students clumsily discussed the political implications while much of the class cracked jokes.
Just before the class was scheduled to end, our chatter was interrupted by a sound I can best describe as a hard rain — maybe a hard hail. The power momentarily switched off, and when it returned our cable signal was lost. We knew something new had happened but not what. Rumors swirled in the halls that there was a third plane, or that half of one of the buildings had fallen — both of which seemed unfathomable but at the same time entirely plausible. The loudspeaker told us only to continue on to homeroom.
My homeroom sophomore year was in a computer lab on the fourth floor. In the middle of the second floor facing south above the school’s main entrance there is a large window that faces a green field sandwiched between two streets. There was no field as I walked past on my way to homeroom, only white smoke.
Although homeroom had no south facing windows (at least not that I remember), it was the first opportunity for many students isolated in disparate parts of the building to come together and exchange their version of events. Here it was confirmed that a tower had fallen. Parents were apparently imploring the school to release their progeny, but the school steadfastly refused
Initially the loudspeaker demanded we remain in homeroom indefinitely. Soon its mind changed and everyone in the school was to be evacuated — 3500 of us through the only north facing exit. The ensuing logjam confined my class to the stairwell while the second tower fell (others had already left the building, and needed to sprint away from the billowing cloud), a moment that was marked by a slight shaking and a flicker of the lights.
Eventually we squeezed out the double doors, joining the massive north-moving procession along the Hudson river and West Side Highway. We passed Pier 40 and Chelsea Piers as a steady stream of ambulances, police cars, and firetrucks rushed south. Students were frantically trying to reach their families but few cell phones worked. Public transportation was down throughout the city and bridges were closed. Occasionally we looked behind us but saw only smoke. Somewhere along the highway I caught sight of my father in a yellow shirt and red bandana on his teal bike. He was on his way to Stuyvesant to spring me and my friend Dani from the school. It only just occurred to me that he may have left the apartment before the towers fell. Having seen we were safe he reversed course, returning home to wait for my arrival.
A few of us stopped at a midtown Hess station along our uptown march to get some snacks and our bearings. I remember someone buying an expensive Arizona Iced Tea (in contrast to the typical 99 cent ones) that had a medical symbol on the label. We stopped again at a deli in the 70s to watch a television replay the towers’ collapse. I continued up to Dani’s house on 91st and Amsterdam, successfully completing the 6 mile walk with a ten pound book bag. For some reason I didn’t want to go home. I called of course, but I wasn’t ready to be there.
I wrote this piece five years ago, around the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the World Trade Centers on September 11th, 2001. On that day I was fourteen and a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School on Chambers Street and the Hudson River — a stone’s throw from the towers. The anniversary is always an emotional time for me and my former classmates, but in 2011 this was heightened by it being the 10th anniversary of events, the principal’s stubborn refusal to allow the former students to convene at the school on the anniversary (he eventually acquiesced, but his objection and carelessness was rather extraordinary considering the anniversary fell on a weekend and he was the same principal who presided over the student body 10 years earlier), and my organization’s recent involvement with the 9/11 Memorial.
The week prior I had visited the just completed memorial with coworkers from my non-profit. We were working with the museum and the city on an ultimately failed commemoration project that resulted in a book of children’s drawings of the former towers in various states of distress that was unpublishable for obvious reasons. The project and the organization’s participation in it struck me as unsavory and opportunistic (we secured a $200,000 grant for the ‘project’, and still managed to claim we were underpaid). While the others wandered the grounds gawking at the spectacle of the memorial, I was disturbed by its excess, waste of space, the strong audial resemblance the falling water held to the falling buildings 10 years earlier, and the visual reminder of the ‘footprints’. I don’t know who approved the design, but if they weren’t intentionally trying to induce flashbacks they fucked up, and if they were that’s even more fucked up.
Emotions climaxed on the anniversary as the alumni gathered in the school auditorium and reminisced. I didn’t particularly enjoy high school, and I don’t have many friends remaining from that period of my life, but our uniquely shared experience of that day and the ensuing months forged a permanent bond. There is a collectively (also selfishly and irrationally) held ownership over the events of the day and a general dismissiveness of others 9/11 stories that could only be honestly expressed within the confines of that auditorium. I’m not sure how else to describe our strange relationship to the events and connection with each other.
After the much needed group therapy session, and with some prodding, I decided to finally put my experiences to paper — not to share, but for myself. I’m now glad I did, because memories have become memories of memories and many details have been lost. I’m not sure what went missing between 2001 and 2011, but in the last five years the loss of original memories has certainly accelerated. Originally longer, I’ve removed many secondary personal descriptive reminders, and sketchy memories of the remainder of the fall.
Thank you to all who’ve made it this far for bearing with me. If interested, I recommend experiencing the Stuyvesant Spectator’s fall 2001 issue, which the NYTIMES was kind enough to publish and now host. It is important for me to note that the entire paper was produced by the student body, including the photography.