On the morning of 9/11, like so many other mornings, I entered school about 7:30 a.m., the weather was exceptionally bright and cool. I distinctly remember the beautifully clear, cloudless sky over New York harbor. It was a magnificent sight. I was a Basic Skills teacher assigned to P.S. 41 on Ocean and Wilkerson Avenue in Jersey City. P.S. 41 is at the top of Liberty State Park on Ocean Avenue. It has an outstanding view of the lower New York Bay and of course, at that time, the Twin Towers. From the northwest corner of the building, you could almost reach out and touch the towers and Battery Park. It seemed that close. As was my custom, after completing my last-minute prep for what I had planned that day, I went back to the first floor to a small room where the speech teacher had a pot of coffee and a small TV that was always on for the morning news reports.
Then It Happened
As I walked into the room the speech teacher told me that a plane just hit the World Trade buildings. “Was it a small private plane?” Thinking perhaps, a pilot’s heart attack. “No! It seems to be a commercial liner,” she answered. How could this happen? Then I realized that this, in all likelihood, was not an accident.
My wife is a registered nurse and was on her way to work when this happened. I called her at the adult day care center where she worked and she told me that they already had been instructed not to expect to leave work at the end of their shift, in the expectation of hundreds of injured. All medical personnel in every hospital as far away as New England were ordered to stand by for the expected injured. This expectation was never realized. There were no injured — only the dead.
On the third floor of the school building, teachers were standing outside their classrooms with tears running down their faces. These were the people who were really tough, who faced down everything the inner city had to offer. We could see what was happening, we knew that there were people dying. We could see, what we knew in our hearts, were humans who had to make the most horrible choice of burning to death slowly or jumping to their death. There was no escape. They were very small black dots falling from the burning building. Then the second plane hit.
The first building was burning profusely and most of us realized it couldn’t last much longer. We watched it come down and individually and as a group, we prayed for those who we knew were dying or trapped in the rubble and likely would face a lingering death. There was nothing we could do but pray for them.
Our students in the classrooms were also suffering. They knew from our reaction, as much as we tried to hide it, that something horrible and beyond belief was happening. Some of those kids had parents that worked downtown. Some of them worked in the World Trade buildings.
Very soon, Air National Guard jets were flying over the school heading across the harbor. They were flying over the city in expectation of another plane flying into what was left of the trade center or other buildings. You could see the missiles on their wings and I had every expectation that they also were carrying a full load of ammunition for machine guns. Understanding that an accident had recently occurred in a practice gun run in South Jersey where an elementary school near a bombing range was shot during a overrun in gunning practice, I suggested that we move all the students from the third floor to the first floor. We were that close to the harbor. The suggestion was denied because a assistant superintendent didn’t think it was necessary.
The Immediate Aftermath
All schools have procedures for these types of situations. In this case, very soon, people were coming into the school in droves to pick up their children because there was extreme fear and panic among the adults in the community. This in itself caused many problems.
Every child is supposed to bring home and return to school a form that establishes who can legally take the child from the school building in an emergency. It also should be changed if the people identified are changed. This form is kept on file and consulted in an emergency. We will only release a child to a person with proper identification who is named on the list. There is no other way to get a child out of the building in an emergency. The only two male teachers in this elementary school building were assigned to guard the school office and to only let into the office those who had proper identification. As you might imagine, this was not a popular and fun requirement, but we both made it through the day.
I will remember this day as one of the most horrendous days in my teaching career. I find it hard to believe that I watched 3,000 Americans killed before my eyes.
Over the next three days, my wife and I sat in the Hudson County Park on the Newark Bay in the evening and simply looked around us. We lived in Bayonne at the time and were very near the New Jersey Turnpike, the Newark Airport, numerous boat, train, bus and truck routes. We had become accustomed to the noises of daily life. When the common noise isn’t there, the sounds of silence are very, very loud and upsetting. Everything was closed, stopped or shut down. Nothing moved ... there was no traffic by car, boat, train or plane. The Turnpike bridge across the Newark Bay was empty. There was no movement at all.
In the months that followed, my wife and I, as a custom, would go for a walk in the evening. We liked to walk in the park by the Kill Van Kull near the Bayonne Bridge. Here we saw the barges that carried the rubble from the towers to a remote and protected site on Staten Island, where it was sorted to find body parts and personal identification.
The sadness continues to this day, and will never leave. Even thinking about it, I mist as I try to hold back the tears and control my anger. ... God has blessed America and I hope He or She will continue to do so.