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Her Story: I Saw the Twin Towers Fall on 9/11

When I was 8 years old, I lost my innocence. On the same day, I learned the power of human kindness.

Both of these things happened on September 11, 2001.


My life up until that day was very routine—well, as routine as a childhood in downtown Manhattan could possibly be. My school year had begun three days earlier, and I had great feelings about the third grade. I had the same teacher from the year before and the same classmates in the same school, so the typical first- week-of–school jitters didn’t really faze me.  

My dad handed me my lunch that morning and told me that my mother was at the airport going on a short business trip. That was nothing unusual, as she often went on short trips for work. I nodded and kissed him goodbye as he set out to his New Jersey office.

The morning started, as every Tuesday did, with quiet reading time. It was quiet until a little before 9 a.m., when we heard an abnormally loud rumble. I turned to see a plane flying by, the right wing looking like it could easily touch the window of my classroom located on Chambers and Greenwich streets, just a few blocks from what is now known as Ground Zero.  

As curious eight-year-olds tend to do at the sound of loud noises, we all ran to the window to see what this “cool, big plane” was doing outside of our building. Suddenly the room fell silent as we tried to understand what we were observing. After a few seconds of large-eyed stares, a classmate yelled, “One of the Twin Towers is on fire!”

I immediately began to wonder how this plane had accidentally crashed into the building. The bliss of my childhood naivety would come to an end within minutes as I slowly began to learn that an event like this could occur intentionally.  I watched it happen, but as my classmate yelled, I was forced to accept what I had seen but could not comprehend: a terrorist attack.

“Everyone sit down,” my teacher said in a surprisingly calm voice. “You all still have 20 minutes of reading time left. You shouldn’t be over there.” She looked out the window quickly before closing the shade, blocking any views of the collapsing buildings that were located just a couple of blocks from where we currently stood in shock. We all sat with our books as she walked to the phone and stood there waiting for a call, waiting to be told how to explain the atrocity we had just witnessed.

After my teacher got a call, we moved as a student body silently to the school’s gymnasium and then to the basement, a room I didn’t know existed until this point. Parents flooded in, grabbing their children and running. Through their cries, I could hear that another plane had hit the second tower. One by one, children ran away with their parents. Suddenly, my heart stopped. My mom was at the airport when I left for school this morning. What if she was on one of those planes?


As my panic set in, I saw Mike, my best friend Julia’s father. He had picked her up nearly 20 minutes earlier and she was an only child, so I looked at him in confusion. Why would he ever come back here? I quickly found my answer as he grabbed my hand. “Let’s go,” he said. “Your parents are in New Jersey, so you’re coming with me.”

In the psychology class I took my freshman year of college, the professor spoke about how there is no such thing as true selflessness because “people do kind acts to feel good about themselves.” As he spoke about this, all I could think about was Mike saving my life that day, and how if this couldn’t be defined as a selfless act, we need to rework the definition.

When Mike, Julia and I got outside of the school, I looked up where the Twin Towers were crumbling, engulfed in flames. Through the smoke and air full of soot, I watched as bodies fell through the sky. My body moved with my best friend and her father, but I felt completely numb inside. It would take me years to process what I was seeing, but at that moment I only knew one thing: I had to run.

As we moved through the tears, screams and smoke, I felt my first twinge of relief that day as I saw my older brother, Lee, coming in my direction. He was in middle school about three blocks from my elementary school, and by a stroke of luck I’ll never truly understand, we found each other amid a city of gut-wrenching chaos. We didn’t say anything. He grabbed my hand and we continued to run.

As we ran about 15 blocks, we saw a mob of people crowded around a television that was broadcasting the attacks. Their faces were pale and lifeless, as mine probably was as well. They stared at the screen as if they needed to verify that what was happening right behind them was a reality. My brother spoke for the first time that morning as he pointed to the sky and screamed, “It’s right there, run!” before he turned to me and said, “It’s going to be okay, I promise. We’re safe.” The crowd, filled with people probably three times his age, looked at him for a moment before agreeing and quickly scattering away. This moment was definitive of the person Lee would grow up to be: always upfront, reassuring and concerned for the well-beings of others.  

We ran far enough uptown to feel a little bit safer and went into Julia’s mom’s office, where her mom met us. I could tell she had been running as well, as she entered, breathing heavily, with wounded feet. I glanced out the window at the cloud of smoke in the air where the two towers had stood for the entirety of my life. They had been the backdrop for my childhood. They had stood tall behind the park I played soccer in, the movie theater my family went to on weekends and the sandwich place I went to for my after-school snack. They were always there, and I had never really stopped to look at them, but now they were gone.

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The next day, my brother and I were reunited with our parents. Mike had told Lee and I that our parents were both fine, but the visual reassurance that my mom had not gotten on a plane that morning was a type of relief I had never felt before. They hugged us, and in an effort to keep things as normal as possible, took us to get pizza on Long Island. Nobody would be allowed to enter New York City for days, they told us later.

In the pizza place, there was a donation bucket set up. I turned to my parents and asked, “Can we give to the victims?” My mother kissed my head and put a 10-dollar bill in the jar. My father turned to me and said, “When we get home, why don’t we go through our clothes and donate them to people who lost their belongings?” I nodded, excited to help.

Years later, my mom still tells me this story and now adds that she didn’t have the heart to mention that we wouldn’t be allowed to live in our apartment (just a few blocks from Ground Zero) for months. She also didn’t mention that my brother and I would bounce from school to school while we couldn’t go back to our own, and that she couldn’t return to her office building for almost a year. I had never considered at that point that we, too, were victims of the attack.

The next year was completely different from the routine I had grown used to. Home had no definition as we lived in hotels and friends’ houses. School became a place of hundreds of students crowded into one room. Our teachers taught the day as normally as they could, but we were all too distracted with trying to figure out what we were doing here, why the Towers had been attacked, why we had to sit on top of each other now instead of in our own seats in the luxurious school we had always loved.  


Schools from all over the world sent us gifts ranging from thoughtful notes to stuffed animals, which of course were now carefully inspected before we could have them. Celebrities ranging from Jackie Chan to Wyclef Jean came to visit our school and sign autographs. Looking back, it was very clear that the school system was in a panic about how to handle the fact that a group of children ranging from 6 to 11 years old had just personally witnessed one of the most tragic events in our nation’s history.

Very slowly, things returned to normal, but it was a new kind of normal. I got to go back to school in the spring of 2002, but it was no longer the same school. Parents feared about their children playing in the schoolyard because the air was still considered toxic, and the window where I liked to sit to do my quiet reading now made my heart beat fast as the images of the attack seemed to play on repeat in my head. When I had sat in this spot six months earlier, the word “terrorist” was not in my vocabulary. Now it was everywhere I went. It was on every television channel, in casual conversations, in newspapers, books and magazines. I understood very quickly that even though we were back to “normal” in our school and homes, we could never return to the normality of childhood innocence.

New York in general became a place of simultaneous support and speculation. We loved each other as New Yorkers and didn’t trust anyone else. It seemed that all crime was now connected to the attacks, and as war became a large topic of debate and divide, it was clear, even at 8 years old, that I would never get the answer to the question on constant repeat in my head: Why did this happen? This was one of the darkest and also one of the most revolutionary times I have ever seen.


To tell this story at the beginning of 2014 may seem a bit strange. Usually stories like this one surface around the anniversary of the attack each year. I am reminded of this day every time I am home, when I look up to see the new Freedom Tower from almost any point in the city. However, the start of a new year is when I think most about 9/11. After the excitement of New Year’s Eve fades, I begin to think about resolutions. While many people resolve to go to the gym more or take up a new hobby (both things that should definitely be added to my list!) my resolution is always the same: to be like the people who taught me about the beauty of humanity that day.

This year, I resolve to be like my third-grade teacher and keep calm for the sake of others. I resolve to be like Mike, the man who saved my life, and always think of and take care of those around me, even in the moments when I am concerned for myself. I resolve to be like my parents and always give to those in need, whether I give a dollar or a hug, even in times when I may be in need of those things myself.

September 11, 2001 was the day I lost my innocence. It was also the day that I saw the way emotional support can change lives.  When I think of 9/11, the images of bodies falling and smoke in the air flash through my mind, but the memories from that day that I truly dwell on are the ones of the people who helped me get through it. As I think about this day, as I do at the start of every year, I resolve to give people the security of faith in humanity in even the darkest of times, because from this personal experience, I know that a kind act, no matter how small or large, can change history—whether it be the world’s or simply one person’s.

 

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Abby is a University of Delaware graduate with a degree in English. Along with writing for Her Campus as an entertainment blogger, she has interned in the editorial departments of Cosmopolitan and Us Weekly. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram!