I don’t know why in all the years of memorializing this day, I decided today to write this. We all have our personal accounts of what happened on this day 13 years ago and this is mine:
It was lunch time on September 11th, 2001. We were all in fourth grade sitting at the brown-foldable lunch tables in the West End Elementary Gymnasium. Mrs. Reichenberg’s class, my class, sat towards the back of the gym. There were two rows of tables. We were one table up from the last table on the left. I was wearing my floral grey-black leggings and a shirt I can’t remember. I just remember the leggings because I was looking down when we heard them say “Attention West End: We will not be having recess today due to Mosquito spraying. Thank you” Speakerclosingsound
In fourth grade we were 9 years old. We were 9 years old, but we knew something was wrong.
“Mosquito Spraying? But there aren’t even any mosquitos!”
We yelled indignantly to each other across the table. We were angry to have been cheated out of going outside on what was a beautiful, clear day. I remember my black floral leggings and the feeling of something that was not quite right. For the rest of the day, the feeling grew stronger.
When we came back to our classroom, all of the windows were closed. Mrs. Reichenberg didn’t look her cheery self anymore. Her long blonde hair that went past her shoulders, her bright blue eyes, and her small facial features did not hold the animation they always did. It was like someone had sucked her out of her body and left her sitting in the seat. Her face was panic-stricken. We told her about the mosquito spraying and how ludicrous it was that we couldn’t go outside on such a nice day. Mrs. Reichenberg didn’t much respond to us and continued about class. She didn’t smile again that day.
It was an hour before class was supposed to end and Joe P was called out of the classroom. The loudspeaker in our classroom spoke:
“Mrs. Reichenberg, can you please send Joe P down to the main office, his mom is here to take him home.”
“Joe why are you going home? Are you sick?” Some of us asked him. It wouldn’t have been unlikely considering Joe was one of the class crybabies and this was something he often did anyway.
“No! I don’t know why my mom wants me!” He cried back to us angrily.
Now we knew something was wrong. Joe’s mom had popped the ballon of logic that was growing thin all day. An unseen and indescribable tension built underneath the class. We looked to Mrs. Reichenberg with expectant eyes, hoping for any kind of explanation, even hoping to hear more about the mosquitos. She held her ground until it was 15 minutes before class ended and time for the end of day announcements.
“Something happened today class.”
She said in a quivering voice that held back tears. Her eyes darted across all of us and it looked like she was searching inward as if to find the right way to explain to 20 nine year-old kids that two planes had flown into the twin towers in New York City, 30 minutes away, and that thousands of people had been crushed by the weight of what were the tallest towers in the world. That thousands of people ran screaming from a burning building and that many people who were there who either escaped or didn’t were our friends’ fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles.
“It is something too big for me to tell you, but when you get home, talk to your parents, you should hear it from them first.”
It was Tuesday so my mom picked me up from the front door because today we weren’t allowed to go out any door but the front. I usually went out the right side door that lead easily to Burtis Street, my street. I don’t remember the walk home other than my usual excitement to be with my mom on her day off. It was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky and a smothering heaviness. A heaviness I still feel in the air every year on this day.
I don’t remember exactly how my conversation went with my mom. Of course I asked her what happened and of course she told me there had been a terrorist attack. Instead of having me do my homework right away once I got back from school she lead me into the living room to watch the TV. At first I was excited because I was never allowed to watch TV until after dinner. But then I saw a screen filled with Red and Black. Red because of the blaring letters with the red banner below them that read “Terrorist Attack on NYC Twin Towers” Black because the smoke coming off of the towers was sinister and unnatural. There were pictures of airplanes that had flown directly into the buildings. It was incomprehensible and the only thing I remember saying to respond was, “I don’t understand.”
My mom took me up the stairs, one flight to where our bedrooms were, and the next flight, which we rarely took, to the attic. We walked across the creaky floorboards and were engulfed by the smell of sawdust. We walked to the window at the highest point in our house and in the distance we could see the billowing black smoke.
We waited for my dad to come home because he was stuck on the Throgs Neck Bridge. He had never even made it to work in White Plains since the first tower was struck at 8:46 AM and he was still in the car. As soon as he heard what happened on the radio he turned around to come back home. But he sat on that bridge watching the smoke and listening to the radio for any signs of Peace. My mom had a hair appointment. She heard that the tower had been struck by a plane and then she came home and watched it fall.
I remember eating dinner that night, but I don’t know what happened. I remember hearing from neighbors who came over and people who called my house. I remember that my Uncle was for some reason in the city and that he had been helping people get computers working so they could have access to information. He was stuck in the city and he couldn’t come to our house because there was no way to leave it.
The city, my city, was isolated to the island it really was. All by itself with 8 million people – screaming, scared, running. Sirens. Smoke. The planes stuck in the towers.The image on TV that burned itself into my consciousness, into ours. Mosquito spraying because we were only miles away from where this all happened and they could’ve come for us next. My mom telling me that something terrible had happened. That today the world had changed and that things would never be the same. That this was bigger than anything before. That she didn’t know what would happen next. Planes crashed into buildings and then made them fall. There once were two towers and now there were none.
Last summer my family and I went to visit the 9/11 memorial. We got on the train and then took the subway from somewhere around Penn Station (I still have yet to master the subway) to Fulton Street. We passed St. Paul’s Chapel, which was left untouched through all of the destruction that occurred just footsteps away 12 years before then. The excitement I feel whenever I go to the city filled me like it always does. I walked bouncily taking in everything I could see. Fulton Street is a nice part of the city, I thought. There was Pace University and a bunch of nice restaurants. We made it to the line for the memorial. The signs with instructions to get in were written in many languages, 5 that I remember. English, Spanish, French, German, Italian. I read the sign in Italian over and over as we waited. We walked inside and were greeted by the serene quietness of the open area that once held the world’s largest skyscrapers. There was the steel cross that they had kept, symbolizing whatever in the world it is the cross symbolizes these days.
There was a pretty grass area surrounded by cement and so many trees. There were the two pools. The stone on top that read everyone’s names was cool to the touch. Cool dark grey stone. The names of people who died 12 years ago. Cut into it like it was all still fresh. Their names that told their stories without saying anything because we all knew what happened. Names of people that we recognized because we knew people in their families. Last Names. Names of people who I recognized at Fairfield who I did not realize until that exact moment had lost a family member in the attacks. A pool with water that seemed to carry itself down simply by gravity. Re-demonstrating in each second what happened that day, but reminding us to prevail nonetheless. Water splashing to cool the burns, to remind us that wounds can heal.
The pools were so loud you couldn’t hear anything around you. I was sucked in by the magnitude and mesmerized as I watched the water fall. Water to replace smoke. The coolness of the stone to replace the heavy, hot soot that filled the city for months afterwards.
We walked around the memorial for a while. The memorial which is this place where you can see people become physically affected by the heaviness of a tragedy, preserved. A heaviness that has never physically left us for now 13 years. A heaviness we won’t ever stop feeling because even when you’re thousands of miles away you are still an American, still a New Yorker, still were wearing your black floral leggings when they told you there was a mosquito spraying, still knew it wasn’t true.