I woke up at 6 a.m. on this late summer morning, listening to Curtis and Kuby, a talk show on 770 AM radio. I forced myself up out of bed to walk the dog. My wife, Susan, was already awake getting her daily consumption of public radio while scrambling for missing glasses, misplaced fanny pack and those purloined work keys. She had to be at her job by 8:00 a.m., while I had to be at work at 9:30.
With Sue gone I did some lesson plans and marked homework, part of my pedagogical mandate.
The radio was turned back on at 8:30. I was informed about how stunningly beautiful this cloudless day was. Suddenly, at 8:48 a.m., Curtis Sliwa frantically announces that a plane just hit one of the Twin Towers. Could this be a horrible accident? I could only imagine the ramifications. I suddenly began questioning the logic of an airplane, during daylight hours, ramming into the World Trade Center.
Shortly after nine, when I was in my car, driving to work, I heard another radio announcement about a second plane crashing into the towers. At this point I felt that this wasn’t an accident, but an attack on America. I feared the worse, thinking of terrorism and the Twin Towers being targeted again.
Arriving at the corner of Fort Greene Place and Dekalb Avenue at approximately 9:20 a.m., I saw an ominous cloud of black and grey smoke moving slowly across the skyline, from Lower Manhattan towards Brooklyn Tech. There was the smell of death, from a great conflagration (and nowhere to hide).
As I entered the building, the safety officer at the front door approached me and repeated what I already heard. My only response was how horrifying this act of terror was. While walking towards my office, I saw students and faculty milling about. There was a sense of collective shock, as if a funeral was about to begin and no one knew how to console the bereaved. As the senior dean I knew my office would be the hub of the school dealing with the aftermath of this catastrophic event.
The room was packed with students needing to be comforted. They were already in the hallway, waiting to use our phones. Cell phones were inoperative and only the land lines were working. Some of the students were crying and worried about their relatives who worked at or near the World Trade Center. Others simply needed to call home to reassure their parents that they were safe. Each of my colleagues in the office instinctively knew what to do. They calmed those who were frightened and offered a comforting shoulder to cry on. The Guidance Department were also available for crisis, and possibly grief, counseling.
As the morning wore on, I learned that the Pentagon was struck and a fourth plane crashed into rural Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh. I felt we were at war. Our own teachers aide, Ann Thomas, was concerned about her daughter, a police officer, who worked near the Twin Towers (and hasn’t been heard from).
By 10 o’clock, there was wave after wave of desperate parents wanting to take their children home. Most were patient, but…others, in their desperation, made unreasonable demands. My job became more difficult due to the fact that we didn’t have in our possession the current student schedules and could only find them by contacting the program office. The delays heightened the already existing tension.
By noon the office sent us copies of the programs, but…sadly, it was last term’s.
The steady stream of parents and students did not ebb. My own concerns had to be set aside. There was no respite, though I took time to contact my wife and son. Susan worked in a state mental hospital in Brooklyn and was ordered by Governor Pataki to remain there until further notice. Later, I found out that my niece escaped certain death when she arrived late for work at Aon Insurance and witnessed the plane striking the North Tower. Her company lost nearly 200 of its workers.
We had good news in the early afternoon, when Ann got word that her daughter was safe.
Reports on this on-going tragedy continued throughout the day. There were even speculations on the radio that the White House and Capitol were hit. Most of the city’s mass transit was shut down, presenting a real problem for our students. How would we get them home?
By 1:20 p.m., with no one covering my classes, I went to teach. What would I tell my charges; and how would I respond to their questions?
The students remained relatively calm. They were desperate to know what was happening to our city. We had studied the tragic events of antiquity in my Global History I class; but now we were living in real time (with an immediate and ever-present danger).
I tried to answer their inquiries, not knowing what was unfolding in Lower Manhattan (and around the city). Some of my students actually witnessed the towers being hit from the roof of the building (where gym classes were being held).
When my classes ended, I returned to the Dean’s Office. Before the students had exited I told them to see me if they have any concerns (including arranging a way for them to get home).
By 4 p.m. the flow of panic-stricken youngsters and desperate parents began to subside. I took a moment to contact my wife again. While speaking to her, I sensed the fear and trepidation she felt. When I asked about driving to meet her, she stated that the governor’s order, to remain on the job, was still in effect.
At around 6 o’clock, and with the building nearly empty, I decided to make my way home. Numbed by the day’s events, and wondering about the future of our city, I again turned the radio on and heard an update on this day of terror (and its consequences).
What had happened to America and what should we do? Where were our leaders and who should we follow?
Life would never be the same in this city. I could only imagine what would transpire in the weeks ahead.
As days turned into months and the school year came to an end, I still can recall the mantra by former Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki and President Bush, as they collectively proclaimed that we should go about our normal lives and shop to help rebuild the economy (it’s our patriotic duty).
What about the war on terror? What exactly is normal? Can my commitment to a free and democratic America be reduced to a shopping spree?
I think we have to re-define what normal is. It is clearly not the collapse of the Twin Towers, nor the partial destruction of the Pentagon. What is normal now is the constant fear of further terrorist attacks, reinforced by our government’s weekly warnings.
So many deaths and so much time for us to mourn, as we assess the impact of this orchestrated act of terror as it resonates throughout the globe. Nearly 3000 lives lost, and we, the living, must build from the ashes.