Photo: Beverly & Pack

The Day I Saw the Towers Fall

We had just started class at when we heard what sounded like a thundering roar from a sanitation truck. Most of us thought nothing of it, since we were in Chinatown, a neighborhood often littered with traffic noise. Unperturbed, our seventh grade teacher continued his lesson until we heard the distant sound of a plane followed by a deafening bang.

Before our teacher could break the room’s silence, the school bell suddenly rang. Normally, we would have expected another routine fire drill around this time, but we knew better. Our principal, a stern woman who rarely lost her nerves, broke the news over the P.A. system in an unusually somber tone. United Airlines Flight 175 just crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Stunned, we looked at each other, searching for answers. What just happened? Are you serious? Is this a sick joke?

Our teacher, similarly bewildered, took a minute to collect his thoughts and ordered us to head downstairs. I grabbed my belongings and followed my classmates to the stairway, where I could hear other confused students clamor over what had taken place. No one seemed to understand the gravity of the situation more than my friend Dominic, who grabbed me before we could reach the basement and led me to the roof, where his mother, a parishioner, waited.

On a bright day, anybody with our view could have seen the towers in their monumental glory. The two skyscrapers stuck out like grey ostriches in a sea of pigeons. With their polished, greyish windows and intimidating height, the buildings represented everything about the city: contemporary, imposing and unforgiving. But on this day, we witnessed this town at its worst. The South Tower had already collapsed, replaced by dark smog. The North Tower, engulfed in flames, teetered as if it were ready to join its twin’s fate.

We had little time to react before the second tower began to fall like an unsteady stack of Jenga blocks. One by one, its floors gave in, shrouding the entire edifice in smoke. Pieces of wreckage flew chaotically in the air. For a moment, time seemingly stood still.

When I was young, my father rarely took the family to the city’s tourist attractions. He did, however, take us to the World Trade Center, located several blocks away from his office. I’ll never forget my first visit. One early night, as my parents and I walked closer to the two-building complex, I slowly cranked my neck back to take in its height. Having grown up in a Queens neighborhood cluttered with faded brick apartments, I was immediately drawn to it. The towers soared above me as if they were two concrete beanstalks. Like Jack the Giant Killer, I wanted to climb them to discover what was hidden beyond the clouds.

Little did I know, that childhood dream would never come true. As I saw the North Tower topple, my heart dropped almost instantly, like a heavy weight on the edge of a diving board. Lost for words, Dominic’s mother brought us down to the ground floor, where I found my own mother, another employee, in tears. My father had not answered her calls for an hour, and she feared the worst had happened. Every time her co-workers tried to comfort her, she could only respond in erratic sobs. This can’t be happening right now. My husband works right there.

Afraid and still speechless, I walked out to the courtyard to get some fresh air but was caught off guard by the waves of people who ran down the street covered in white dust. They had all come from the devastating scene, which was only a 15-minute walk from my school. Some of them wailed, others stayed silent, but all of their faces showed an agony I had never seen in my 12 years.

As I anxiously waited to hear back from my father, I saw him finally emerge from the disillusioned crowd. He was covered in debris from head to toe. His suit, once a light shade of black, was now completely white. Despite coughing incessantly and struggling to breathe, he had managed to make his way to my school, to my mother’s obvious relief. Upon seeing him, she hugged him firmly, like a child with a teddy bear. At that point, I came to realize and appreciate the delicateness of human life.

Today, I work just two blocks away from the now-sacred grounds. Although I’m occasionally haunted by what remains, I’ve never been more in love with this place I call home. I cringe when 20-something-year-olds from out of state move here and claim this city as their own. Part of the reaction may be due to my obnoxious pride as a native New Yorker, but the other side comes from an experience I have that many others don’t. I was here when this concrete jungle suffered a near-apocalypse and witnessed its people rise from the ruins and come together. September 11th, to me, isn’t just an event that history students can easily gloss over; it made me who I am.

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