I live on the west bank of the Hudson River, directly across from Manhattan. This was the view of the NY skyline as I knew it until the morning of September 11, 2001.
The weather that day was spectacular, a cloudless bright blue sky. I worked in the Central Office of the West New York School District, and the new school year was barely a week old. A few minutes before 9:00, my colleague Armando Riverol phoned me to say, “Turn on your television. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
Like many, I assumed a small plane had veered off course, resulting in a tragic accident for the pilot and his passengers. When I turned on the TV, news footage showed the North Tower with thick, black smoke billowing from its upper floors. I felt confused. Could a small plane do that much damage? The reporters tried in vain to explain what we were all watching. By now, the staff and students in our riverside school district watched from their windows, a bird’s eye view of the unfolding events. Others in my office joined me in the conference room, all eyes glued to the TV. At shortly past 9:00, a huge fireball erupted on the screen. What was it? Had the impact triggered another explosion in the North Tower? It took a few minutes for all of us to understand. Another plane had hit the South Tower. In the blink of an eye, every single one of us understood. The World Trade Center had been deliberately attacked.
Our shock quickly turned to action. We were only a few short miles from the Towers. The district had nearly 10,000 students and staff to keep safe. Schools were placed in lockdown, all senior staff was summoned to Central Office. In that tiny conference room, gathered around one small television, we watched the burning towers as we set plans in motion to keep everyone safe.
The news continued to pour across the screen, and each new report was more and more terrifying. The Pentagon had been hit, and United Flight 93, likely headed to the Capitol, had crashed in a field in Shanksville, PA. In that moment, I felt terror unlike anything I had known in my life. The United States was under attack. What would be the next target? From our school buildings, we heard the roar of jet engines. Were those US fighter planes, or were we about to be attacked?
Everyone knows what happened next. One tower collapsed, then the other. I so clearly remember the words of NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw: “The World Trade Center is no more.” My body was in shock. How could this be? These 2 mammoth steel and glass pillars of the skyline, gone? I felt numb. But for the fact that I had others to consider, I just might have collapsed in grief and despair.
Many heroes were crowned that day and in the days after. But I remember the heroes of my school district. The teachers and school staff who tried to keep their students calm while they faced their own terror, the food service director, Sal Valenza, who along with his staff found a way to feed 10,000 children and adults. The principals and assistant principals, who like the captain of the Titanic, stayed on duty until the last child had been safely reunited with anxious, weeping parents. Many of our staff had young children of their own, frightened and waiting to be reunited. But our dedicated crew stayed to care for their students, and in my book, they are unsung heroes of September 11. My deepest gratitude goes out to each and every one.
Even now, as I recall the events of that day, and the days and weeks after, the memories and emotions flood back as crystal clear as 20 years ago. We often hear the plea, “Never forget.” No, I never will…
In loving memory of those who perished on 9/11, and with heartfelt condolences for the grieving loved ones who mourn their passing...