9/11 was my first full day of classes as a freshmen at Stuyvesant High School, which is a five-minute walk from the World Trade Center.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was attending my first full day of classes as a freshmen at Stuyvesant High School. It was second period, and I was sitting in the seventh floor hallway, waiting for Freshmen Composition to start. I hadn’t yet gotten a hang of my commute from Jackson Heights to downtown Manhattan or the schedule of periods at Stuy, so I was 20 minutes early, listening to System of a Down’s “Jet Pilot” on my C.D. player when Principal Teitel came on the loudspeaker. I removed my headphones in time to catch the end of the announcement:
Do not be alarmed. A small plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.
I ran over to the windows next to the escalators. Looking out onto downtown, nothing seemed amiss. I went down a flight of stairs and over to the library for a better view, but there was a tangle of students in front of the main window.
“Arvind!” Emil called out to me from the edge of the crowd. We had met two days ago during gym. He motioned for me to follow him.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked him as we made our way through the stacks. We stopped in front of another window, and Emil pulled up the blinds.
“Small plane?” I asked myself and tried to understand how those words related to the tower before me, a colossal flaming hole in the center of the building, glittering pieces of glass falling from it to the streets.
“That’s a really big hole for a small plane,” I said to Emil.
“Maybe there was a bomb in the plane,” he said. “I heard some kids say that there was an explosion a little while after the plane crashed. The plane could’ve crashed into the tower and then a bomb inside the plane could’ve gone off.”
“Maybe that was just the jet-fuel igniting?”
“Maybe … I don’t know.”
Principal Teitel returned on the loudspeaker:
Attention students and faculty: Please report to your homerooms immediately. I repeat: Students and faculty are to report to their homerooms immediately.
I took the escalator down to the fourth floor and made my way to my homeroom. Students and faculty were running through the hallways. (A few students were also on the floor; I later learned that some the kids at Stuy had parents who worked in or around the World Trade Center.)
My homeroom was in chaos. We barely knew each other, but the conversation was nonstop:
“My history teacher told us the second tower was hit by a plane too.”
“Eugene told me that there were also bombs in the towers.”
“I heard it was just a bomb.”
Our homeroom teacher, Mr. Colon, barged into the classroom.
“Everyone take your seats and be quiet,” he said. He pulled down the blinds, climbed on top of the desk at the front of the room and switched the television on. He flipped to breaking news and raised the volume loud enough to drown out the noise from the hallway.
We’re just getting word that another plane has crashed into the Pentagon — then nothing. There was a crash from outside the windows, the floor trembled, and the lights went out.
“I think one of the towers fell,” Mr. Colon said. The lights flickered back on, and he explained that Stuyvesant luckily had its own back-up generator, as the building was meant to double as an emergency response center. (After 9/11, Stuyvesant, undamaged in the attack, was used as an operations base for rescue and recovery workers.)
Principal Teitel came on the loudspeaker again:
Homeroom teachers are to escort their classes to the northern exits. All students and faculty are to evacuate the building immediately.
The entire class was to its feet before the announcement had ended. We left the classroom with Mr. Colon leading us, and — along with the rest of Stuyvesant — took the closest stairwells down to the first floor.
The only moment when panic really hit was when we exited the building. As students and faculty poured out of the Hudson River exit, screams shot out from of the crowd. An enormous cloud of — smoke? dust? pulverized building materials? — pushed towards us, and everyone began to stampede. We ran up the West Side Highway, making our way north along Manhattan’s western edge.
I lost track of Mr. Colon. (I later heard stories from friends about being abandoned by their teachers, wandering the city for hours before walking home alone across one of the bridges; one of my friends from Staten Island even ended up taking a ferry to New Jersey because there was no other way for him to get home.) I stuck with a few kids from my homeroom and, because the subways had been shut down and the buses stopped, walked up to midtown.
The trek was post apocalyptic in feeling but with all of the people still there. There were no cars on the road except for the flood of emergency vehicles heading southbound on the West Side Highway. Everything was closed. Pay phones weren’t working. A stranger offered us his cellphone to call our parents, but even his service was out. At one point, we crowded around another stranger’s radio in the middle of the street, trying to tune into the news. We picked up a signal, but no one really knew anything.
Anna, one of the girls from my homeroom, had family friends with an apartment close to Grand Central, so we headed there. The family welcomed all six or seven of us in, fed us and let us use their telephone. I called my mother, who explained that there was no way to get into Manhattan because the police had blockaded every route into the city. (She and my step-father spent the day shuttling home people who had walked across the Queensboro Bridge; my father, living in New Jersey, attempted to walk in from the Lincoln Tunnel, but was turned back.)
I stayed at that family’s apartment until around five o’clock, when the 7 train started running again. It was crowded the entire way, but no one complained. Not many people said anything at all. I got off at Junction Boulevard, where from the elevated platform you could see still see thick black smoke billowing from downtown.
Originally published on The Airship.