In 2001, high school started on September 5th. Our fifth day of school was a Tuesday; it started just like normal: I met my friends and traveled to school on the subway, just like we had done most of the previous year. During my free second period I went to the scheduling office to change my class schedule. Within 15 minutes the TV there was turned on to what looked like a scene from an action film of a skyscraper billowing smoke, except the skyscraper was 4 blocks away. Surely it was an awful accident, a technical malfunction. The thought of an intentional attack did not cross our minds. Five minutes later, there was an explosion and the first tower's twin also billowed smoke. We speculated that the first plane had dropped a bomb to crash into the second tower; we hadn't seen a second plane, and even if it had come to mind, the idea of a second plane crash right after the improbable first crash would have seemed unfathomable.
We watched, bewildered. Someone reported some students could see people jumping from the burning towers. I headed upstairs to my chem class to get a first-hand view. My chemistry classroom had a full wall of southern-facing windows which we all crowded at to watch until our teacher told us to return to our seats. At that point, we thought the day's events were over -- both of the Twin Towers were burning, the fire department was working on putting out the fires, those who had died in the crash were dead, and everyone else in the Towers would be fine so long as they could withstand the temporary intense heat -- no one expected the buildings would collapse. I remember sitting in chem class, trying to figure out if the buildings fell sideways, would they hit our school building? I was told that they wouldn't fall -- they were built to withstand being hit by a jetliner -- to which I thought both, who plans for this to potentially happen that they were built to survive an airplane crash, and how did they know? What forethought!
We begrudgingly went back to our seats and had a relatively normal class until someone shouted to look. Out the window, one of the towers collapsed and in its place a dust cloud rose. The ground rumbled. Suddenly being so close to what was happening no longer seemed "cool." It hit home that what we were witnessing was real. I've seen airplane crashes in movies, and like in my chem class that day I was separated from the action by a pane of glass, but in the movies the ground never shakes when the buildings fall. The snap back to reality also reminded us that buildings in movies are always empty; we knew these buildings were not.
When I got to the first floor for my fourth period gym class, I saw stretchers and emergency equipment being set up. As a public building four blocks away, we were an ideal location for triage; we were far enough to escape from the dust and debris, but close enough to provide immediate care to victims. I'm grateful to say that I've never been in a crisis situation before, and seeing the EMTs preparing for the worst burns and injuries, I froze. It was clear how extreme the results were expected to be.
My gym teacher told me to go to homeroom. Despite all the turmoil outside and triage on the first floor, I felt safe. I had faith that our principal was doing what was best for us, so if we were being kept inside it was because it was safest. Not all my classmates agreed; some wanted to leave, despite being told over the loudspeaker to remain in the classrooms. My homeroom teacher didn't know what to do, so she turned on the TV to watch the news until the power went out. On the TV we watched what was happening four blocks away. We were all scared and confused; we were only 15 years old, trying to be mature adults. A couple people cried, as we waited anxiously to find out what would happen next, both for us and outside.
At about 10:25, our principal told us to evacuate via the rarely used first floor exit and to walk north. There was some confusion -- walk north, what about those who live in Staten Island to the south or in Brooklyn to the east? Rumor also spread that there were gunshots outside the exit; some panic ensued that gunmen would shoot at us as we left. I started freaking out that we were being told to leave because it was no longer safe to stay inside. My friend started shaking with fear, so I contained my fear in an effort to be strong for her.
While on the stairs to the first floor, we felt the ground shake with a crash. We knew what it meant. I grabbed my friend's hand to steady her. As we left I turned to see a huge dust cloud expanding, threatening to catch up to us. We ran. I looked over my shoulder a few minutes later to see our school building disappear into the cloud.
I walked the entire six miles home that day, grateful to be safe and unsure what would happen next. All schools were closed the next day; we were given off an extra week, returning for a split schedule in another school building. When we finally were allowed back to our regular building in early October, we found ourselves passing members of the National Guard every morning who were stationed near the school, as debris that was being removed passed our school for a nearby barge throughout the day. This happened for months until all the rubble had been cleared. The smell in the air those many months, of burning steel and flesh combined, will never leave me.
May the memory of those who perished be an inspiration for peace.
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