Remember 9/11: 20 Years Later

Academic Magnet Teachers Recount Their 9/11 Experiences

Remember 9/11: 20 Years Later

Last Saturday marked the twentieth anniversary of the devastating terrorist attacks that took place in New York City. If you are unaware what I’m talking about, the September 11 attacks were a series of airline hijackings and suicide attacks by 19 militants associated with the terrorist group Al-Queda. These were the most deadly attacks ever to take place on American soil. The first of the attacks was when American Airline flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center; shortly thereafter, a second plane flewinto the South Tower (both departed from Boston). The third plane, American Airlines flight 77 struck the southwest wing of the Pentagon (departed from Washington-Dulles Airport). In the next hour, American Airlines flight 93 (departed from Newark) crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside after its passengers attempted to overpower the assailants. 29 minutes later, both the North and South towers collapsed, covering New York City as if it were ravaged by a dust storm. Some 2,983 people were killed in New York, 184 in the Pentagon, and 40 in Pennsylvania. Additionally, over 400 first responders died attempting to rescue others. For those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we are forever indebted.

At Magnet, we actually have several staff members who had a close connection to New York City on that fateful day. The four staff members  are Mrs. Colón,  Mrs. Grayson, and Mr. Perlmutter.  Ms Callicott had left New York City several months before.

First, I spoke with Mrs. Colón about her experience on September 11. Recounting that morning, she said “It was a really beautiful day. I was teaching in the Bronx, at a school called PS 83 on Rhinelander Avenue. At the time I taught middle schoolers.” Her day started off like most others, on their regular morning commute to work. When the news of the first plane hitting the North Tower broke, she found out from a colleague. “Bill Iannone, he enters my classroom and says, ‘Linda, we just got attacked, the towers are going down, and there’s another plane they’ve found. Go to Mrs. Greco’s room, you can see the tower.’ So I went over and saw there was smoke on one of the towers. I GASPED! Mrs. Greco pulled down the shades and we all left with heavy hearts.” I asked her to recount the impact it had on her at that moment. This was one of the tougher questions I asked the staff. She told me that “Parents were coming to the school to pick up their kids; we were there till 11:30 at night. The subways were not working; no one’s cell phone was working, and people were walking home.” While  waiting she couldn’t help but ruminate on what had happened. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’. Mrs Colón stayed at that school all day with her students, “we prayed and hoped that each student would have a parent to come pick them up. We tried not to scare the kids. It was crazy.” My last question, which was synonymous with all the staff I interviewed, was “How do you cope 20 years later?”. I thought Mrs. Colón gave me a very interesting answer. She stated, “I am on high alert when we have an issue in school; I become damage control. It is a constant reminder; it is a little like PTSD. I don’t think about it once a year, but much more often. I am very patriotic, being attacked that way, I had gone to the restaurant, Windows of the World in the towers for my birthday, and a month later they were gone.” It is incredibly eye-opening to see how quickly things can change.

 Mrs. Grayson was also teaching in New York City on 9/11. Her day started very well, as she took the subway to work, she reflected on her date the night before. Thinking “He was very nice and entertaining, and I hoped we would continue to go on dates in the future.” She described the day as “clear without a cloud in the sky.” Mrs. Grayson heard about the attack on the North Tower in her first class stating, “A student walked into my class 20 minutes late, her name was Monica De La Cruz; I’ll never forget her. I gave her a hard time, until she told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At first I thought it might have been a small propeller plane or something.” She continued to teach her class until someone wheeled a TV in on a cart, where she and her students watched the second plane strike the South Tower just moments later. Mrs. Grayson also commented, “the news showed crowds of Palestinians cheering halfway across the world; this angered my students and they began to verbalize their resentment of them.” She then went on to explain to me that she was angry at the news broadcast for making the assumption that the Palestinian state had caused the attack when “we really didn’t know what just happened.” Eventually, she was able to call her family; she also received her first ever text message  which was from her father saying, “Please call.” She described the moment she saw the second plane hit as, “very sobering, and I remember feeling that as Americans we needed to band together as a country. I believed unity would help America get through this tragedy.”  She told me that over the next few days, people just seemed nicer, because “we were all in this together”. Now, 20 years later Mrs. Grayson is able to cope in some similar and different ways than others, claiming “Sometimes it’s tough. Everytime I hear an airplane in the sky, I have to look. My heart races and I have a small moment of panic. I still to this day have a hard time watching footage of it. Every year when they show the tapes, I have a hard time watching the retrospective shows.” One month later to the day (October 11) she would board a plane in a new America. Out of all of this tragedy however, Mrs. Grayson decided, “It was a moment where you realize what is important in your life.. A year-and-a-half later she would marry the man she went on that date with the night before it happened.

Ms. Callicott was not actually in New York on 9/11. She had only recently left New York City in May of 2001 to teach her first year at the Academic Magnet. She said that “I spent a lot of time in the basement shopping complex of the World Trade Center tower complex. There was a Borders Bookstore that I would take my toddler son to. There was a wonderful tree sculpture in the store that we would hang out under. We would go in the early morning for snacks there too–the same time that the towers were hit.” It is crazy to think that had she stayed in the city, her life might have been drastically different. She explained to me that, “One of the more poignant memories of what [friends] told me was of finding ashes and office paperwork strewn all over the Brooklyn Promenade (near where she lived) and the horrible sounds when the planes impacted the buildings.. When she heard of the attacks she was teaching her first period class, when a student came by and told her to turn on the TV; this was just in time to witness the first tower get swallowed by flames, ash, and dust. Her final remark to me was “I will never forget that day.” 

Finally, I spoke with Mr. Perlmutter. His life, like many others was greatly altered on 9/11.

  1. What do you remember about that morning? (Before the attacks)  I was in downtown NYC at 1 Battery Park Plaza. My office was on the 25th floor looking North over Manhattan about 6 or 8 blocks from the WTC.  I had a great view out of that office window. I remember it was a beautiful day, perfect blue skies, great weather. My office was about ½ full, because it was before 9am and not everyone had made it into the office yet. 
  2. How did you find out about the attacks? “I saw it happen out my office window”
  3. How did the attacks affect you at the time? “When the first plane hit the North tower, we felt a slight shaking, and looked up. We all stopped everything we were doing in the office, folks came rushing to my side of the building to look at the tower, which had a jagged hole towards the top and black smoke pouring out of it. We never lost electricity or anything and time just sort of stood still as we watched from my window for the next 15 minutes. At that point, I didn’t know it was a terrorist attack. I thought it was an accident. It wasn’t unusual to see planes flying pretty low over Manhattan. At 9:03, we all saw the second plane hit and it struck the building with such force that the other side of the tower exploded outward, and our power blinked out, then on, then out and stayed out. When the second plane hit the South Tower was when we all knew it was not an accident. None of us could believe what we were seeing. We evacuated out office building, down 25 flights of stairs
  4. How do you cope 20 years later? “When I think about that day now, and I haven’t even shared most of it with you, I think that I am just grateful. Even when I have problems and stressors, I am grateful for them. I am grateful that I get to face the problems I get to face. Had it not been for that day, my whole life would be different- I would not have become a teacher, I would probably not be sitting here with you now- The whole trajectory of my life was impacted by 15 minutes that morning. I suppose that even though that was the darkest, hardest morning of my life, it taught me humility and gratitude. 

For a lot of Magnet students, it is tough to grasp the sheer magnitude of what happened on September 11, 2001, because we weren’t born yet. After speaking with all of these teachers, my eyes were opened to the true tragedy that took place on that day. I don’t think I will ever be able to un-hear some of the things that were said to me, but maybe that is a good thing. It helped me develop an appreciation for those who protect our country, inside and out. It helped me realize why America is how it is today. I think most importantly, it showed me how a nation could come together and support each other, something that is more important than ever these days.