I watched the twin towers topple to the ground on a tiny television set in my eleventh-grade Latin classroom. I remember hearing only silence as everyone gaped at the image of gray smoke filling the screen. No one screamed. No one cried. We just stared.
From that moment on, teachers and administrators required all students to remain on campus and forbade us from watching TV. It was official policy to proceed as though nothing had happened.
But the students refused to listen. We knew that the same confusion consuming our thoughts was festering beneath the façade of calm worn by every authority figure standing before us. Like us, they mourned the tragedy. They too wanted to know the answer to the pressing question, “why?” And they undoubtedly shared our fear that the attacks were a part of a larger campaign aimed not only at other major U.S. cities, but also at the large military bases in eastern North Carolina—home to some of the most elite forces in the armed services and the loved ones of many faculty and students. It was only the students, however, who understood that more could be learned that day from a television screen and spontaneous conversation than a scheduled lecture and feigned normality. In an unusual show of solidarity, each of my classes protested until the teacher flipped on CNN or opened up to floor for discussion. We demanded the right to learn and grieve together. Only then did the tears come.
— Seyward Darby
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was waiting for a second-period Latin class to begin. I had just begun my senior year at a boarding school north of Boston. The boy sitting next to me told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. At first I imagined a single-engine plane doing minimal damage or a 747 grazing an antenna on top of the building. These relatively optimistic images disappeared when class let out. In between classes, I went to the student center, saw two flaming holes in the towers and understood a little bit better the enormity of what was going on in New York.
Third period was Irish Literature; we read an essay by Seamus Heaney on dealing with everyday life in the face of terrorism. Good as it was, the piece did little to prepare me for what I saw when I left class: Mass. Governor Jane Swift closing down Boston Harbor, faculty and students with New York ties rushing to get information, priests blessing en masse bodies dragged from the ruins of the towers.
Massachusetts—indeed all of New England—avoided harm that day, but my geographical distance from the suffering did nothing to decrease my fear and pain during those first few bewildering hours.
— Paul Crowley
Long Island, N.Y.:
I live in a small suburban town on Long Island that borders Queens, and it takes a short half-hour ride via the Long Island Railroad to get to Manhattan. The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, we began our school day in the usual fashion. When I arrived in my third-period AP American History class, however, my teacher received word of the attacks from a colleague in the department. We were offered very few details of the event.
Many students received notes from the main office concerning the status of their loved ones. In the afternoon, several of my fellow students were taken out of classes by their parents. It was then that we all came to realize the seriousness of the matter.
After-school activities were cancelled for the day, and students walked home swiftly to find out for themselves what had happened. The initial images were overwhelming, especially considering the fact that the World Trade Center had been a fixture in our lives for so many years. One could not drive into Manhattan without seeing the Twin Towers in the skyline. From that day on, however, a void existed in the sky, the skyline was incomplete.
For that one day, New Yorkers were plucked from their fast-paced lives, and they served as witnesses to a tragedy that would impact their existence forever. New Yorkers came together, and all we could do was provide comfort to one another.
— Eric Oberstein
Seattle is over 2,400 miles and three time zones away from New York City—for several of my classmates, Sept. 11, 2001 could not have been closer to home.
I remember my situation completely. I awoke early that morning, 5:45 a.m., to finish my biology homework and listen to my favorite radio show, Jackie and Bender. Nobody else in the house was awake. At 6:10 a.m., Jackie’s celebrity gossip was interrupted on the radio.
“Holy crap!” Bender said. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
While not the most poignant or respectful exclamation, it certainly captured the shock of the seemingly implausible act. My parents and I sat speechless for several minutes.
When I arrived to my first class, half of my classmates had no idea anything was wrong. It was still early—even I usually don’t hear news that early.
My first-period teacher taught as if nothing was wrong or different. It was somewhat relaxing to continue with everyday life. An assembly was called and the rest of the morning was spent going from class to class, staring at the news in shock.
My friend Lindsey was flying to Boston that morning. Her plane was grounded in a mid-west state. I was far away from the incident that day—physically and emotionally. I will never be able to understand what others went through. I only felt the great sadness and complete horror that accompanies such an incident.
— Steve Veres
Duke University, Durham, N.C.:
There was something peculiar about the kids on the East-West bus the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was heading back to East Campus after my 9:10 on Science Drive and it seemed as if too many students with New York accents were hunched over their cell phones, speaking in tones far too alert for that time of day.
I still had no clue what had just happened.
Although that quickly changed once I got to my dorm and watched the planes crash into the Twin Towers over and over on CNN, it took me substantially longer to truly internalize what had just happened. Terrorist attacks were things that occurred in remote places like Kenya and Tanzania—places far far away from here, I thought.
Later that evening, our dorm held a candlelight vigil for the victims of the attacks and it was only then, that the the significance of the tragedy truly began to hit home. Students I knew received calls on their cells phones in the middle of class from family frantically trying to reach them. A girl in my dorm couldn’t find her father for days after the attack. One of my neighbor’s high school classmates was on the Pennsylvania flight.
— Liana Wyler
Like thousands of students across the country, I first heard of the Sept. 11 attacks between classes. As kids growing up outside Washington, D.C., where the local news is also national and international news, we knew it was something big. We watched the towers fall as we sat in fourth period, unable to do anything but gape at the horror. But it didn’t really hit home until they hit the Pentagon.
That was in our backyard; some students had parents who worked there. Even more frightening was the realization that we were just outside the nation’s capital, and most of our parents worked downtown—many in federal government buildings.
Suddenly everyone we knew was crammed into the little newspaper office, using our phone to try and call their parents. There were reports of car bombs downtown, which were thankfully just rumors, and as we left school early that day we could hear the helicopters and airplanes circling above. The federal government was shutting down in panic, and we didn’t know what to do.
For the first time, many of us realized that our government, which employed so many kids’ parents, was truly the object of some people’s hatred. That was the scariest thing of all: Our government couldn’t protect us from something like this.
— Karen Hauptman
New York, N.Y.:
We were far enough from any likely targets to really fear for our own lines. There were murmurs on campus that eight planes were still unaccounted for.
We couldn’t go home that night. We all packed the homes of our few friends who lived outside Manhattan. We didn’t know when we would be able to go back, at that point we didn’t know what else might be hit.
That was the kind of day it was. Almost from the beginning I knew this would change everything.
— Jake Poses
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