It’s been sixteen years since the horrible tragedy that occurred on Tuesday September 11, 2001, but like many, I recall with great clarity where I was that day. In 2001, I was attending college to earn my teaching degree and took a position as a permanent substitute for the Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield, Massachusetts. I’d be assigned to any school, any level, any subject, or any staff position. On this day, I ended up at my alma mater, Mount Everett, in the main office working alongside Angel Rote, Emily Law, and Becky Batacchi.
In the morning, the first order of business was to collect attendance slips and make sure all students reported to class. As I stepped out the office door into the hallway, I met Adele Berking, an English teacher at the time. She looked distressed, and mentioned that she’d just heard a news report that a plane had hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. My first thought was that is was an accident, like the French stuntman who had snared the sail of his paraglider on the torch of the Statue of Liberty a few weeks back, or perhaps a miscalculation by a novice pilot, or maybe a misfortunate mechanical malfunction.
Bringing the first floor attendance slips into the office, I mentioned this to the ladies, who turned the clock projection on the television to NBC. An aerial view of the smoldering tower came into view, while the voices of Matt Lauer and Katie Couric interviewed witnesses. While we continued to watch the newscast, another plane hit the middle of the other tower, exploding and sending a billow of fire and black smoke in the air. As Matt and Katie (and the rest of us viewers) starting scrambling to understand, a realization became apparent: this was no mistake or mechanical error, this was a purposeful deliberate attack.
I went upstairs to get the second floor attendance, stopping at the classroom of my former Math teacher Don Lucy, who greeted me at the door. As he handed me the pink slip, I casually whispered, â€œYou might want to turn on your TV.â€ In between my duties that day, I watched the awful events unfold. Each time I entered the office, more details emerged: â€œThey’ve grounded all commercial flights,â€ â€œIt was a coordinated attack,â€ â€œThe president in on his way to the Whitehouse,â€ â€œA third plane hit the Pentagon.â€ At one point, my distraught fiancÃ©e Courtney called, telling me that her father was deployed to Westover Air Force Base, and that he said it was a terrorist attack like the one in 1993, and that he’d probably be gone for some time.
The towers leaned, continuously smoldering, until around 10:00am, the first tower suddenly fell in a puff of smoke, Becky’s hand darted up to her open mouth in shock. We all went about our tasks in zombie-like stupors, trying to keep our composures so the students would not be alarmed, while the reality of uttered phrases from the broadcast echoed in my head: â€œA declaration of war,â€ â€œPeople jumping from windows,â€ â€œThe White House and the State Department evacuated,â€ â€œAnother plane crash-landed in Pennsylvania.â€ I will never forget the visceral silence in the office a half-hour later while we stared aghast at the TV, watching the second tower collapse in a plume of dust and disappear from site, changing the New York landscape. The panicked people on the screen ran as the enormous cloud of smoke engulfed the entire area, while various staff members in the room elicited soundless gasps, quiet tears, and awed, confused countenances as they tried to assimilate the new surreal reality evolving before us. The shared tension was palpable, as we all carried on, going through the motions the rest of the workday in a dazed blur.
After school, Courtney and I held each other close and watched as the early footage replayed, along with images of emotional dust-covered citizens and blank-faced exhausted firefighters. Growing up in Egremont just down the road from the Great Barrington Airport, a constant thrum of plane engines overhead was a regular, yet unnoticeable occurrence, and the eerily silent clear blue skies that afternoon ushered in the magnitude of the events of the day–the world we would raise our future five children in was forever changed.
The students I presently teach in my tenth grade English classes were not born when this catastrophic world event occurred. They will have to sift through all the misinformation, misguided conspiracy theories, and doctored footage now inundating the Internet in order to discern what is true, but many of us who lived through this historic event in real time know what we witnessed. Last month, Rob Alexander, a FDNY Marine Engineer and fellow Mt. Everett graduate, passed away due to contracting cancer from his work at Ground Zero, his father dying just nine mouths prior with similar symptoms. Rob was only 43. His untimely death is a stark reminder that even sixteen years later, the unfortunate events of 9-11 are still affecting us to this day.