20 years ago on the morning of September 11 . . .

An excerpt from Jenna Orkin’s memoir ‘Ground Zero Wars: The Fight to Reveal the Lies of the EPA in the Wake of 9/11 and Clean Up Lower Manhattan.’

Tues. 11 Sept. 11:50 am: If any of you hears news of how the kids at Stuyvesant are doing subsequent to this morning’s attacks on the World Trade Center, please phone or email me by any of the methods below.

Thus the Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association website read, although I certainly wasn’t reading it on September 11. Back then, I had nothing to do with the Stuy PA or anything else downtown. My son Alex (some names and identifying details of private people have been changed) was a student at Stuyvesant but the school hummed along superbly on its own steam which was fine by me.

I was also, at the time, innocent of websites. I’d learned the computer to write a novel and had just added email to my list of cyber-achievements. But, incredible as it may sound in this era of online connection 24/7, the idea of looking for the Stuy PA website that morning didn’t cross my mind.

At a quarter to nine on September 11, I was on my way to the gym when in the distance, something exploded. There had been a thunderstorm the night before. The skies were glistening now but I thought, in that wacky way which is a precursor to actual thinking, “Is the storm in New Jersey?” There had also once been an oil fire across the water, silent from our vantage point but impressive. Another one?  Con Ed?  So went my blasé train of thought at that last moment of the innocence of the world. I shrugged off what I couldn’t explain and went on my way.

My neighbor Gary breached the usual distance of New York apartment building dwelling to say, “Did you hear about the World Trade Center?  A plane flew into it. They think it’s terrorists.”

I looked out the window at two skyscrapers at the tip of Lower Manhattan.

Nothing going on there. A few blocks up, however, on the other side of town, an evil cloud of smoke trailed across the vibrant autumn sky.

“So that’s where it is,” I thought, still not fully awake. I’d only been there once and didn’t pay attention to directions anyway since, growing up in New York, I’d never learned to drive.

“What’ll that do to Alex’ school?” I asked idiotically, but didn’t wait for an answer.

I thanked Gary and ran back inside to call Stuyvesant. Busy, of course. So I called my ex-husband who worked in Lower Manhattan. The receptionist picked up.

“Kevin U., please.”

“He’s busy.”

“A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”

“We know. Is there anything else?”

“Can he get Alex?”

“Hold on.”

Kevin got on and I repeated the question.

“Alex!  Holy shit… I can’t go now. Listen, I can’t talk. I just saw a guy jump out a ninety-storey window.”

“My God,” I cried.

“I’m sorry. I’ll try to get to Stuyvesant as soon as I can.”

Not too promising.

A call from my cousin asking if Alex was OK. She’d heard on the radio that Stuyvesant had been evacuated. (It hadn’t.)

I went to pick up Alex, still not taking in the ramifications of this thing but thinking it prudent for him not to stay around a disaster area.

The trains weren’t running. You couldn’t even walk across the Brooklyn Bridge; they’d just closed that too. Someone said something about the second building’s being hit so I returned home and switched on CNN and the computer where my friend Jill popped up in the top left hand corner of the screen.

“The first building’s down.”

Still busy at the school so I called Kevin again. The receptionist sounded agitated, as one might expect from someone fielding the calls of a law firm in downtown Manhattan after the collapse of its neighboring world-renowned skyscraper. In the background, a woman cried hysterically. Probably Laura, Kevin’s wife and colleague. Well, he wasn’t leaving now.

Finally Alex called, using his teacher’s cellphone. (For anyone who’s too young to remember, it was 9/11 that occasioned that spontaneous mutation whereby the cellphone became a human appendage.) The kids were heading up West Street.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know, Mom. Maybe to the next place they’re going to bomb.”

“This is no time for jokes,” I shot back with anxiety compressed into rage.

“I know,” he replied in an appeasing tone. “I gotta go.”

Tues. 11 Sept. 12:05 pm: I’ve just heard by phone from my son. The school and the kids are OK. They were told at some point (perhaps before the WTC buildings collapsed) to evacuate. They started walking in groups away from the problems. No panic in the group my son was with.

When the World Trade Center was hit, we were later told, an FBI agent showed up at the school. Principal Stanley Teitel asked him, “Is it possible those buildings could come down?”

“Not a chance,” the guy replied.

Since the subways weren’t running, most of the kids wouldn’t be able to go home even if they were released from school. In addition, Assistant Principal of Student Services Eugene Blaufarb explained, “The federal officials were talking around me, saying they didn’t know whether the planes were part of an overall plot. It could have been a larger plot, with people on the ground, coming out of covert places.”  (For the same reason, some parents who lived in Manhattan and were therefore able to get to the school, were not allowed in to pick up their children, since there was no way of telling whether or not they were terrorists.)  The safest option seemed to be to keep everyone inside.

Soon, however, one of the FBI agents told the school administration that the north building was in danger of falling and hitting Stuyvesant. This was inaccurate but he also said that the shock wave could bring the school building down.

When the first tower fell, the school was evacuated, the students quieter than Teitel had ever heard them. Administrator Renee Levine told them as they streamed past, “Grab somebody’s hand. It doesn’t matter if you know them or not. Stay in pairs and go north.”

“It was great ‘run for your life’ weather,” Alex later wrote in an essay for English class, “except for the cloud of dust coming towards us.”

He had been in Physics class when the first plane hit. Students rushed to the window, in response to which the teacher simply closed the blinds and continued with the lesson. One of my own students of English as a Second Language later mused that perhaps the teacher had been using the occasion to illustrate that paradox of quantum physics: The plane was both there and not there at the same time.

Some students had witnessed people jumping.

“[T]hey looked like debris,” Maris Ip, sophomore, recalled in a special issue of the Stuyvesant newspaper The Spectator, which would arrive inserted into the New York Times one Sunday.

In “Diary of a Mad Senior” from the same issue, Dylan Tatz described watching from the ninth floor chemistry lab:

“…men and women in expensive clothes glancing back into what was once their office, before throwing themselves toward the chaotic sidewalk hundreds of feet below. Some appeared to have had a running start while others stood at the edge until the flames licked their skin and pushed them off into the endless cloud of smoke…

“At one point, two teachers noticed us in the vacant lab, and began to reprimand us for being in an unsupervised room. Without a word, we pointed to the window, and the teachers’ authority disappeared as each burst into hysterical tears…

“As we marched north, the Orpheus in me periodically glanced back over my shoulder to behold the smoky void where ninety minutes prior the Twin Towers had soared invincibly. Likewise, the Israelite in me prayed that someone would step out from the fleeing mass of people, part the Hudson, and lead us away from that chaotic hell and into the promised land of New Jersey.”
–Dylan Tatz, senior

“…We heard this screeching noise and then a real loud boom. It was so loud it shook all the desks, and our desks are fastened to the floor; it was a lab room…

“We think the debris has just become immense, until we look closer and realize that it’s actually people jumping from the WTC… A few minutes later, we see the second building crumble. They eventually evacuate us and we’re running outside. And then people are just screaming that the other building had crumbled as well, so they rush us back in the building, but most of us are already out, and the police push us out, but then we hear gunshots, and there’s chaos everywhere. People start firing guns, and the police tell us to stay low and run for our lives, so five miles later, we look back, and see everything in smoke.
–Jeng Tyng Hong, junior

Some kids reacted initially with detachment:

“I was talking to my friend who was talking about the logistics of the whole thing and what he would have done with the Pentagon instead.”
–Hamilton Davis, sophomore

“[P]eople were like ‘cool’ and stuff.”
–Lindsay Kim, sophomore

“It was a feeling of great excitement… as if it was a Die Hard 4 or Godzilla of something.”
–Paul Banec, freshman

Other reflections were more personal:

“For the first time since I found out my mom was sick, I cried.”
–Laurence Wooster, senior
“I am no stranger to grief, as my mother died when I was eleven. Yet each day I think ‘OK, I’ve passed that stage where it upsets me so much. I won’t cry anymore.’  And each day I’m wrong. Each day I have cried just a little bit more.”
–Jessica Copperman, senior

An insert in the magazine read:

“Found in a notebook at school on September 11:

“If I die here today, who knows what can happen. I believe still, that people are inherently good.”

The quotation evokes the sentiment wrested from the Diary of Ann Frank by screenwriters Albert Hackett (my stepfather) and his first wife, Frances Goodrich, which proved the pivot for their dramatization of the iconic work: “Still I believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

It is not the only appeal to hope in the issue which, in the hard copy edition, is bookended by statements from Jane Goodall. In her forward, entitled, “Concentrate on the Wonderful Things,” she reminded the kids of the “wonderfully brave dogs who worked among the debris, burning their feet on the red hot concrete and steel” and the message of support “not only [from] America’s usual allies but from countries like Iran and Syria and Libya. It is amazing and wonderful and… it could lead to a new global network of countries determined to stamp out terrorism.” The sentiments seem idealistic now and from her TED talks, it may appear that Goodall, like so many others, has tempered her optimism.

Unable to get into Manhattan, I went to the Red Cross to give blood. In a scene that would be repeated in Paris after the terrorist attacks of 2015, the line snaked around the block, as though to the gates of Purgatory after an earthquake. Ahead stood a couple of construction workers, a mother with a baby in a pram and a cluster of Swedish tourists. If you couldn’t get into Manhattan, this was the next best way to help out.

“My niece is on the 80th floor,” said a woman in front of me. She seemed worried but like me, hadn’t yet taken in the scope of the situation. (The impact zone for Tower 2 was between the 77th and 85th floors.)

The Red Cross sent us away as they lacked the facilities to store that much blood.

Tues. 11 Sept. 1:30 pm: I’ve now returned home from driving downtown to collect my son and four of his friends. They had walked about three miles, from Stuy to 42nd St. and 10th Avenue, which is where I collected them, by arrangement. They had seen the fireballs of the hits on the World Trade Center. Around 10:30 (they were rather vague, might have been half an hour earlier or later) all the students were told to leave and to walk uptown. There was excitement or nervousness but no panic, nothing scary happening.

Alex went with three other kids to the house of a classmate where my friend Miriam picked him up. He would have been able to get to her house on his own but as Miriam later explained, “I couldn’t not do it. He sounded a little dazed and I didn’t want him wandering around anymore.”  He’d walked five miles carrying twenty-six pounds of books. (When he came to my house a week later, I weighed them.)  Like me, he has his vague side and hadn’t gotten around to nabbing a locker. The previous year, he’d just carried his books all year long, a matter of some squabbling between us. (“They’re not heavy, Mom.”)

Miriam took him to lunch at Pete’s.

“As we were walking there, we passed a woman crying,” she recounted afterwards. “Alex said, ‘Did you hear what that woman was crying about?  She said she’d missed her bus. Otherwise she would have been in there.’  He seemed fine but we had to wait an hour for a table. All the restaurants were filled with refugees from Lower Manhattan. We sat at the bar and watched TV. A baby came on the screen. That seemed to get to him a little.

‘It took another hour to get served. He fell asleep at the table.”

CNN played footage of the cloud that engulfed the plaza, then all of Lower Manhattan, after the first building collapsed. A woman next to the camera cried, “My God,” and everyone started running. “It looked like a scene out of a Godzilla movie,” resident Wendy Tabb later described. Although Alex adamantly maintains he escaped the cloud, I wondered how that might be possible; no one could outrun it.

Tues. 11 Sept 4:15 pm: I’ve received a number of calls from parents who’ve seen this web page. Some parents still haven’t heard from their children but I know that that is because they’re walking long distances, trying to get public transport, etc. I just spoke with a girl in Grade 9 who just got home to Brooklyn. She said that a Stuy teacher, Danny Jaye, walked a large number of students to and across one of the bridges to Brooklyn and then made sure to get them safely onto subway lines that were working. Another parent who lives in Queens called 20 minutes ago very concerned because he had not heard from his son, and then called back just now to say his son had safely reached their home in Queens.

I also spoke to the mother who works in the WTC. She said she was in the North WTC building on a floor in the 80s when the plane hit, very close to her. It took her about 90 minutes to get out of the building and it collapsed only five minutes after she got out. She went to the hospital to have glass shards removed from her leg but is OK now.

Tues. 11 Sept. 5:45 pm: I’ve just heard from Marilena Christodoulou, President of the PA. She says she went to the school as soon as she heard the news, arriving there at 11:00. She met the principal and some assistant principals who told her that they had been requested by emergency officials to evacuate the school so it could be used as an emergency base for providing medical help. The children had been told to start by heading north, keeping on the West side of the street, so that they would be exposed to as little as possible of the smoke. (After a certain distance, clearly many headed in other directions.)

Marilena was assured by the school that no child or teacher was hurt in any way. Most who live in Manhattan are now home. Many who live in other boroughs are staying with friends or waiting until they can use the subways. (I understand that nearly all subway lines are now working, at least out of Manhattan.)  However, some children are having difficulty phoning home because certain lines are over-busy or out of action.

THERE WILL BE NO SCHOOL TOMORROW, WEDNESDAY. No decision has been made about the rest of the week. Please pass the word on this to others.

Jenna Orkin is a writer and journalist whose short documentary, ‘EnGaged: Carolyn Gage On Stage and Off,’ has received a Top Indie Film as well as an LA Shorts Film award. One of the first to question the US Environmental Protection Agency’s assertions that the air in Lower Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks was safe to breathe, she went on to co-found the World Trade Center Environmental Organization as well as other Lower Manhattan activist organizations that revealed and testified to the government’s lies. Click here to purchase a copy of ‘Ground Zero Wars.’

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