GROUND ZERO WARS Part One


The last class to have lived through September 11 and its aftermath at Stuyvesant High School, located four blocks north of the former World Trade Center, graduated June 27. To commemorate the occasion, below is the first of two excerpts from Ground Zero Wars, a memoir of the environmental disaster of 9/11 from the point of view of a Stuyvesant mother. (Guess which one.) The second excerpt will be published in a few days.


Tues. 11 Sept. 11:50 am: If any of you hears news of how the kids at Stuyvesant are doing subsequent to this morning’s attacks on the World Trade Center, please phone or email me by any of the methods below.

Thus the Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association website read, posted by I still don’t know whom. And I certainly wasn’t reading it on September 11. Back then I had nothing to do with the Stuy PA or anything else downtown. My son Alex* [some identifying details have been changed] was a student at Stuvyesant but the school hummed along without me which was fine by me.
Also I was, at the time, innocent of websites. I’d learned the computer to write a novel and had just added email to my list of cyberachievements. Anything else was beyond me. So the idea of looking for the Stuy PA website didn’t cross my mind. Nor would I have known what to do if it had.

At ten to nine on September 11 I was on my way to the gym when in the distance something exploded. There had been a thunderstorm the night before. The skies were glistening now but I thought, a little wackily, “Is the storm in New Jersey?” There had also once been an oil fire across the water, silent from our vantage point but impressive. Another one? Con Ed? So went my train of thought at that last moment of the innocence of the world. I shrugged at what I couldn’t explain and went on my way.
My neighbor Gary, who normally keeps to himself, said, “Did you hear about the World Trade Center? A plane flew into it. They think it’s terrorists.”
I looked out the window at Lower Manhattan. I live in Brooklyn and usually check the pollution by seeing how hazy two skyscrapers at the tip of the island are. In my distracted way, until September 11, I’d thought of them as the WTC.
Nothing going on there but a few blocks north an evil cloud of smoke unfurled. So that’s where it is, I thought. As part of being out of it on an impressive array of practical topics, I’m clueless when it comes to directions. Has something to do with growing up in Upper Manhattan where everything’s perpendicular. Angled streets throw me for a loop, literally. Also I never learned how to drive and so don’t pay attention to details like where things are.
“What’ll that do to Alex’ school?” I asked idiotically, like Gary would know. But at the moment he knew more than I did. I did know Stuyvesant was near the WTC. Fortunately for me that day, I didn’t realize how near.
I thanked Gary, ran back inside and called the school. Busy, of course. So I called my ex who worked in Lower Manhattan. The receptionist picked up.
“Kevin U.* please.”
“He’s busy.”
“A plane just flew into the WTC.
“We know. Is there anything else?”
“Can he get Alex?”
“Hold on.”
Kevin got on; I repeated the question.
“Alex! Holy shit. I can’t go now. Listen, I can’t talk. I just saw a guy jump out a ninety-storey window.”
“My God,” I cried.
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to get to Stuyvesant as soon as I can.”
Not too promising.
I went to pick up Alex, still not understanding the ramifications of this thing but thinking it prudent for him not to stay around a disaster area.
The trains weren’t running. You couldn’t even walk across the Bridge; they’d just closed that too. I went home and turned on CNN and the computer. My friend Jill popped up in the left hand corner of the screen like my guardian angel.
“The first building’s down.”
A call from my cousin asking if Alex was O.K. She’d heard on the radio that Stuyvesant students weren’t being allowed out unless their parents came to pick them up.
The opposite was true:

When the World Trade Center was hit, Principal Stanley Teitel asked a government security official, “Is it possible those buildings could come down?”
“Not a chance,” the guy said.
To the consternation of some parents when they learned of the decision, the administration sent the kids upstairs to their homerooms and didn’t allow parents into the building:

“The federal officials were talking around me, saying they didn’t know whether the planes were part of an overall plot,” said [School Administrator Eugene] Blaufarb in a later interview. “...with people on the ground, coming out of covert places.”
Abigail Deutsch, commemorative issue of the Spectator, Fall, 2001.


When the first building fell, another official warned that the vibrations could bring down the Stuyvesant building (as they perhaps helped bring down a few of the other five buildings at Ground Zero that one never hears about.) At that point the school was evacuated.

“We were trying to evacuate 3,500 people through two doors,” Blaufarb said. “I’d let 200 through the door, wait 15 seconds, and let the next 200 through.”
Ibid


Administrator Renee Levine told the kids, “Grab somebody’s hand. It doesn’t matter if you know them or not. Stay in pairs and go north.”
As Alex later wrote for his English class: “Apart from the cloud coming towards us the sky was clear. It was great ‘Run for your life’ weather.”


I called Kevin again. The receptionist sounded harried. In the background a woman cried hysterically. Probably Laura, Kevin’s wife and colleague. Well he wasn’t leaving now.
The call was interrupted by Alex and a teacher escorting the class up West Street.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know, Mom. Maybe to the next place they’re going to bomb.”
“This is no time for jokes,” I shot back with repressed rage. One of the hardest things about these last two years has been not to lose it. The situation certainly merits a little insanity.
“I know. I gotta go.”

Tues. 11 Sept. 12:05 pm: I’ve just heard by phone from my son. The school and the kids are OK. They were told at some point (perhaps before the WTC buildings collapsed) to evacuate. They started walking in groups away from the problems. No panic in the group my son was with.

What to do now? I went to the Red Cross to give blood. Line around the block, like Purgatory after an earthquake: Workers on break, mothers with babies in prams, Swedish tourists. If you couldn’t get into Manhattan to help out, this was the next best thing.
A woman ahead of me said, “My niece is on the 80th floor.” She seemed worried but like me, didn’t yet understood the full impact of it all.
The Red Cross sent us away. They didn’t have the facilities to store that much blood.

Tues. 11 Sept. 1:30 pm: I’ve now returned home from driving downtown to collect my son and four of his friends. They had walked about three miles, from Stuy to 42nd St. and 10th Avenue, which is where I collected them, by arrangement. They had seen the fireballs of the hits on the World Trade Center. Around 10:30 (they were rather vague, might have been half an hour earlier or later) all the students were told to leave and to walk uptown. There was excitement or nervousness but no panic, nothing scary happening.

Alex went with three other kids to the house of a classmate. My friend Miriam picked him up. He should have been able to find her house on his own. But as Miriam later explained, “I couldn’t not do it. He sounded a little dazed and I didn’t want him wandering around anymore.” He’d walked five miles carrying 26 pounds of books. (When he came to my house a week later I weighed them.) Like me he has his vague side; each year he doesn't think about claiming a locker until they're all taken so he winds up carrying all his books all year long, a matter of some squabbling between us. (“They‘re not heavy, Mom.”)
Miriam took him to lunch at Pete’s.
“As we were walking there we passed a woman crying,” she said afterwards. Alex said, ‘Did you hear what that woman was crying about? She said she’d missed her bus. Otherwise she would have been in there.’ He seemed fine but we had to wait an hour for a table. All the restaurants were filled with refugees from Lower Manhattan. We sat at the bar and watched T.V. A baby came on the screen. That got to him a little.
‘It took another hour to get served. He fell asleep at the table.”

CNN played footage of the cloud after the two buildings collapsed. A woman next to the camera cried, “My God,” and everyone started running. “It looked like a scene out of a Godzilla movie,” resident Wendy Tabb later said. I wondered where the Stuyvesant kids were when the cloud approached the school. No one could outrun it.

[italics, stuypa website] Tues. 11 Sept 4:15 pm: I’ve received a number of calls from parents who’ve seen this web page. Some parents still haven’t heard from their children but I know that that is because they’re walking long distances, trying to get public transport, etc. I just spoke with a girl in Grade 9 who just got home to Brooklyn. She said that a Stuy teacher, Danny Jaye, walked a
large number of students to and across one of the bridges to Brooklyn and then made sure to get them safely onto subway lines that were working. Another parent who lives in Queens called 20 minutes ago very concerned because he had not heard from his son, and then called back just now to say his son had safely reached their home in Queens.
I also spoke to the mother (see below) who works in the WTC. She said she was in the North WTC building on a floor in the 80s when the plane hit, very close to her. It took her about 90 minutes to get out of the building and it collapsed only five minutes after she got out. She went to the hospital to have glass shards removed from her leg but is OK now.

Tues. 11 Sept. 5:45 pm: I’ve just heard from Marilena Christodoulou, President of the PA. She says she went to the school as soon as she heard the news, arriving there at 11:00. She met the principal and some assistant principals who told her that they had been requested by emergency officials to evacuate the school so it could be used as an emergency base for providing medical help. The children had been told to start by heading north, keeping on the West side of the street, so that they would be exposed to as little as possible of the smoke. (After a certain distance, clearly many headed in other directions.)
Marilena was assured by the school that no child or teacher was hurt in any way. Most who live in Manhattan are now home. Many who live in other boroughs are staying with friends or waiting until they can use the subways. (I understand that nearly all subway lines are now working, at least out of Manhattan.) However, some children are having difficulty phoning home because certain lines are over-busy or out of action.
THERE WILL BE NO SCHOOL TOMORROW, WEDNESDAY. No decision has been made about the rest of the week. Please pass the word on this to others.


Jenna Orkin
World Trade Center Environmental Organization http://www.wtceo.org/