9/11/2001 in Staten Island, New York

My annual remembrance of September 11, 2011


I post this essay every year in honor of September 11th, 2001 (see 2010201120122013201420152016, 2017, and 2018).

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.

NEXT: Jesus

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  1. Thanks for your narrative. It was very moving. I was out cutting wood when I got a cell call telling me that NYC had been bombed from the air. I laid down everything and rushed home to watch the towers collapsing on the television. The thought of this carnage still gives me a lump in my throat.

  2. I was three time zones away. This means that the first impact happened before I got up, and the authorities (and the news media) were trying to figure out what had happened. Then the second impact, and everybody figured out it was an attack, all at the same time. Then we went to work, where very little work happened.

    1. I was at work in Chicago, in the AT&T building, diaganally across one intersection from then Sears Tower (has been renamed since).

      At one point, before the passengers brought the third plane down, the Sears Tower was considered a possible target. The entire Chicago Loop was evacuated.

      1. The Sears Tower is still the Sears Tower to anyone who matters.

        1. What’s a “Sears”, grampa?

          1. It’s the plural of “sear”, the latch in a gun that holds back the firing pin until you pull the trigger. Not sure why they named a building after them, though.

  3. Thank you for this; I was working at a clinic and we had televisions on for patients as they underwent their care; watched the second aircraft crash into the towers and realized this was no accident, then watched them both fall. It was a beautiful day, yet everything seemed surreal. What struck me was seeing what looked like confetti in the air; it was documents from peoples offices and desks that was blown out of the buildings and was drifting down. It was one of those times and events that you just know you will never forget; nor should we.

  4. I join in the thanks for your post.

    I was then working in my home office in front of the computer, and was a subscriber for e-mail news updates from The New York Times; no particular kind of news, but just “breaking news” in general. And then the first one came in …

    I, like many apparently, thought it was a small private plane that apparently had some kind of mechanical trouble. And then the second one, about the other tower, came in …

    I, as others I assume, then to myself said “Uh Oh, these weren’t some kind of accidents”. It is all still so incredible, later that day commenting to the owner of a manufacturing company in Ohio that I represented for export sales, that it seemed like a Tom Clancy novel. Oh that it would only have been fiction …

  5. I learned first when i turned on the radio on the drive in when i was close to the office. I heard something had struck the first tower. When i got in the office, execs were watching CNN on the tv in the conference room.

    I then got told that our bank officer wanted to talk to me. She was nearly crying when she said that the FRB operations window in NY had shut down and that they were specifically told no idea when it would reopen. She was calling all her banking clients to tell them to have them go to a local branch and get enough cash to last at least 1 weeks payroll as she was unsure if checks would clear the system. I then had to get a hold of all my controllers and have them go to local bank branches and grab cash for a minimum of 1 weeks payroll and over the road truck contractors and put into locked safes in their offices.

    At the time it was completely frightening

  6. I’m from Minnesota, and that’s where pretty much all of my extended family lives. But I had a job that happened to have me working with students at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I slept in a bit that morning, only to be awaken by a phone call from my brother. He just said that the world was ending (he had some apocalyptic nightmare a few nights earlier and suddenly thought this was a premonition). I was obviously incredibly confused. He said I needed to get to a TV and see what was happening. I got to a room where the students were watching the live news. The first tower was already down; the second soon would be.

    Over the next couple weeks, I continued working at colleges throughout that area. Many of the students knew people who worked in the towers or had families that worked in or around the towers. It felt much more real than what I sensed my friends and family should have felt back home. Maybe so; maybe not.

    The thing that I recall about 9/11 isn’t so much about the day. It’s about the weeks afterward, where there was this sort of listless unease–where we didn’t know what was happening or what to expect. But we all knew we had to do something because we would not tolerate going through such an experience ever again in the future.

  7. I was in California. I got up that morning, looked at my mail, and saw a very brief note about the events. I thought: okay, where’s the rest of the joke?

  8. “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.”

    A group composed primarily of Saudis, commanded by a Saudi (who later hid in Pakistan) and funded by Saudi sources, attacked the United States in a manner grotesquely disproportionate to genuine and perceived grievances . . . so we coddled Saudis with special flights and protections, attacked Iraq, and talked about carpet-bombing Afghanistan.

    1. Weird. If a Mexican immigrant to the U.S. committed a crime and Trump discussed attacking Mexico in retaliation, I suspect you would not be supportive. And yet you somehow think the nationality of the 9/11 attackers is relevant to where the U.S. should have directed its ire.

      1. Trying to set a record for the number of cherry-picked, misleading, tangential points in a few sentences? And in the service of what position — that attacking Iraq was a prudent response? Or just getting in some standard right-wing blather about criminal Mexican invaders?

      2. ” If a Mexican immigrant to the U.S. committed a crime and Trump discussed attacking Mexico in retaliation”

        A Mexican did commit a terrorist attack against the US. The US responded by sending Black Jack Pershing into Mexico to go get him. (Guess what… the effort was largely a waste of time, effort, and treasure).

  9. I was working at a firm in NJ at the time, but I was going in to work late that day. I was in my living room, when my wife, who was at a client site in northern NJ, called to tell me to turn on the television.¹ Was glued to the set thereafter, of course. When I heard about Pentagon attack, rushed to check with my family who were living and working around DC. One thing that is seared in my memory about that morning is that simultaneously with her telling me over the phone that one of her co-workers was working near the top of the WTC, I watched the tower fall.

    I remember that for three straight days every tv channel ran commercial-free coverage of the news, and other than restroom breaks, we watched all of it. At the time there was so many rumors (car bombs, for instance) and speculation and we all just assumed that this was the first of many attacks.

    ¹It’s almost hard to think back to that pre-smartphone era, when someone had to alert you to the fact of breaking news; if it had happened today, we’d have all been alerted immediately.

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