In remembrance for those who lost their lives 14 years ago, I share my 9/11 story. I wish the tragic events that unfolded that day never happened, but none of us have the power to turn back time.
September 11, 2001
The day began like any other. I was in fifth grade wearing a horrid burgundy and white school uniform. My hair was held up in a ponytail by a burgundy clip (Mami’s idea). My best friend, Angelica, and I took our seats for another dreaded practice ELA exam. An hour and a half of reading passages and filling in bubbles that would not really count towards our grade (thanks common core).
We were 20 minutes in when one of the office assistants came into the class. She apologized for the interruption and asked “does anyone have a family member who works in the Twin Towers?” No one moved. She thanked us and walked away. I shrugged and went back to filling in bubbles. As I flipped through passages I noticed my teacher leave out the door and talk to a few more staff members. Her face went from serious to grim. Don’t ask me how, but I got an eerie feeling something was wrong. She turned around and I quickly returned my gaze back to the test booklet.
My teacher gave a heavy sigh. “Students put your pencils down please and close your test booklets.”
She didn’t need to tell me twice. I was bored reading the same stories again. She went around the classroom and collected each of the test booklets. After placing them on her desk she faced the class.
“I was asked not to tell you any information about what is going on, but I feel that you are old enough to understand.” She began.
Angie and I exchanged a confused look.
“This morning an airplane struck one of the Twins Towers. Everyone assumed it was an accident until a second plane hit the other one. It’s now confirmed that this is an act of terrorism.”
I had no idea what she meant by an act of terrorism. As far as I understood two planes had hit the Twin Towers. I didn’t dare raise my hand to ask.
My teacher went on. “An airplane has also struck the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania.”
Every one of my classmates had puzzled looks. What was going on? What was my teacher talking about? Planes are just randomly crashing into places? I guess my teacher noticed our confusion. She walked towards the back of the classroom where a television was set in the corner. She turned it on and found a news station. That’s when I saw the reality of what she was trying to explain.
The South Tower had already collapsed. Gasps came from my classmates as that moment was replayed. The cloud of smoke and debris seemed like a monster. The North Tower was still on fire. A cameraman had zoomed into the top windows. I assumed pieces of the building were falling until whatever it was got to a closer range. It was a human being. People were jumping to their deaths! Why? Couldn’t the FDNY save them? We saw people covered in dust, running in different directions, the NYPD and FDNY doing what they can to rescue civilians. The scene transitioned to Washington D.C. Part of the Pentagon wall was down. The shot moved on to a burnt field in Pennsylvania where the fourth plane had crashed. Viewing all those images made me have a terrible pit in my stomach. Why were we under attack? What did we do? It was all happening so fast. A few minutes later the North Tower fell and that was broadcasted.
My classmates and I fell silent. Some of them cried, including me. My mom worked a few streets away from there as a school aid. She was a month pregnant at the time. Where was she? Was she ok? Will she come home? A staff member came in and asked my teacher to turn off the television. She shook her head. I had no clue why she wanted us to see it. I thought about the Kindergartners. Surely they weren’t watching this.
Slowly my classmates were being picked up by their parents or other relatives. Angie’s mom came to pick us up. As we walked home I kept thinking about if my mom and aunt were safe. My aunt worked in a building three blocks from the towers. She had to have been in the evacuation zone. The emotional atmosphere was tense while at Angie’s place. I wasn’t even anticipating watching Toonami at 4pm.
An hour later Papi knocked on the door. He had come to pick me up. Angie and I live in the same building, only on different floors (now we live on the same floor). I asked Papi if he had any news about Mami. He shook his head. Most of the phone lines were down so there was no way to reach the school she worked in. We went home and I did my best to keep my mind off of what had happened. Papi made sure I did not turn on the T.V. I was still trying to piece everything together. Is this what terrorism is about? Why do they kill people? Who are involved? Where was Mami?
By sunset I heard someone fumbling to open the apartment door. Papi ran to open it. There was Mami with her hair a little out of place and her shoes in her hand. She had slippers on her feet. Papi embraced her and I ran to hug them both. Mami came in and asked if I was alright. I nodded.
Papi asked Mami a bunch of questions. He was worried about her health and the baby’s.
“I was on my way to work when I felt nausea.” Mami said. “It was severe morning sickness and I got off the train at 33rd street to throw up. I bought some tea and went back on the subway. I had no idea what was going on until my coworkers told me when I got to the school. We made sure all the students got picked up before we began walking towards The Bronx.”
While Mami cleaned herself up, the phone rang. All our relatives called to see if we were okay. Mami turned on the T.V. after a good shower and put the channel on Univision. The news was still running. No novelas were on that night.
“Mami, why did all those bad things happen today?” I asked.
“Because there are bad people in this world,” Mami said. “I try very hard to protect you from seeing that. I am sorry. Do you understand a lot of people died today?”
I nodded. “I still don’t know what terrorism is.”
“You will. I will explain it tomorrow.”
Mami did explain everything to me the next day. School was cancelled and the news was still covering what had transformed to Ground Zero. She also told me about the people who jumped out the windows. The FDNY was never going to get to them and that’s why they made that difficult choice. That day forever marked me. It made me realize that the world has bad people and there are worse things than bullies. My perception of the world changed. Going back to school was scary. Many of us were on alert for another terrorist attack. Papi found out a few days later that one of his friends had died in the North Tower. I learned about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania and how the passengers stopped the terrorists from taking more lives.
As the years passed, the city began to recover. A museum and memorial was built in honor of the victims at Ground Zero, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. Many musicians and artist came together to record national anthems. Last year I went with my boyfriend to find the name of the friend Papi had lost at Ground Zero. It was my first time seeing the memorial. You can read more about that here: https://rosaelena502.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/reflective-day/
The baby Mami was pregnant with is now my 13 years old sister. She asked once what happened on September 11th and she understands how it changed everything. I explained to her that although I was only 10 years old at the time, I got a big wake up call on how quickly life can change.
Fourteen years later, the recovery continues. We remember those who died, survived, and are still healing. The names of the victims will be read, the bells will ring, and flowers will be put on gravestones. We don’t forget, but we move on.