5th Grade Memories: Looking Back on September 11

Today, the ninth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001, is just like that very day: ordinary. We all got up and went to school or work, not giving any thought to what would soon unfold right before our eyes on national television. I was only ten years old at the time and in fifth grade, and looking back on it now, it is hard to believe just how long ago it was. That day has remained with me all this time, and my memories of the events of that day, and the days that followed will most likely stay with me forever.

We were only a week into school and sitting in home-room when the first plane struck. Naturally, no teachers were made aware of it until later in the morning, and as students, we were never made aware. The first time we sensed something was wrong was during our art class with a teacher nobody liked. We had only been going to that class for a few days and we grew to hate it. The teacher was old and mean, in an almost stereotypical manner, and never had any emotion. But something was not right with him that day. We walked into class and he was just sitting silently at his desk and then he stood up and announced to us that, “Today is going to be a sad day.” That was the only thing we heard about it while we remained in school until 3:20 P.M.

What we later found out was that the teachers were told of the events but were instructed to not tell any of the students. Many parents also came in, wanting to take their kids out of school, and it was allowed, no questions asked. During the day, kids were randomly being pulled out, but as fifth graders we could not imagine why. We sat there, still going about our day.

When school ended, I walked to the parking lot with everyone else, expecting to get on the bus. It was then when we were confronted by a large mass of worried parents, who converged on the group of kids. I saw my mom and dad, the latter which I was expecting to be at work. My Aunt Marie was also supposed to be visiting that day, and I was looking forward to seeing her, but she was not there. My parents both looked saddened, so automatically I thought that something happened to my Aunt. I asked if she was alright, and they told me she was. They did not elaborate on anything else on the car ride home. When I got home, it was then when they explained to me what happened. I could not grasp what I had just been told.

My ten year old mind tried to process what I heard: the World Trade Center was hit by planes and it was not an accident, but intentional. What does that even mean? I heard the words “terrorist attack” being thrown around on the television, but I did not know what that was. All I saw were shots of the streets of New York, covered with debris and dust. The video of the plane striking was replayed over and over again. So this is what happened? I sat there, for the rest of the day and the days to follow, mesmerized by what was unfolding on television. I did not understand half of what was being said, but I watched it anyway. Most of my friends at school said they did the same thing, while some parents would not even let them watch the news.

Later in the evening, before sunset, we headed down to Union Beach which overlooks New York City. It was there where we saw a thick cloud of smoke emanating from the sky line. I can even remember seeing it from my house, which is miles away from that location. There must have been hundreds of people there looking out on the horizon, some crying, and some praying; everyone was distressed. A small memorial along the guard rails of the beach had already begun to form. There were candles all over the place and pictures of missing loved ones from people who lived nearby.

It was this same place where my mom and Aunt came earlier in the day. The attacks happened before my Aunt left for our house, and she called my mom asking if she should still come, and of course, they decided the best place to be was with each other. So they went down to the beach, and even in the morning, a crowd was already forming.

My dad, who worked at the World Trade Center from 1979 to 2001, was let go when his company went out of business just months before the attack. He left work at his new job early to come be with my mom. She also worked there, from 1986 until 1990, before leaving after she was pregnant with me. My dad was there in 1993 for the first bombing, and he worked up on the 86th floor. Not knowing whether he survived that first attack at the time, my mom was in a panic. The first attack happened in the days before cell phones and the pay phones were jammed with people trying to call their loved ones. With me in her arms, at only two years old, she then got a phone call from a friend, saying she saw my dad pass in front of a television camera and was alive and well. He came home early the next morning, wearing a jacket stained with smoke and soot. The handkerchief he covered his nose with is located in a family photo album. He had to walk down 86 flights of stairs, in total darkness except for a small window at the end of every stair well. Had his company not went out of business, and he would have been at work, he would have most likely been killed in the attacks.

And so it was this same person who informed my mom of good news in 1993 to call in 2001 with the news of these attacks. “It’s the World Trade Center again!” she yelled into the phone at my mom, not able to express her feelings of what was happening any other way. My mom turned on the TV and saw one of the buildings up in smoke. She then ran downstairs to tell my grandma, who lived with us in a basement apartment at the time, when the second plane struck. My mom waited in the living room, and my grandma came out of the bedroom just in time to see the second plane hit.

At the same time, my friend Jeff Huber was informed at his job in Woodbridge what had happened. He admits that he laughed when he heard the news of the first plane hitting, because he thought it was someone in a private plane trying to fly between the two towers, something that was actually (and stupidly) allowed for many years. But when he heard a second plane hit, his reaction went from laughs to shock. For the first time, everyone realized it was no accident. The nation was under attack.

In the next few days after the attacks, I attended many vigils and services in my town of Hazlet and the neighboring Union Beach. It was simply amazing at how united we all were. Complete strangers were consoling one another, and those who worked or had dealings in the towers were telling stories of what used to be. The fifth graders of Beers Street Elementary School were allowed to talk about it as much as we wanted, to prevent it from building up inside of us. I remember being given paper in English class so we could draw pictures of what was going through our heads. We talked about it in class, we talked about it at lunch, and we talked about it after school.

Everyone was completely obsessed with what happened, and worried if any more attacks were coming. Stories then were revealed of people we knew, losing parents or close friends in the attacks, and that was when it really hit home, days later. And so the days passed, and then the months, and the years. The attacks of September 11 were eventually put out of our minds. I will not say they were forgotten, because it would have been impossible, but we needed to move on in a sense, and get back to our lives which at the time, the biggest worry we had was what game we were going to play during recess.

It is now nine years later, and I try not to think about that day except for when it gets close to the anniversary. There will be countless specials on television today, and in the days ahead and behind. But none of them will come close to affecting me in the way my own memories have.

For our grandparents, they had the attacks on Pearl Harbor, our parents had the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and our generation has the September 11 attacks. I can only hope that we will never forget the events of that day, not only the attack, but how we, as Americans, responded. Let us never forget the brave firefighters, policemen, and EMT’s who rushed towards the burning buildings when everyone else was running away. They are heroes. Let us also never forget the thousands of innocent men and women who were killed that day, and everyone who lost a mother, father, brother, sister, or friend.

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8 thoughts on “5th Grade Memories: Looking Back on September 11

  1. Jumbo

    Greg,

    Very well captured. I was just short of six years old when JFK was assassinated so I really didn’t understand what was going on at that time. As a native New Yorker I had been in the WTC countless times and my sister-in-law as well as many work associates used the PATH station there on a daily basis. In 1996 I applied for a job with the Port Authority and I would have been on the 72nd floor of 1 WTC. I did not get that job and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

    At first I thought it was a hoax like the 1938 Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. I was not totally convinced it occurred until I was driving home that afternoon and saw smoke where the towers used to stand. It was the second day of work at the federal agency I work for now. Ironically they were formerly located at 90 Church Street, directly across the street from Ground Zero and it took two years to clear the absestos out of that building after the towers fell.

    Sadly I think a lot of people who did not lose relatives or loved ones are starting to forget what transpired that day, as evidenced by the fact there are many supporters for the proposed mosque on Park Place. We are constantly told we need to be politically correct and show tolerance for other religions and cultures, but this proposal shows no tolerance and what is most bothersome is that many of our elected officials are not standing with the majority of New Yorkers and Americans who oppose construction of a mosque at this location. We must give credit to the NYPD and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies who thus far have thwarted further terrorist plots and we must remain vigilant to make sure the atrocity of 9/11 never happens again.

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  3. Rebecca

    This article took me back to that day. It’s very well-written. One memory I have is of people being interviewed or photographed out on the street, and holding up pictures of missing family members. Even with the news of what happened, they had this glimmer of hope that their loved one would appear somehow unharmed. Even to this day, I cannot think of it without feeling as though I have this big lump in my throat.

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  5. David

    I have to say this is one of the most touching and emotional pieces that I have read yet. I realize that I am posting this almost a year after it was written, but I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your memories and feelings with the world! May GOD bless America and all the Service Men and Women who protect it both home front and abroad!

    1. Thanks for reading and your comment. Though it was written a year ago, something like this is timeless. I plan on bringing this up again on the 10th anniversary, coming in two weeks.

      Greg

  6. Julie

    This is the first time I am reading this and seeing your memories of this tragic day. I am in tears knowing what you experienced as a young child. I still have the picture you did of the towers being hit that you mentioned. You don’t know how hard a decision it was for us as parents to leave you in school that day. We just wanted you to have a few more hours of innocence.

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