9/11 Reflections From African American Youth
Then: 10 years old, sixth-grade student at New York City Museum School, 3 miles from the World Trade Center
Now: 20 years old, senior at Buffalo State College
We were in class. It got very quiet. And then there was an announcement over the intercom that the World Trade Center had been hit. I knew what the World Trade Center was, but I didn’t really have an image in my head of what was going on. We were told that the school needed to be evacuated. My mom [Michaela Angela Davis] and my stepmom weren’t able to get me -- everyone was sort of stuck where they were -- so my mom's writing agent at the time came to get me.
Outside the school groups of people were standing gathered around radios. People were crying on the street. When we turned the corner to walk down Eighth Avenue and saw the smoke, it became scary.
The ensuing weeks were the worst. People on the news trying to find their loved ones, people in my class had lost people -- it was really surreal.
I feel like for the first time in a long time, New Yorkers were patriotic. We kind of tend to be liberal in our thinking, not anti-government, but it was really interesting to see New Yorkers have something happen to make them extremely patriotic. I just remember never before seeing so many American flags or open support for soldiers and firemen and policemen, because it was our city that had been attacked. And I remember people not hating Bush for that one week after.
Even at that young age, I remember being pro-police and pro-firemen. It was a strange shift.
Everyone was somber. The trains were quiet. I was used to just being a kid and running around and being in lively and loud New York. And it was just not that for a while. It really jolted us into this reality that maybe we’re not untouchable. We can be very jaded and insulated in our little awesome city.
It was weird to have New York stand still for a second, and be really hurt and freaked out. Because, you know, nothing ever happens to New York.
I have never feared another attack. I was never one of those people who thought there were going to be like a thousand more attacks. I never really got into all of that fear, but I think a lot of that has to do with my parents making sure that I didn’t become paranoid or scared to live in my own city. They told me that the attack was real, and it happened, but that you can’t live your life in fear, and this is our city and New Yorkers bounce back from almost anything.
Then: 11 years old, sixth-grade student at New York City Lab School, 3 miles from the World Trade Center
Now: 21 years old, senior at Wesleyan University
At that time, I had probably just started to take the train by myself, because I only lived one stop away from my school. We were in second period, and the principal came into our classroom and asked if any of our parents worked at the World Trade Center, because a plane had hit the building. Everyone assumed it was an accident, and we did have a lot of kids whose parents worked there or near there, because the school is downtown.
A couple of students left with the principal. After a while, some parents started to come in to pick up their kids. A few of us sort of thought they were just exaggerating and being overprotective parents. I didn’t realize something was really wrong until my dad came, because my parents never, ever pulled me out of school. School is very important to my parents -- they weren’t the type to come in the middle of the day and be like, “Let’s go visit grandma; let’s go to the doctor.” No, it wasn’t like that.
I mean, it would have had to be a horrific tragedy to take me out of school.
My dad came in his jogging clothes. He kind of pointed at me, and he was like, “Let’s go.” And of course, I had just turned 11 years old two days before, and I had this great 11-year-old attitude and was like, “Why are you here? This is so crazy -- you should go home.” Just talking back and stuff. But he wasn’t really entertaining me, he was like, “We really need to just go.”
I remember walking outside with one of my friends whose parents hadn’t come yet, and we had a direct view. All you could see was this column of black smoke. And the smoke kind of moved, and it was just shocking. It was really jarring for something that we’d always seen from our school -- walking to school, going home from school -- and it was just gone.
The Twin Towers were central to my idea of New York. So that first encounter with having something that seemed so indestructible to me as a child be taken over by something else -- and to learn that you can lose that sense of physical permanence, or identity or identification, or landmark -- that was a huge thing for me.
For me, it had nothing to do with who did it, or what happened after. It was the fact of these two buildings that were embedded in my understanding of the city being taken away in an instant.
Ayodele Simone Greene Lewis
Then: 2.5 years old, Manhattan, 3 miles from the World Trade Center
Now: 12.5 years old, seventh-grade student at a Manhattan private school
We were in our apartment in Manhattan, and I remember my mom telling me that we needed to go to my dad’s job. She seemed kind of like a mess, worried. I remember being the only one who could really think things through. I reminded my mom of things we had to bring to his office. I remember telling her to take my stroller, and a bottle.
My first real memory of my parents talking to me about it was probably when I was eight or nine years old. They told me that these people came and killed a lot of people because they didn’t like our country. And then around 10 years old, I was able to understand that these were people who didn’t respect our freedom of religion.
I’ve never seen the footage of the towers being hit. I’ve seen a little on the news. I would watch it if I wanted to, but I haven’t wanted to.
I mostly feel safe in the city since then. If something happens around the time that it occurred, I’ll feel nervous, but then it usually passes after about a month. I’m a worrier.
Then: 10 years old, student at P.S. 161 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 7.5 miles from the World Trade Center
Now: 20 years old, junior at Lehman College, Bronx
I remember my teacher Ms. Golub came into our classroom, and she was all shaky. And she said, "I don’t know if you can see me shaking." And then she told us that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. She had a radio, and she put it on her desk with the news on. Then the second plane hit. My school is five stories high, and we were on the fifth floor so even though we were in Brooklyn, you could just look out the window across at Manhattan and see what was happening. And we saw the towers fall. I won’t ever forget that.
I remember about a week after, above our house in the sky there was all this black smoke. It had traveled. That was crazy.
There was a guy in our building who was a Ground Zero worker, and when he would come home he would sometimes tell us about it, and I remember him saying that the television didn’t give justice to what he was seeing -- that it was so much worse.
I think if you’d asked me the day before it happened what terrorism was, I wouldn’t have had much of an idea. After it happened, I had some idea.
If I could try to explain now what happened to the 10-year-old me then, I guess I would’ve said that some countries don’t get along. And whoever took over the planes had a negative image of America, and so they took out a lot of people even though the people who died on 9/11 didn’t do anything.
Then: 14 years old, sophomore at Economics and Finance High School, one block away from the World Trade Center
Now: 24 years old, junior at Pace University
My class was on the third floor, but being that the only windows in the building existed on the eighth floor cafeteria and upper administrative offices, none of us could see what was going on outside. Everything turned to confusion very quickly. Soon we started smelling smoke and the P.A. system announced to stand by while they figured out the situation. This is when a classmate who was listening to the radio shouted out, “The Twin Towers are on fire!”
From the first step out of our school building everyone was on their own and in charge of saving their own lives, but none of us knew that yet. I turned around to look up and there were the towers, 30 feet in front of me, blazing and burning like upright cigarettes against a blue sky. You could see people from inside the buildings waving for help and jumping for their lives. Office materials, furniture and bodies began to litter the streets.
Our school, like the towers, was on the edge of Manhattan, but with the burning towers behind me and in the way of getting uptown, there was only one place left to go, and that was Battery Park. Masses of people were going this way -- businessmen and women, senior citizens, people pushing strollers, kids from all the high schools in the area, construction workers. Then the second tower was hit.
Most of the high school kids decided to stick together -- me and five other girls would see each other through until the ordeal was over. We all stood in Battery Park, the towers burning in front of us and Staten Island across the water behind us. All of a sudden screams tidal waved again and everyone pointed saying “Look! Look! Run!” The other tower exploded with fire and triggered a collapse, creating the biggest dust cloud I had ever seen in person. As the building came down the cloud swallowed the entire site, then weaved its way like water or a snake through all of the buildings, engulfing everything.
Everything and everyone was now coated with the remnants of that fallen tower -- we looked like we were covered with flour. We coughed and struggled to breathe. At this point you could not see clearly. The only thing you could kinda see was the water and Staten Island across it. Me, my friends and hundreds of others found shelter inside the State Island ferry terminal. On the run into the terminal, I saw a lady with a stroller get stuck and no one stopped to help her at all. No one was stopping to help anyone. People began to get hysterical.
Though the word was help was on the way, it wasn’t there. My father was working in this same area -- six blocks from the World Trade Center site at Pace University. I wondered if he was even still alive and how I would ever get home, if I made it out.
When the first ferry finally rolled in, people got extremely ugly. Men pushed women out of their way, people charged ahead with no regard for the people around them, an old man lay struggling face-down on the ground -- he was eventually trampled to death in the scramble. As the ferry pulled out, people still tried to jump on unsuccessfully and screamed for us to save them too.
In Staten Island, all the adults seemed to know where they were going, but we had no idea of anything. None of us had family or friends in Staten Island and none of us knew our way around. We got off at a random stop and started walking, hoping to find something, anything. We came across a beauty salon. I said to the people working there, “Hello, please help us. We’re from the city and the Twin Towers just collapsed from a fire, our school was right next to the buildings. We’re lost and hopeless can we please use your phone to try and call our homes?” Unfortunately the news had not yet spread and they didn’t take us seriously. The lady said “I don’t think so. I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about but this is a respectable business...” I almost blew a gasket as my friends couldn’t believe their ears either. We happened to be a group of black and brown urbanites in a very white part of town and were not very welcomed.
Then a customer said, “She’s right, she’s telling the truth, listen, the Towers really did get hit!” And there was the breaking news on their television.
I finally got home at about 6 p.m. the next day. I had learned earlier that my father was still alive. He, like many others, ended up walking uptown just at the right time.
The things I saw, heard and experienced on that day will remain in my memory forever. I realized somewhere in Staten Island on that day that in all my life as a New Yorker I had never really even been to the World Trade Center before. But I have seen it burning and collapsing right in front me.