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18 August 2008

Reflections on 9.11.01

EVERY YEAR WHEN SEPT. 11 GETS CLOSER, I wind up saying to someone: "I can't believe it's been (however many) years since the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. Such is the case again this year—seven years after that awful day that saw nearly 3,000 people lose their lives. On my regular blog, The Hudson Line, I've shared, several times, my Sept. 11, 2001 experiences. 

They say people who were old enough in 1963 always remember where they were when they learned President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. For a younger generation—one that wasn't around in 1963—the same can be said of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It's true.

Not only do I remember where I was—I remember precisely what I wore to work that day. I remember the songs I listened to as I drove into work. I remember almost every single minute of that day as if it were yesterday—not seven years ago.

It happened that Sept. 11, 2001 was the first full day of classes for me at St. Anthony High School. As my schedule had it, Monday, Sept. 10, I only had a handful of classes. Tuesday was the first day I had all five sections. It was first period. Senior religion. I was on the first floor of the dingy St. Anthony High School. It was room 101.

I had just walked over to my podium, from my desk, after having taken attendance for the first time. I took my course syllabi, and handed them to a then senior, Pedro Rodriguez. I asked Pedro to pass out the syllabi as I handed out the classroom rules and regulations. At that very moment, there was an intense boom. It was a sound that wasn’t too uncommon—after all, we were just three blocks away from the Holland Tunnel, and there are always trucks overturning or bouncing as they hit potholes.

But this boom was a little different. It was louder. Still, I thought nothing of it.

Pedro continued to pass out the syllabi. Within a minute, CJ Flaherty, a history teacher at St. Anthony's, ran into the building from his trailer classroom outside that overlooked, of all things, the New York City Skyline—and the World Trade Towers. You see, St. Anthony's is situated 2.5 miles to the west of the old towers. And you could draw an imaginary line from one of the Towers directly to the school building. When CJ came in, he was out of breath. He screamed at me to get to the door. I went over, tripping on my bag that I left aside the podium.

"Dude, the World Trade Center's on fu**ing fire," he said, his voice cracking.

"CJ, what the f**k are you talking about—don’t kid around like that," was my response.

"I'll stay here. Go outside on 8th Street and see for yourself," he said.

And outside I went immediately, almost hoping that what he said was a sick joke to play a prank on me
 for all the pranks I pulled as a teacher.

We know that wasn't the case—far from it. What I saw when I was outside is the last memory I have of the Towers—the Towers I saw each and every day I was in Jersey City. It's a sight I just can't erase, as hard as I try.

I had a direct view of the north side of the North Tower. And in it, I'd later learn, was that first airplane—the one we all saw from the footage shot by the French documentarians filming the rookie in the New York City Fire Department. I hadn’t a clue an airplane hit. All I knew—all anyone knew at the time—was that there was an immense fire at the North Tower. We were in for an unforgettable, memorable day.

The late Brother James Redunski, who at the time was assistant principal at St. Anthony's, came around to let us know, about 20 minutes or so later, that we should turn the televisions off. Yet before he did—only Channel 2 was working at the time since the antenna on the North Tower was obviously damaged—we saw on WCBS-TV another explosion—this time at the South Tower. Ironically, it was Pedro who recognized the second airplane coming around—no one else could tell.

"Holy, sh*t, Canessa," he said. "That was an airplane."

Everyone—and I mean everyone—sat in stunned silence, including a girl, Michelle, whose mother was working at the Trade Center. She began to cry when she realized it was likely her mom was in one of the buildings. She couldn’t remember which one, though.

Since we were a Catholic school, we all dropped everything and could do but one thing—pray. And then, believe it or not, we went on with what remained of the 40-minute class. By the end of the class, parents were coming to pick their kids up. Everyone had realized the trouble we were in.

Second period came and went—and I still hadn't seen a thing other than the one moment I went outside. When third period arrived, many of the kids had been picked up—they went home. Michael McNutt, the dean of seniors at the time, came in to tell me the South Tower collapsed. Then the North Tower. Then he told me of the hit at the Pentagon.

It was at this point I gave up on teaching—too much was happening outside our doors. Since many New Jersey rescue units went into the city, they passed by St. Anthony's to get to the Holland Tunnel. The sirens were deafening. The kids who remained—including a few who had a parent working at the Trade Center—were a mess. I can still recall one teen, who went on to play Division I college basketball, crying intensely. He couldn’t reach his mother. He thought she was dead.

We learned later she wasn’t.

The distractions aside from the sirens were hard to digest, too. Scores of people came by 8th Street. Some from buildings in Jersey City, others from the ferries that came from New York to the Jersey City waterfront. Some were covered by soot. Others had blood one them. Some were completely intact.

As the day went on, smells began to reach Jersey City. Clouds of grey smoke—smoke from the burning buildings, and as we'd later learn, smoke from burning flesh—made its way over the Hudson River to Downtown Jersey City. It was a scent I can still recall to this day—and it was one that lasted months.

By the time 2:30 arrived, mostly all the kids had been picked up. But for those who remained, they had to wait at school until they could be picked up. Members of the Jersey City Police Department stood at every single street corner within sight. The kids could not leave without an adult, per the commanding officer. Those who lived in New York City were put up for the night in the homes of teachers who lived close to school. Since the PATH was out of commission, and since the ferries were only taking people away from Manhattan, they had no way of getting back to their homes.

I left Jersey City at 4 p.m. I didn’t get home until 6 p.m. The traffic was at a standstill almost the entire way home. And in my mirror was the smoldering of the buildings. In my mirror was a reminder of what had just happened. It didn’t matter whether it took 20 hours to get home. All that mattered to me, at that moment, was knowing I was OK—and at that moment, all of the kids were, too.

There's something I skipped chronologically on purpose—it was something so sinister it's hard to even write about.

Back at around 11:30 a.m., one of my colleagues came around and made the following statement to me: "1010 WINS is reporting a nuclear bomb is on its way to New York." Of course, there was a lot of mis-information out there that day. We also heard there was a fire on the Washington Mall—there wasn't.

But when I was told there was a nuclear warhead on its way to New York, for the first and only time ever, I believed I was about to die. I stood in the parking lot during a break, all the while listening to Don Imus and Charles McCord, both of whom remained on the air after Imus' scheduled show ending. I could hear the fear in Charles and Don's voices. I was just as much in fear.

I wondered—when the nuke hit, would I feel it? Would it burn? Would I suffer? Would any of us suffer? Would it be long and drawn out? Would it be quick? These thoughts all went through my mind—yet when there was word the nuke attack was a false alarm, there was a sense of relief.

But what that happened Sept. 11, 2001 had any relieving qualities? It certainly wasn’t the jumpers. It wasn’t the lost lives. Nothing that day offered any relief. The kids who watched the jumpers jump and the Towers fall from a classroom window were scarred for life. The kids who didn’t know if their mom or dad was alive lived in agony.

The only thing that offered relief was the sheer notion that we were a united America. If only that lasted until now. For a short time in New York and Jersey, people were very kind to one another. People weren't rude to each other. It was like nothing we'd ever seen before.

But that day—those incredible experiences—that's something I can never forget. What a better world we'd be if people kept that spirit going. But it didn’t happen.

Still, seven years later, it's clear many have forgotten that day. They’ve forgotten the people who jumped 100-plus stories to their deaths. They've forgotten the 343 firefighters who died. They've forgotten the 2,800-plus dead. They've forgotten almost everything about that day.

But I haven’t. I can't. Having been so close, it's impossible to forget any facet of that day.

As we approach the 7th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, I ask, as I have at every other anniversary of this day, for people to take some time to recall the events that transpired. I ask that if you believe in a higher power, you offer up some kind of prayer for the victims.

Sept. 11, 2001 is a day no one should ever forget. It's a day you and I will remember for the rest of our lives. It's our very own version of JFK's assassination.

And wouldn't every one of us give just about anything to have never had a day like Sept. 11, 2001? I know I would—but that is impossible.

And because of it, I will always remember the sacrifices made by countless brave men and women that day.

Will you?


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