Skip to main content
Full Menu

Catherine Heron

I teach at the High School of Economics & Finance, which is located at 100 Trinity Place, one tiny block away from where the World Trade Center complex stood.  That morning I got off the train at Chambers St. and, as was my usual routine, I made my way through the concourse level of the World Trade Center complex on my way to work.  It was early, so I stopped at the ATM at 5 WTC and made a deposit.  I continued up and out, crossed the street, stopped and ordered a cup of coffee to go, and proceeded along, arriving at school at approximately 8:30 a.m. I liked walking through the WTC because I was protected from the elements for most of my trip from the train station.  Besides, I loved watching the hundreds of commuters on the concourse level criss-cross as they made their way to their destinations.  I always marveled at the design of the space that allowed so many to occupy such a relatively small area without bumping in to each other.

In addition to being a math teacher, I am also the program chairperson for the school.  I am responsible for creating schedules and programs for all the students and teachers at our school.  The fall term had just started, so I was in the Program Office, busy making program changes to students’ schedules when I heard a loud boom and saw the lights flicker.  I looked out the window, which faces away from the WTC, and saw things flying in the air.  It reminded me somewhat of the way it looks when we have a ticker tape parade on Broadway, which is one block away.  During the parade, all kinds of things float through the air in addition to confetti.   I went to the window and tried to look down at the street to see what might be happening.  Since my office was on the ninth floor, it was difficult to see.  I could see people running.  They were mostly heading towards Broadway.  I tried opening the window to get a better view, but just then the school secretary came on the public address system and announced that we were having a shelter drill.  This meant that if we were in a room with windows, we were to immediately proceed to the hallway and wait there for further instructions.  At our school, only the top three floors (eighth to tenth) have windows.  The program assistant, Mia, and I immediately left our office and went into the hallway.  There we met up with a few more staff members from the Guidance Office and two students.

We waited in silence for what seemed like an eternity to find out what was happening.  Every so often a dean would come up with a walkie-talkie, and we could overhear lots of noises coming from the first floor.  After a while, one of the students who had a portable player turned it on.  I saw his eyes grow large as he said that an airplane had run into the WTC.  My immediate vision was that of a little plane with an inept or drunk pilot.  On reflection, I felt I was being too harsh, so I adjusted my thoughts visualizing instead a pilot who might have had a heart attack or something.  I wanted to get back to my program changes, so I went back into the office, even though we had not been dismissed.  I was in there about two minutes when I heard an even louder boom than the first, and again the lights flickered.  I ran out of the office, and this time I closed the door.  After a few minutes, the student with the radio announced that the first plane that hit was a 767 and that a second plane had hit the other tower.  He went on to say that still another plane had flown into the Pentagon causing damage.  We knew now that this was serious.  We waited for further instructions and about five minutes later our principal announced that we were going to evacuate the building and head down Greenwich St. towards Battery Park.  Thinking that we would be out of the building for a few hours, I grabbed some program listings and schedules so that I could continue working.  I also took my personal belongings with which I had come into the building that day.

We proceeded in fire drill mode to evacuate the building.  The students used to be quite noisy during fire drills.  But the principal took the procedure quite seriously and over the last year or so, he had gotten them to be quiet and orderly during the drills.  This paid off in a big way because the evacuation went quite smoothly.  On our way down the stairs, several firefighters raced past us.  One of them yelled at us rather roughly to move faster.  I thought he was overreacting.  When we reached the street and looked out, there was all kinds of consternation going on around us, debris everywhere, people bustling in every direction.  We came out on Thames St. and made the right towards Greenwich St.  When we got to the corner and looked up, we were almost under the WTC.  That was when the first serious rounds of shock hit.  I looked up and saw billows of dark gray smoke spewing out of the North Tower.  What was even more fascinating was the South Tower.  Several of the upper floors were totally engulfed in flames, solid, intense flames.  As we proceeded towards the park, herding the children along, we stopped every so often to look back at the devastation.  We were totally in awe and unable to make sense of what was happening.

There were people everywhere; so it was difficult to keep the children in check, but as we walked we just continued to move along sweeping with us any children that we encountered.  Leadership High School, our sister school, is right across the street from us, and they evacuated at the same time we did.  Some of the students we met were from Leadership; some were from our school.  We did not care; we just moved them along.  We got to the entry of Battery Park and then wondered what next.  But the sight of the towers in flames and filled with smoke was so menacing, instinctively we knew that we just had to keep moving away from the site.  At one point the group that I was steering veered a little too much to the right, and we ended up at the exit of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.  A policeman was conducting traffic there.  He would not let us continue in that direction, but it was quite difficult turning back because there were so many more people behind us.  However, with some patience and cooperation we were able to move back into the park.

As we walked, I tried to keep track of other groups of students and staff so that if any group decisions were made as to what we did next, I would be able to join in.  I started veering to the other side of the park.  On my way, I encountered a teacher who had just started at our school the week before, when school opened.  She was very agitated.  She told me that she could not keep her group together, that they were scattering everywhere.  I tried to calm her.  I let her know that she was not expected at that time to stay with her group.  I explained that she was just to take care of any students that were near her.  She felt better, and I kept on trekking.  About five minutes later I encountered another teacher who was having a panic attack.  I gave her some reassuring words, calmed her and proceeded to walk with her.  I had my arms around her waist, and she put her arms around my shoulder.  She felt better pretty quickly, smiled and thanked me for helping her.  After we walked about a block, I felt that she was okay so I proceeded very gently to peel her arms from my shoulder, and I let go of her waist.  We had barely let go of each other when I met up with a student from one of my classes.  Classes had only met four times for the term, but I recognized her.  She too was panicking and starting to cry.  I stopped to calm her, while the other teacher moved on.  I told the student that she was not to worry that everything was going to be all right.  I put my arms around her, and I told her that she was not going to get hurt.  She looked up at me, smiled, and said “okay.”  No sooner than I had uttered those reassuring words, we heard this eerie sound.  It sounded like thousands of nails falling down in a pile.  I looked up and saw the South Tower come tumbling down and with its demise came a humongous mushroom of dust and debris hurtling itself towards us.  I tried to remain calm. I turned to the student and told her that we needed to run.  She agreed and we took off.  As we ran towards the Staten Island ferry, I kept looking back, and all I could see was that mushroom of stuff gaining on us.  I have watched enough nature shows, where people try to escape from avalanches or volcanic eruptions, to know that one cannot outrun these monsters.  So I decided to stop running.  Instead, I looked around to see where we could take shelter.  I had just promised this young lady that she would be all right, so I felt a great deal of responsibility to protect her.  At this point, with every one fleeing and not knowing what would happen next, I felt that I might die, but I was going to do my best to protect my student.  I noticed that we were standing in front of the South Ferry subway station.  The entranceway looked very solid, but the thought of hostile attacks in the subway made me hesitate.  I looked around, but finding no better form of shelter and with the mushroom almost upon us, I decided that into the subway we go.  There were about seven other students nearby; so they joined me and we went down to the subway platform.

There was no one else on the platform, but as I walked towards the seats, I saw about ten subway employees crammed into a plexiglass booth.  They were all wearing masks about their mouths, looking very scared.  The door to the booth seemed shut tight and their eyes said, “Don’t even try to come in here.”  They looked so pathetic that I passed them by with merely a glance, and some of the students and I settled down on a bench.  Some of the other students were rather unsettled.  A few of them started talking about going down on the subway tracks and heading off into the tunnels.  I strongly admonished them against that idea.  A few minutes later, some other adults started coming down to the platform.  One man came down totally covered in dust and debris.  He went to the side of the platform and proceeded to vomit.  Another adult went over to him and offered to help, but the man said he was all right, and after a while he left.  One of the boys who was sitting next to me was very upset and wondered why we innocent victims were being picked on.  He suggested that the president, not us should be the target.  A man overheard the conversation and started to chastise the boy.  The boy explained that his uncle worked in the World Trade Center and he didn’t know if he was alive.  The man apologized, and the boy started crying.  I started to hug him and console him when a man pointed out to me that some of my students were climbing down onto the tracks.  I ran to the end of the platform and yelled at them to come back up.  I again admonished them about going down on the tracks and wandering off into the dark tunnels where it could be very dangerous.  As I sat back on the bench, one of the students hovered over me, making all kinds of statements about doom and gloom and the terrible things that could happen to us.  I was so mentally overloaded at the time that all I could do was just look up at him in wonderment.  After about ten minutes, I decided to go upstairs to see what was going on.  There was still plenty of commotion.  Several of our teachers and students had gathered in the area.  I found out that one of them was planning to lead a group of teachers and students uptown.  I thought that this would be a good time to leave; so I went back down to gather my student and to tell the others we were leaving.  As I went down the stairs, I saw a huge ball of dust and debris rolling in from the tunnel.  It was coming in fast, from the direction in which the students had been planning to walk.  I breathed a sigh of relief that they had not gone down those tracks.  We moved quickly, but by the time we got upstairs, the other group had already left.  I spoke with some other teachers trying to determine how to escape.  One thing was certain. I was not hanging around much longer.  I looked to the ferry, but there were so many people there that I estimated a two-hour wait before we would be able to board.  That was not acceptable.  I thought about going over the Brooklyn Bridge, but I was hesitant to walk back in the direction of the towers.  There was also the possibility that the bridge would be blown up as we crossed it.  Eventually, I decided that I had not much choice so the Brooklyn Bridge it would be.  I called out, letting students know that we were heading towards the bridge if any one wanted to come along.  Since most of the students who had been in the subway with me were from Leadership High School, and since they did not know me, they decided to go their own way.  My student and I headed out, walking towards the East River and the FDR Drive.  That was a good choice, because as we started walking along the river, the second building fell, hurtling more dust and debris our way.  This time we had no shelter, but we were further away from the buildings.  I suggested that we walk under the FDR Drive, at least we would be protected from some of the debris that was falling.  About then, we picked up another student.  It was a young man who recognized the student who was with me.  He started tagging along, but he was using a lot of profanity to express his dismay at what was going on around us.  I asked him to stop using the foul language, but he continued.  So, I stopped and gave him an ultimatum: if he wanted to come along with us he had to stop cursing.  I guess he was very scared, and he just wanted to hear that I was going to take him along because after that he never again cursed.  He turned out to be fine company.  The two students lived in Westchester, but I had decided that I wanted off Manhattan and Brooklyn was the closest escape route.  I explained to the students that I would take them home to Far Rockaway with me.  Their parents could come through Queens and Long Island highways to pick them up.  They agreed.  As we walked, the young man asked me who was doing this to us; was it the Japanese?  I replied, “No, the Japanese are now our friends.”

We had no masks or other protection.  I found a napkin in my pocketbook; so I put it loosely around my nose and mouth.  The young man had an extra t-shirt so he gave it to the young lady, and he pulled his hood on his head.  This was not enough protection; so as we walked we were bombarded with dust and debris.  It got into our eyes and noses and mouths and in our hair and on our skin and all over our clothes and on our shoes.  It was everywhere, but we just kept walking quietly and calmly along with hundreds of other people.  We passed another pier with a ferry, one that goes to New Jersey.  I thought about our trying that way off the island, but when I looked at the pier, it too was so crowded, I felt it would be hours before we could get on a boat there, so we continued along.  When we got to the Fulton Fish market, there was a man standing there with a simple hose with running water.  He just stood there holding out the hose for anyone who wanted a drink.  By this time, my eyes were tearing, breathing was difficult, and my throat felt like I had been eating cut glass.  However, with my senses so taut and me being so on guard from what we had been experiencing, I hesitated.  Thoughts came into my head that the water might be poisonous.  So strong was the desire for some water that these thoughts did not last long.  I went over, cupped my hands and had a drink.  I then washed out my face, especially my eyes and drank again.  Never has anything tasted so good.  If this man had offered us a million dollars it would not have had half the impact of that simple act.  I thanked him profusely.  My student had a bottle with soda.  She dumped the soda and filled the bottle with water, and we continued towards the Brooklyn Bridge.  As we neared the bridge, the sky began to clear a little and the sun peeked through the haze.  That was another beautiful sight.  Eventually we got to the entranceway, and, as refugees leaving an endangered area, we started our trek across the bridge.  The kids were wondering about their parents.  The young lady had a pager and it kept transmitting 911. Ironically this was the code her mom used when she wanted her to call back immediately, but peoples’ mobile phones were not working.  The young man kept muttering that his mother must have been trying to get in contact with him.  I knew that they very much wanted to speak to their parents also.  I told them that as soon as we could find a phone we would call home.  They relaxed a bit.  As we walked, the wind was blowing towards us; so about halfway over the bridge, the air cleared and we felt tremendously better.

When we got to the other side, there were people handing out cups of water.  We stopped again, and drank some.  There was also a policewoman monitoring the pedestrian traffic.  I asked her if the subways were running.  She said that they were not.  I decided we would walk further in land and try to find a bus.  We passed an MTA building; so I stopped in for information on bus routes that would take me to my car. My car was parked at a subway station in Brooklyn near the Queens border.  I met a very caring gentleman in the building who gave me a bus map.  He marked off the two buses that I would need to take to get to my destination.  He also gave me directions to the first bus.  I thanked him, explained who I was and asked him if he would call the students’ parents to let them know that the students were okay.  He took their phone numbers and said that he would call as soon as he got a chance.  We left and continued our trek to the bus stop.

When we got there, again there were hundreds of people waiting for the bus.  With my adrenaline still pumping, there was no way I could stand around for hours as the few buses that came by, packed with people passed us by.  I decided that I would walk to my car.  This would be about a ten-mile trip; so I asked my companions if they felt fit enough to walk a long way.  They said that they were up to it so we started off.  We had only walked about one block when we found a phone with a short waiting line.  We each made a call, the students to their parents, I to my daughter.  She was not home so I left a message that I was all right.  Feeling better we started off when a thought came to me, maybe the Long Island Railroad was running.  I decided that we would walk towards Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues to the station.  When we got to there, lo and behold, there was an MTA employee on a megaphone, beckoning to people to come take the railroad.  We entered the station and found that a train was actually sitting with its engine running, ready to take us to Far Rockaway.  We quickly ran to the platform and boarded the cool air-conditioned train with the comfortable seats.  We plopped down and waited for the train to fill up so that we could depart.  It felt delightful to be actually seated there, knowing that pretty soon we would get home.  It took about an hour for the train to completely fill up and for us to depart, but we did not mind too much.  As we waited I got to learn a little more about the young man who was in our company.  I asked to see his school program.  That way, I learned his name and saw that he was a freshman.  When I asked him his age, he told me that he was 14.  I reflected on his situation.  The prior week was probably the first time he had traveled so far away by himself to school.  From Westchester to the tip of Manhattan must have been a challenge for him to travel under normal conditions.  I could imagine how he must have been feeling throughout this ordeal.  I found out that my student was just about to turn 15.  At least she had been going to the school for the prior year.  Eventually the train headed out, destination Far Rockaway!  The trip took over two hours, but we did not mind.  On the way, all I could think about was getting the kids something to eat and taking a shower to wash all the gook off my skin and hair.

After the train ride, we had a two-block walk to a taxi stand to complete the trip home. As we walked we heard radios blaring out the news live at the scene of the devastation.  At one point, my student remarked that we had just come from the area being discussed.  I thought the kids could do with a treat; so we stopped at a McDonald’s where they ordered some of their favorites.  We then proceeded to the taxi stand.  My house is two blocks from Jamaica Bay at a spot where I have a clear view of the skyline of Manhattan, from the southern tip all the way to mid-town.  Every day on my way to work, I would drive to the end of the street at the bay, look out at the Twin Towers and set myself en route knowing that those two majestic building were my destination.  So on the way home in the taxi, as the driver passed on a road alongside the bay, I asked him to stop so I could see what remained of the towers.  He stopped and told me that there were no more Twin Towers, that they had been completely flattened.  I looked out and all I could see was the billows of smoke rising up like a festering wound where once stood those beautiful buildings.  I was truly taken aback.  We finally got home around 3 p.m., and the kids once again called their parents to say that they were safe.  For the next several hours we watched the television to obtain pieces of the story that we missed as we ran for our lives.  About 7 p.m. my student’s father came to pick up both students and take them home.

Epilogue

For several weeks after the tragic event, I experienced a variety of emotions.  Within the first few days, I constantly relived every moment, rehashing the experience, analyzing what I could have done differently, planning for what I would do in the future.  The very next morning, I awoke with an urgent desire to go running.  I have never liked running.  I like walking.  In fact I walk many miles on the nearby boardwalk when the weather is warm.  Once or twice, I have tried to force myself to run but it has never lasted too long.  Nevertheless, the next morning I felt like running.  I reflected upon this and realized that it was just my body still reacting to the prior day’s event; so I reasoned that I really needed to walk instead.  I went out to the boardwalk on my usual route.  First, I walked down to the bay and looked out at the sight.  The smoke was still billowing up from the gaping wound.  I walked the three-quarter mile trip to the boardwalk seeking the calm and tranquility I always receive from being near the ocean.  When I got there, I became very disturbed because as I walked along and looked out at the ocean, there were many battleships lined up on the horizon.  They had never been part of my nature-filled scene.  I walked for about one half hour, but I had to leave because the ships left me very unsettled.  When I got home, I still had the need to walk; so I went into town and walked around there for a while until I could calm down.  I continued to be unsettled.  Before this tragedy, I may have had one, maybe two bad dreams in all my life, but things had changed.  My sleep was often broken by bad dreams.  In one of the dreams, I was caught up in one of the towers with a man in a wheel chair whom I was trying to help escape.  I kept feeling a great deal of dismay because I could not help him.  First I realized he was too big for me to carry him down the stairs so I kept racking my brains as to how to help him.  As the smoke started to fill the room that we were in, I figured that we needed to crawl out of the room keeping low to the floor, but again there was great frustration because I knew I could not even lift him out of the chair.  I awoke feeling very sad and disturbed.

In another stage of the post-trauma, I became very suspicious of my surroundings and found a need to check out in great detail the goings on around me.  Normally, I am oblivious to details.  I function in a world where I more feel a sense of my surrounding as a whole.  I see the forest.  I am not too interested in the trees.  My mind is usually elsewhere.  But now, things had changed.  On the Saturday following 9/11, I needed to walk again, but this time I decided that I needed to take my binoculars.  I have walked the boardwalk for over 25 years.  There have been a few times previously when I thought of taking my binoculars to check out nature in more detail, but because I walk for so many hours, I have always decided against taking them since they would be added weight.  Any way, on this Saturday I did not even hesitate, I just took them along.  As I approached the boardwalk I passed through about four blocks of open land filled with just wild flowers and other plant life growing on its own.  During this walk, I stopped several times and used my binoculars to check out my surroundings.  When I reached the boardwalk, instead of walking, which I always do, I sat on a bench overlooking the ocean and proceeded to check out the details of the ships on the horizon.  With my naked eye, I had seen about eight ships, but now I counted thirteen.  I also saw small boats in the ocean all from various government entities.  They were either surveying the area or they were on patrol.  The scene continued to disturb me, but I had to check out every detail.  I next used my binoculars to inspect the people on the boardwalk and at the shore.  Some were strolling, some were fishing, some were just checking out the area.  I surmised that several of the men there were agents involved with security patrol.  I used my binocular to scan the houses in the background, many blocks from the ocean.  I was surprised and intrigued to see people on rooftops.  None of this had been evident to me prior to 9/11.  I finally left the boardwalk and returned home.  By this time I was feeling as low as I have possibly felt in my life.  I was very unhappy with the person inside me.  I am normally a very positive-thinking person with very few negative thoughts.  I normally feel safe and protected by good forces that surround me.  But here I was, thinking negatively, checking out things that never mattered to me before.  After a bit of reflecting and after talking with friends with whom I am close, I was able to relax a bit more.  I learned to live with the thoughts and feelings that had attached themselves to me, and I resolved that over time I would rid myself of the images that kept me in the funk.  Eventually I did.  It took weeks for me to return somewhat to my pre-9/11 self.

Sadly, however, I will never fully return to that person.  The events of that day and related experiences afterwards with friends, relatives, political leaders et al. have somewhat made me look at the world just a little differently.  I am less tolerant.  I also have less faith in the order of things.  I am bolder, in some ways, but more wary in others.  There is an anger within me about being negatively impacted by the power-hungry and egotistical actions of the leaders of the ruling nations.  I find myself breaking some of the rules that I have created for me because it seems that I have been manipulated into regulating myself to facilitate their free reign.  The festering sores of this nation are beginning to gain ground.  I hope to be able to reflect again a year from now and find that there are more positive gains in our world.  Somehow, I think my hopes are only remnants of the old me and that the reality is that things will get worse.  I will continue to do my part however in contributing to the positive energies and hope for the best.