By Kevin Canessa Jr.(Continued from Part I and Part II from the other day)
Part III of III
Once the TV went out, and we prayed, I wasn't sure what to do next. We tried to put on the TV again -- and WCBS was somehow back on the air using an auxiliary antenna from the top of the Empire State Building. Their regular antenna was atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center -- and it wasn't functioning.
Along came the vice principal, the late-Brother James Redunski, FMS, who had told me the City of Jersey City recommended all TVs be shut off. So I obliged. He also said we were to try to make the day one like any other. So for a moment, I got the kids to take out their syllabus again -- and began to review it with them.
Now this is where that story from Sept. 7 comes into play. It was about 9:15 a.m. when the sirens began to blare. Non stop. Whether it was firetrucks from Jersey City, the Port Authority Police Department or from tons of municipalities throughout New Jersey, one thing was clear: Emergency-services units from all over the state were on their way into Lower Manhattan to help.
One thing was for sure. It was hard as hell to go on as if nothing happened.
But I did.
In fact, in second period, I even gave my French I students a vocabulary quiz. And they all got 100s. I'll never forget that.
Fast-forward to third period. It was 10:15 a.m. Michael B. McNutt, the dean of seniors, came into my room to tell me that both towers had been hit by airplanes and that the south tower collapsed. Then he told me the Pentagon had been struck. I was overcome with such fear that my hands turned to a clamy sweat. And somehow, I kept it together. Somehow.
It was in third period that the first mom came to pick up her daughter. It was Diane Colon, mom of senior Francesa Bernarbe.
"I'm taking her the hell away from here," Mrs. Colon told me. "Be as safe as you can, Canessa."
Then, minute by minute, more and more parents and guardians came in to get their kids. Toni Bollhardt, the school's exec assistant, would call the names one-by-one. Only those whose families came would be allowed out of the building. For the rest, it was 100 percent lockdown. No one in, no one out. Except for teachers.
|The rubble at Ground Zero -- 11 Sept. 2001|
They were covered with an ashen-like substance, which we now know is the dust from the collapse of the Towers. Some were bloodied all over. Others had no shoes. It was mass chaos.
I walked away from the curb, and this is when the shit hit the fan beyond reason.
John Grutkowski, the dean of students, approached me and told me 1010 WINS had reported a nuclear missile was heading toward New York City. My stomach dropped.
I sat in my car, and turned on WFAN, because I needed to hear familiar voices in Don Imus, Chuck McCord and Sid. Don and Chuck were still on the air. After a few moments, I had to turn off the radio, because all I could think of was how it was going to feel when the missile hit.
Would we burn? Would we vaporize? Would we suffer?
Then I took a walk closer to the waterfront, only to smell the smoke which had now reached Jersey City. It was a smell I can't forget, because it wasn't just burning paper and melting steel -- clearly, it was the scents of burning flesh, carnage that no one could begin to imagine.
The rising smoke from the Towerless pit was the most unsettling sight I've ever seen -- this holds true to today.
Grutkowski made me swear I wouldn't tell the kids about the alleged nuke and I agreed at that moment.
But fifth period would soon arrive, another senior religion seminar course, and there wasn't a chance in hell of me keeping that news secret from those kids. They were all adults -- and if they were going to die, they at least had the right to prepare for it.
I immediately told them -- and despite the admin's call to keep the day a regular day, I'd all but given up. So did the kids who remained. They tried -- to no avail -- to call home. Cell service was scant. Some got through. Others couldn't.
One kid's mom was in the area -- and he was a member of the overall State Champion Basketball Friars. One of the best ball players I've ever known. He went on to Syracuse where he had a four-year run like few others have. But that day, not being able to get in touch with his mom, he cried a lot. We all cried with him.
The unknown was unbearable. What was next? Were there 20,000 dead people in New York? How would kids get home if parents didn't come to get them? It was surreal.
We got through that day, somehow. But Downtown Jersey City seemed more like Jerusalem. There were National Guardsmen on every corner of every street within view of the school. When I left at 2 p.m. to go get a cup of coffee, I had to show my ID to the guardsman to walk one block. When I got to the next corner -- where Lucy's Cafe was -- I had to give another guardsman my ID, also.
Had to repeat the process on the way back.
The last kid left St. Anthony's that day at 4 p.m. Those kids who came from Manhattan or Brooklyn stayed with teachers who lived in Jersey City that night. While those in Manhattan could get back to Jersey City by ferry, entry into Manhattan from Jersey was prohibited.
I got in my car and had to take a maze to get home. All the while, all I could see in my rear-view mirror was smoke. All I could smell was the smoke. Charles McCord's voice was the only means of comfort I had.
The normal 20-minute ride home to Kearny took two hours. The traffic heading into Jersey City as I left it was surreal. It was backed up from the Wittpenn Bridge all the way through Harrison on Route 280. Those people likely had been there since 9 or 10 a.m., with no way of turning around. It was one of the most remarkable sights I'd seen that day.
When I got home and walked up my stairs at about 6 p.m., I grabbed my grandma and uncle Matty and hugged them as though there were no tomorrow. We had a bird's eye view of the Manhattan skyline from our living room window -- and the smoke was still a sickening scene.
I'll never forget later that night, when I went to the deli for a cup of coffee, that a man was furious the Atlantic City bus had been cancelled for the next day. I recall looking at him and asking him what the fuck was wrong with him?
He walked away, and I did, too. I had to.
I got back into my car, cried like a baby, and finally went home for the night.
The next day, I was an eyewitness to the disaster on C-SPAN with Brian Lamb. It was the most trying 24 hours of my life.
Like you, I was forever changed that day. I was 5 miles away from the greatest tragedy to ever hit our shores. And somehow, I didn't die -- even though I thought for sure I would.
What I will never forget are the sounds, the people covered in soot -- and those who died that day. All 2,823 or so who did. Ten years later, I feel the same today as I did those days.
We can never, ever forget what happened that day.
When we do, we are seriously doomed to repeat it.