Every generation has a defining moment. For my generation, it was 9/11/2001.
Here are my memories of 9/11/2001. It was a Tuesday.
I was a Senior at Staten Island Technical High School, which is about 20 miles from ground zero. We were about 1 week into the school year. I was sitting in Ms. Endriss’s 2nd Period A.P. Political Science class. We were going over some NYC Public School discipline policy, and discussing what kinds of weapons were forbidden in schools (brass knuckles were a no-no). A student walked into the classroom late. He had heard a rumor that a Cessna airplane had hit the World Trade Center. A girl in my class exclaimed that her father worked in the World Trade Center. I could see the look of fear in her eyes, even though none of us had any clue what was going on. She wanted to call her dad. I was the only student in the class with a cell phone, which I promptly gave her. The call did not go through–he worked on one of the upper floors of the tower, and passed away.
We finished second period, apprehensively. I logged onto a computer, and attempted to check the news. I recall one friend told me to check MTV.com for news. At that point, the reports were unclear, and no one knew what was going on. We proceeded to 3rd period A.P. Calculus with Mr. Curry. At that point, someone told us that it was not a Cessna, but in fact a passenger jet. We were all getting nervous, and didn’t quite know what was going on. Later in class, a student came into the class and said a second plane had crashed into the other tower. We also heard that there was an explosion at the Pentagon. At that point, we knew it was not an accident.
I remember leaving the class (something I never did) and walked up to the library where I knew there was a T.V. Just as I arrived in the library, I saw the first tower collapse. I watched it live. I was stunned and could not believe what was happening before my eyes. I grabbed my cellphone to call home, and almost immediately after the tower collapsed, I lost all service. I was not able to call my mom in Staten Island, though I could call my dad who was working in Long Island. Long distance calls seemed to work, but local calls were not working. I remember my dad told me that this was a life-changing event, and he had no idea what would happen. I heard some rumors on TV that there were 15 planes that were hijacked, and unaccounted for in the skies.
By lunch time, the school guidance counselor set up a conference room where students could go to talk. I remember seeing student after student who had a family member or friend who worked in the World Trade Center or in Manhattan. A large number of firefighters and police officers reside in Staten Island. Tragically, many of the emergency responders who perished were from Staten Island. What could we even tell those students?
After that, the day become a blur. I remember hearing that the second tower had collapsed, though I did not see it. I remember watching the entire United States Congress sing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol. I had never been so afraid in my life. Later that night, I took a bus home. The New York City public buses were still running, and I remember the driver was not collecting fares. On the bus, people were talking about the imminent war (against whom, no one knew) and the imminent draft. Some were saying that students were exempt from the draft.
The next morning, September 12, 2001, I woke up and smelled this horrible smell. The air had this pungent odor, that reminded me of burned flesh at a BBQ. I went to school that morning, and attendance was low. In all of my classes, we were talking about war. I asked whether the US would need to use nuclear weapons. My teacher explained that carpet bombing–a phrase I had never heard of–could wreak plenty of damage in Afghanistan. Later that week students began making sandwiches for the relief workers, and collecting goods to donate to the relief effort.
From Staten Island, I could see the smoldering Ground Zero. It was surreal. The skyline looked so very empty. To this day, whenever I look at the Skyline, a sight I had seen thousands of times, I have the most bizarre feeling. Additionally, whenever we saw an airplane fly overhead, we all freaked out. This lasted for months.
For days, weeks, and months after 9/11, people in Staten Island were waiting for their loved ones to come home. Many patients were alive, but were so badly burned that they could not be identified. People prayed that these unnamed patients would soon come home. One woman whose husband was a firefighter waited outside her home every single night for months. She eventually put a candle in her window every night. Later, she put a memorial lamp in her window. He never came home. Others were simply waiting for remains of their loved ones to be returned. Many were never identified.
I ordered a gas mask from eBay, which I kept in my car, fearing a biological weapon attack on New York City. I remember I tried it on once and I almost suffocated. I wanted to order some Cipro for an anthrax attack, but I could not locate any.
It is hard to encapsulate what a New Yorker went through on 9/11. Thinking back on that day, when I was just 17 years old, I realized that I had to grow up awfully quick. It was a new world we were living in.
Never forget. Ever.