Thirteen years ago, it was exactly at this time I sat with my entire Sophomore class in our lunchroom and found out about the tragedy that was unfolding only a few miles away. Two years ago, I had a friend who was compiling a journal of recollections from September 11th. She asked if I'd write down my memory of the day. Even as each year takes us farther and farther away, I'm brought back every time I read this. It may seem long and overwritten, but it helps me remember. I'm not much of a crier, but each year I still find myself getting so emotional. This day always sits so heavily on my heart. Everyone has their own story of this day, and here's mine:
September 11, 2012
Eleven years ago, I woke up, and in a half asleep stupor managed to roll on my grey knee high socks, my navy skirt and my white button down short sleeved shirt. I was never very good about wearing my shirt properly, mostly because it was a little too loose, but also sort of short, and so never sat perfectly tucked into my skirt. I had a large glass of milk [as I'm still one to do] and a cold strawberry frosted Pop-Tart [remember those? and how deliciously manufactured they were?], no time to heat it up. I almost ran out the door without my shoes on [my new Steve Madden penny loafers, only worn once before on the previous day, so they were still un-scuffed and perfect, having yet to be subjected to the rigors of high school.
It was beautiful out; it felt like fall, but the air was warm and the sky was bathed in a perfect blue. It was the kind of day that gave me goosebumps of excitement, ready to start another day of school.
My Mom nagged me to get in the car, and so I did. All I could think about was when Drivers Ed classes would start. The sooner I could drive to school by myself, the happier I would be [and my mom for that matter, dealing with Queens traffic was a nightmare!].
By 7:30am I was sitting in the lunch room with a couple friends, making small talk about the day. The entire sophomore class was having an assembly in this very same spot at 9:00am, where Sister Elizabeth would walk us through the trials and tribulations of sophomore year- what to expect, how not to wear our skirts, what things would change from our freshman year, and so on. What was far more exciting was the fact that we'd all be in the same room, so it was a perfect time to people watch and see who got cuter over the summer, who was going out with who, and your other typical high school gossip.
Around 7:45, we headed into homeroom, attendance was taken, some quick morning announcements and a reminder for all sophomores to convene after first period in the lunch room. Then I walked to class [I can't remember exactly, but I think it was Honors Geometry or something equally mind-numbing], No one's ever fully awake that first period anyway, so that class becomes a bit of a foggy haze [maybe this is why I was never great at math..hmm].
The bell rang sometime between 8:45 and 8:50am [I feel like it was always 8:46, so you had several minutes to get to your locker and then over to your next class]. It was in that window of time that things began to change.
I overheard the upperclassmen at the locker next to mine say to his friend, "man, my mom called and said some big accident happened at the Twin Towers, like a fire or something."
Another guy said to someone else, "I heard it was a plane, like someone had a heart attack or something and crashed his plane right into the building."
Before I knew it, the talk was spreading like wildfire. Everyone was hearing different things, and no one knew for sure what was going on. Some people had cell phones [old school style- with just alpha-numeric keys], but this was long before the days of smart phones, where everyone could find out anything they needed to at a moment's notice.
I saw a teacher who looked concerned, and I asked if they knew anything about what was going on, and he told me "don't worry, I'm sure everything is fine- you should be heading down to the lunch room", but his face told a different story. He looked shocked and confused, and seemed to just be wandering in the hall with no clear direction. I think it was when I saw an adult behaving this way that I had my first pang of worry. As I walked down the stairs, I tried calling my Mom, but she wasn't picking up. I left a message insisting she call me back immediately. This was futile, since she never checked her voicemail anyway [and to this day, it still takes her hours before she'll get a message], but I figured I'd give it a try.
I sat down at a table in the lunch room, and there sat four hundred of us, whispering, chattering, worrying. Those in charge stood at the front of the room, murmuring to each other, seeming to hold off from beginning the assembly. It was now about 9:05am when finally they began to speak.
It was all a bit of a blur. I remember hearing something about an accident, but then someone ran into the lunchroom, whispered something in Sister Elizabeth's ear, and she froze. She paused for what felt like forever, and when she finally uttered the words, I felt the blood drain from my face.
"Now this is not a time for panic. You're all safe here and we will make sure everyone gets in touch with their families as soon as possible. There has been some sort of attack on the Twin Towers, and two planes have hit the buildings."
Before she can start her next sentence- several girls immediately started screaming- and one runs out of the room. The entire room bursts into an uproar of shock and confusion. When Sister Elizabeth speaks loudly into the mic "SILENCE", everyone stops. She continued, "now I know this is especially traumatizing for some of you- some of you may have family who work in the towers and we want to make sure everyone can get in touch with who they need to quickly, but we need to take this slowly and stay calm. The assembly will be postponed for the time being, and instead continue to your next class. If you do have a family member who works in the towers, if you will please now follow the guidance counselor down the hall."
I watched as what seemed like 40 or more of my classmates stood up and walked out of the lunch room, some grabbing onto each other, many crying, others just looking stunned. I couldn't cry, I could barely feel my face. All I could think was this can't be an accident- Sister Elizabeth used the word "attack." I think I started praying a Hail Mary, I can't be sure.
After a minute or two, an announcement was made on the loudspeaker, informing us that current period was over, and for all students to continue early to their next class. We then all got up simultaneously and walked to our classes. I have no recollection of what happened next. I felt exactly the way that teacher I saw earlier did. I just wandered until I somehow made it to my next class, AP European History.
We all sat down, talking, and worrying, while my teacher, Mr. Harrison stood at the front of the room, leaning on the podium with his hands on his head, and his brow furrowed. He started to talk, and I vaguely remember people trying to ask him questions about what he knew. He waited until we quieted down, and said, "I'm so sorry you're having to experience this- this is a scary time and I don't have answers. I'm not going to pretend we can have class right now, because I know none of you can pay attention to anything else. What I can tell you is myself and some of the other teachers went up on the roof, and we could see the towers from here. It isn't good kids."
Some asked, "can we go up and see? Are the buildings on fire? Is there a plane sticking out of them?" One of my classmates looked at the TV sitting on the rolling cart in the corner of the room, and asked if we could turn on the news. I watched as Mr. Harrison considered this for a moment, but then came to his better judgment and said, "I know you're all wanting to know what's going on, but I don't think this is something I want you to see right now." The rest of the period we spent just talking, not knowing what to expect- wondering if the city was going to be evacuated. We talked about the last bombing at the Twin Towers. I was just a little kid then, but I remember seeing pictures and things on TV about it; people covered in soot, flooding the streets around the building. I imagined the same scenario was happening all over again. I had no idea.
Once that period ended, the same aimless shuffle commenced to the next class, but this time, I heard something far more terrifying than I had ever imagined possible. Someone screamed down the hall "one of the buildings just fell down! My Mom saw it on TV!"
This can't be real. I've been to these buildings; just the year before we went on a trip to the Jewish Heritage Museum that was only a couple blocks from there. I remembered looking up and not being able to see the top, because the towers just kept bolting into the sky. There's no way one of those buildings could fall down.
I again tried calling my Mom, over and over. This time, I didn't get her voicemail- all I could hear was "this number may not be in service, please try your call again". This sent me into a panic. I started to work up these ideas in my head- why isn't her phone working? Did they send her out to the towers to help with the injured? [My Mom is a pediatrician and was at the time working in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, just over the bridge from The World Trade Center]. I was terrified of the thought of her possibly being anywhere near the Twin Towers, and I literally couldn't put the phone down, even though I knew I'd only hear that same message.
When I sat down in AP Spanish, Mr. Gutierrez immediately told us the news. It was true, one of the towers had collapsed. He said that he was sure they had evacuated the buildings before this happened, but that this was a huge tragedy no matter which way we looked at it. This class was different. I was in an all-boys Spanish class [prior to my freshman year, this school only admitted boys, so some of my accelerated classes were with upperclassmen] with the exception of another girl. She wasn't in the room with us, because her mother worked at The World Trade Center, so she was one of the first to leave during the assembly earlier that morning. Being in a room with all boys, the tone was very different. No one cried, there was mostly shocked and silent faces. The boy next to me crossed his arms and put his head on the table. An announcement was made that parents and family members would be contacting the school with any news about loved ones, and that students were excused from school if their parents came and got them. Otherwise no one was permitted to leave the building.
Someone knocked on the door, and it was the guidance counselor, asking to speak to one of the boys in my class. His name was called, and the boy next to me looked up from his desk, and stared blankly for a minute before getting up and leaving. He never came back to class. I would find out later that his father worked in the south tower, and died when it collapsed. Watching him walk out of that classroom is something I'll never forget.
Other teachers knocked on the door and asked to see other students. One by one, students were walked out of the class room, and didn't return. Thankfully, no one else in that class lost a parent, but I didn't find that out until days later. Then, Mr. DaGrossa, my music teacher, came to the door asking for me. My heart sank- my first thought went to my mother. Then I thought, could it be my uncle? I completely forgot about him. I knew he worked for a bank at the Twin Towers, but I never put that together until this second. I had no idea what to think now.
Mr. DaGrossa had such a kind face, but looked worried. I was so relieved to hear from him that my Mom had called the school, and said that she was planning leave work to pick me up, but that she's trying to see if the school will allow my friend's mom to take me home. He said for me to wait in the lunch room, and they'd let me know when they heard anything. I saw my friends, and was hoping they'd let me leave, but the school was extremely strict about only parents picking up their children, so I was left to sit alone in the lunch room and wait. An hour later, my Mom walked into the lunch room and I was so relieved to see her. Even as a teenager, you just feel so much safer knowing your mom is there. No matter what else happened that day, I knew I'd be okay. I remember getting in the car, and her asking if I was hungry. She pulled out a Kit-Kat bar and split it in half for me and her to share. [Leave it to my Mom to have chocolate on hand during a time like this!] It was a comfort though, and I hadn't thought at all about food, even though by now it was lunch time.
She explained that the phones weren't working because of the collapsing of the buildings [this was when I realized both buildings had fallen- I had no idea]. And it took her a long time because many of the stop lights were out. We drove home, and it was as if the city was a ghost town. There were hardly any cars around. I ran into the house and rushed to turn on the TV.
I was completely glued. I watched as they showed play by play of the entire ordeal: the initial crash, the explosion and fire. I watched as they showed footage of people jumping out of the buildings to their deaths. That image is something I will never shake. They showed the collapse; a world covered in ashes and soot. Seeing papers fluttering through sky really moved me. For some reason, the idea of knowing that someone was working in that building just hours before, making copies, sitting at their desk, going on with their day to day work, and now this. I then saw what looked to be an exodus of Manhattan: a sea of people walking towards the bridges, walking into the adjoining boroughs. I wondered if one of those people was my uncle [at that time we didn't know, but he was one of those people walking out of Manhattan and made it out safe].
My Mom saw how transfixed I was by the recurring images, and very quickly said, "let's go out- we need to eat something and get out of the house."
Before I knew it, we were driving again, this time heading to Long Island. Somehow we made it to an Olive Garden, and sat down. It may seem completely crazy to be eating out when such tragedy is running rampant in my city, but it was the best thing for me and my Mom at that time. I was surprised to see how many people were out eating lunch, despite what was happening only miles away. I ordered the one thing I liked from there, Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo and sat.
We talked about what I saw on TV. I remember the marquee bar on the bottom of the screen repeated, "number of fatalities unknown: count may reach 20,000." Those words scrolled through my head, but I couldn't process them. My Mom assured me that it could be less since they did have time to evacuate the buildings before they collapsed. I actually remember later on that night feeling relieved when I heard those initial estimates were high, and that it would likely be closer to three or four thousand. I can't imagine a world where only a few thousand dead is a relief, but this was the world I was now living in.
After eating, my Mom must have seen that I wasn't going to be able to concentrate on anything else, so she took me to the nearby mall. We were there for probably a few hours, just aimlessly walking, since shopping was the last thing on our minds. I don't remember much about the rest of that day, but I do remember that as we drove home, the exit ramp into my neighborhood off the Belt Parkway had a framed vantage point of the city skyline. I watched as not far off, a massive cloud of smoke and ash had formed, where the perfect skyline of downtown Manhattan once stood. I was asked not to turn the TV on again when we got home, at least not to anything that had reports what had happened that day.
For weeks, maybe even longer, that cloud of smoke sat there, ominously, reminding me of what happened. Even years later, it was impossible not to get off at that exit and expect to see those buildings, only to be reminded of the tragedy of that day.
Each year, on this day, I'm brought back. I remember it so vividly, and I know it's something that will never leave me. I still watch the memorial services, watch the news reports, watch the play by play of what happened, watch the stories of the lives lost, watch the accounts of people who spoke on the phone to loved ones just moments before their deaths.
I'm still that same girl who was glued to her TV the moment she got home from school eleven years ago.
Now that I live in Atlanta, I think about that day less and less. It can be easy to put it out of sight, out of mind. But no matter where I am, I know that every September 11th, I'm brought right back to Archbishop Molloy High school, and the moment I found out our world was never going to be the same.