Tuesday, 9/11/01, My Elementary School, downtown Brooklyn, NYC
It’s Tuesday morning and I’m interviewing one of my children. He has scratches on his face and it’s my responsibility as this boy’s therapist/ Social Worker, to make an initial determination as to the seriousness of his injuries. He describes falling off his bike, how his mother handled the situation, the injuries seem consistent with his explanation. The interview concludes abruptly as the Assistant Principal rushes into my office. She looks flushed and nervous, I tell her his story about falling off the bike and she says OK, send him back to class.
She then asks me to hurry immediately up to the third floor of the school. My school is a Special Education Program for young children located in downtown Brooklyn, NYC. Our third floor houses three classrooms, two third grade and one fourth grade class, as well as the speech teacher’s office. These rooms all have magnificent skyline views of lower Manhattan, located directly across the river.
As I enter the first classroom I see the young children and their teachers crowded, transfixed before the windows, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are billowing fiercely with smoke. My heart leaps in my chest, I lose my breath, and remind myself to breathe.
The kids are excited and shouting,
“A plane crashed into the building!”,
“Planes crashed into the big buildings!”,
“We heard them crash!”,
“We saw them crash!”
“They’re on fire,
My head is swimming, the sight of these mighty buildings, bathed in white, black, grey smoke, pouring upwards, up its’ sides, darkening the sky. The sound of sirens floating across the East River, shrieking and wailing.
The teachers try to regain order, asking the children to return to their seats. The adults, tear filled eyes connecting, dazed and shocked.
I suggest that we pull the lower window shades down, that we block this sight from the children. As I begin to do so, many of the children yell, “No, No, We want to watch, We want to see!’ Many are now at their desks, eyes wide, crying and asking for their mothers.
I rush to the neighboring classroom and find the same sight, children and staff, hypnotized before this unreal spectacle. The sky is now blackening with smoke, the sirens piercing louder and louder. We shut the shades to the same cries from the children, “No, no, we want to watch!” Others sobbing and crying at their desks.
The third classroom repeats the same unreal scene. Transfixed, excited children, shocked, tearful staff. Then the protests from the children about shutting off their view. Most now in tears, asking for their mommies, some excited and leaping from their seats, running to the windows, pulling up the shades and trying to peek out.
I then begin moving from room to room. Standing before the classes, asking the children;
what they saw,
how they’re feeling,
what are their worries,
My fellow clinicians follow, first watching, then expanding and opening this important dialogue.
The children ask me powerful questions:
“Are we safe?”,
“Are the buildings in the city going to fall down?”,
“Are they going to fall down on us and smash our school?”,
“Why are the sirens so loud?”,
“How could this happen?”,
“Are all the planes going to crash from the sky?”,
“Will airplanes smash into our school?”,
“Who could do this?”,
“Why does the smoke smell so funny?”,
“Why is this happening?”,
“Are the buildings going to all fall down?”,
“Was this an accident?”,
“Why aren’t they spraying water on the buildings?”,
“Are people dieing?”,
“Are alot of people dead?”,
“What is going to happen to us?”,
“How will we get home?”
“Where is my mommy?”
I answer them as best I can:
“You are very safe here in Brooklyn, in our school, we will keep you safe”,
“The firefighters and policemen in the city are not afraid,
They are brave and strong and smart and know how to help”,
“I used to be a firefighter and I know this is true”,
“The planes will not fall from the sky”,
“You are safe now”,
“The firefighters and policemen are helping the people in those buildings right now”.
“The big buildings in our city are built strong and solid and won’t fall down”,
“The buildings will not fall down on us here across the river, at our school in Brooklyn”,
“They are fighting the fire from the inside of the building, they can’t spray water on the outside right now”,
“We will keep you safe here at school”,
“We will call your families and tell them you’re OK”,
“We will make sure it’s safe to send you home, and that you will get home OK”
I don’t remember exactly when or why, but I entered the Speech Teacher’s office, finding tearful, shocked staff standing transfixed before the windows, radios blaring frightening news, hijacked planes, terrorists, terror, sirens wailing and shrieking, and the Twin Towers, now obscured behind massively billowing smoke, then, in slow motion, before my eyes, THE TOWER IS GONE, GONE,
Beneath swirling brown, grey, black, smoke it seems to shrink in upon
itself, it is GONE.
I see it fall.
I immediately realize,
the children should not be on the third floor, their curious eyes can not see this sight,
no peeking at this horror, this is too much, this is not real,
I can not explain this to them,
We can not explain this to them,
this is for their families,
this is for history,
this is overwhelming,
this is not real.
this is a new world,
I tell myself,
I will not feel this,
I will not feel this now,
the enormity of what I have seen,
I want my mommy and daddy,
I desperately want to know that my friends in lower Manhattan are OK, I
will make those calls to find out, for myself,
the rest I will not know, the rest I do not want to know, the rest I will not feel, not until I am home, not until I have time, not until the children are home. The children are moved quickly to the first floor where our heroic staff teach lessons, show videos, pass the slow motion time of this unending day. The remainder of my school day is a blur of activity. First, finding out my loved ones are safe and well. Phone calls to the parents of all the children on the third floor, who have directly witnessed the tragedy- advising them of how to talk to their children about this, consoling stunned staff who have family members working in the Twin Towers, consulting with my colleagues, sharing stories, tears, shock, outrage, worries Smelling smoke, hearing sirens, sneaking a look out the window on the now deserted third floor, the billowing smoke and empty space where the Twin Towers once stood. At two-thirty the yellow school busses come, the children are taken home, the staff slowly disperses. the acrid smell of smoke in the air, and sirens louder out on the street. In my car, I’m back home in Queens in fifteen minutes, there is no traffic, the new Manhattan skyline next to the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, the never-ending billowing smoke, the empty space where the Twin Towers once stood. Not knowing what to do, where to go, what to do, I instinctually follow my routine, my NYC Marathon training schedule, driving to Flushing Meadows Park, my refuge, my oasis, the Meadow Lake where I love to run, I change into my running clothes running around my beautiful lake, in the distance, as Indian Summer sun warmly glistens across sparkling waters, as geese and ducks swim peacefully by, grey/black billowing smokes darkens the sky, sirens still wailing, I run, I cry. with love from, Hernan