Television

Teen Witnesses to 9/11 Reminisce About the Horrors They Saw That Day

New HBO documentary is moving … until it wanders into our current politics.

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In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11. HBO. Wednesday, September 11, 9 p.m.

My parents remembered with precision just where and how they learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And when I first arrived at college 30 years later, late-night beers in the dorm often led to discussions of what we were doing at the moment President Kennedy was assassinated. It made us feel oh-so-ancient to imagine there were kids in the third grade who hadn't even been born when it happened.

Time and human evil march onward, and millennials have their own grim generational milepost in which the sudden, lethal intrusion of the outside world imposes a sudden burst of maturity: "I was a senior… I was 13… I think I was 15 years old at the time."

Anybody in their mid-30s will instantly recognize the subject: the 9/11 attacks, their generation's where-were-you definitional moment. But in this case, the moment was intimately personal: These were teenagers who watched 9/11 not on television but out their schoolhouse window.

The storied Stuyvesant High (its alumni include Jimmy Cagney, Thelonious Monk and four Nobel winners) is a magnet school just three blocks from the old site of the World Trade Center. Because the school stayed intact during the September 11 attacks and no one there was hurt, Stuy, as it's known to its students and teachers, has largely been overlooked in journalistic accounts of that day.

Now the Stuy kids have what amounts to a video yearbook. In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 is told entirely in their words. And though they're now doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and marketing executives, their words still echo with the sense of awful wonder they felt as their childhood ended that day.

One of them remembers hearing a metal-rending screech from outside and thinking a truck had backed over some garbage cans. When it became apparent that something much worse had happened, classroom TV sets went all over the school, and a number of kids had the blood-chilling novel experience of seeing a second plane hit the south tower, followed moments later by an instant replay on television.

Another student was puzzled by blurry video of what seemed to be bits of debris dropping from the towers as they burned. "What is that?" he asked others. "What's falling?"

As the cameras sharpened their focus, the outlines of human beings plummeting from the upper floors popped into clear view. And suddenly it occurred to the student that the answer to his question might be "my uncle," who worked on the 86th floor of one of the towers. He does not even try to describe his agonized shriek.

(Don't sit around waiting for a surprise happy ending; 9/11 wasn't that kind of day. The uncle's family never saw him again.)

As the towers continued to burn and, eventually, collapse, Stuy administrators closed the school and sent the students home. With buses and subways shut down, for most of the kids it was an 8-to-10 mile trudge suffused with ash and dust and abject ignorance—in 2001, cell phones were still rare among teenagers, and they had little idea what had happened.

When one boy allowed a group of his classmates to take turns calling their families from his clunky Nextel mobile phone, the conversations were not reassuring. "Please, please, just survive," sobbed one father. The students quickly learned that rogue airliners weren't the only threat. Several of them remember a man on the sidewalk pointing at a Stuy girl wearing a hijab and bellowing: "Bitch!"

It's at this point that Shadow of the Towers goes off the rails, turning from a credible, if not necessarily remarkable, reminiscence about a brutally painful day to simplistic immigration agitprop. I've no doubt the know-nothing bully on the sidewalk existed and their encounter with him, under those circumstances, was terrifying.

But it seems unlikely that the only political lesson any of the Stuy kids drew from 9/11 is that it resulted in racist immigration restrictions. Surely producer-director Amy Schatz talked to at least one former student who said something about the nature of jihad or fallout from U.S. foreign policy, or cursed out Osama bin Laden.

Yet not a single word of that made its way into her film, just as not a single word of doubt about the merits of gun control could be heard in her last one, Song Of Parkland, a documentary about survivors of a Florida school shooting. What does come through, loud and clear, is the sound of Schatz fluffing up the progressive corsage on her sleeve.

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  1. Wait — somebody made a movie about 9 / 11 with the ultimate goal of promoting the Koch / Reason open borders agenda? That’s awesome!

    #LibertariansAgainstIslamophobia

  2. Well, when your narrative includes the innocent wisdom of children, there’s necessarily going to be a lot left out. Sure, talking to people who were there on that day gives an interesting perspective on the story, but let’s not pretend that being there imbues the narrator with some special insight on the meaning of it all. It’s a case of special pleading based on an emotional appeal – just the same as David Hogg claiming some unassailable cred on the matter of gun control. I ran over a cat with my car once, doesn’t mean the cat’s qualified to head the NHTSA now.

  3. That must be some painfully obvious selective editing.

  4. A Sikh was killed outside my home town on 9/12. Because he wore a turban.

    1. He would have been much safer in India. Damn rednecks. Why does anyone want to come here at all?

    2. Sounds like horseshit to me. Did you make that up, because Google has nothing.

  5. Weren’t several of the hijackers here because immigration enforcement was too lax back then? Seems like they’re drawing the wrong lesson.

  6. I have not watched and no reason to.

    That day I think those of us who can remember where we were and when in hit have our own memory.

    One story, we were at a resort and you know how you meet people you will never see again. Met a couple we all got to talking. The guy looked familiar. We had some beers or something.

    My wife and his were talking, women do talk. She tells me later that he was a fire fighter first on the scene. He had since gone to another job in a more sedate location and we were not to bring it up. I had seen him in a news photo or something and his wife had told her that had happened. Never brought it up.

    You know they talk about the thousand yard stare. I remember that about him. Like there was that place inside. Everybody got a story.

  7. Did the documentary include Donald Trump reminiscing about watching the huge celebrations among Muslimy-looking people in Jersey?

    Enjoy your continuing march toward irrelevance in the culture war, Mr. Garvin, which will end when you are replaced by one of your betters (from the liberal-libertarian mainstream).

    1. “Did the documentary include Donald Trump reminiscing about watching the huge celebrations among Muslimy-looking people in Jersey?”
      It would take a scumbag asshole bigot to ask something like that, and here you are!

      “Enjoy your continuing march toward irrelevance in the culture war, Mr. Garvin, which will end when you are replaced by one of your betters (from the liberal-libertarian mainstream).”
      You lost, you loser. Fuck off and die where we can’t smell you.

    2. Was 9/11 about trump too? What isn’t?

      Haha. What a doosh.

      1. TRUMP LITERALLY DID 9/11

        #neverforget #forgetonpurposeimmediatelyandmakeupyourownrevisionistcrap #orangemanverybadindeed

  8. “resulted in racist immigration restrictions.”

    No one should equate illegal border crossings with immigration – although that may be included / involved.

    People cross the border for many more reasons than immigration – like if you wear a foreign military uniform and are armed.
    But reading @Reason would lead you to believe that those people are to be considered immigrants too.

    This is convenient for open border supporters where all illegal border crossings are to be considered as simply “innocent” illegal immigration.

  9. The students quickly learned that rogue airliners weren’t the only threat. Several of them remember a man on the sidewalk pointing at a Stuy girl wearing a hijab and bellowing: “Bitch!”

    ..and then everyone on the train clapped. Stupid racists.

    Why is it that the same people who have absolutely no problem declaring that ‘we’ deserved what happened on 9/11 because of what the US had done to Muslims, the same people who routinely proclaim that ALL white people should be held accountable for the sins of slaveowners–ALL slaveowners, from the black people who invented slavery, all the way up to the black people who still practice it, the same people who declare how this group owes that group endlessly is the same group of people who insist that no one else can assign blame in this fashion.

    But here’s the big lie.

    No one ‘pointed at a Stuy girl in a hijab’ and said ‘bitch’ on 9/11 while it was going on–BECAUSE NO ONE KNEW YET. Especially not those AT the WTC.

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