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Never Forget: Recounting My 9/11 Experience, From Someone Who Saw The Smoke

On September 11, 2001, I was a sophomore at a school located in Essex County, New Jersey, less than 15 miles from New York City. My younger brother and sister attended two different schools, so my mom would have a lot of stops to make that morning.

My father, who at the time was a Captain in the Newark Fire Department (now he is a retired Battalion Chief) was off that day and had gone to our house down at the Jersey Shore to fish. As many would come to say of that day, it was gorgeous out. There was not a cloud in the sky.

Like every other day, my mother dropped me off in front of school, I went to my locker and then to homeroom. Now, I can’t tell you who my homeroom teacher was or what subject I sat through during first period, but I can tell you my second period class was Culinary Arts and we were making scrambled eggs. And that’s when it happened.

Outside of our classroom, echoing down the hallway, we heard a commotion. Now, my high school was no stranger to the occasional hallway brawl or pulled fire alarm or called-in bomb threat.

Especially on nice days like that day. Kids would do anything to be able to hang out outside for a while. So, at first, my teacher dismissed the yelling. Then, she was called outside of the classroom.

My teacher returned to the room visibly shaken by whatever she was just told. She then proceeded to tell us that a plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers. She called it a “horrible accident.” Seventeen minutes later, the second plane crashed, and even at 15 years old, I knew — we all knew — this was no accident.

Now, this was before Twitter and the ability to live tweet the minute you see anything. This was before Facebook when you could ask your digital world if anything funny was going on. This was before YouTube and Instagram, we could not watch what was happening practically in real time.

We only knew what we were told, and we weren’t told much. Two planes, with passengers, crashed into both towers. Like most of my peers, I did not even own a cell phone yet.

Looking from our classroom window, you could see the smoke, even at that distance. Regardless, when the bell sounded, we were told to go on to our next period as normal. That was where we learned a third plane had just crashed into the Pentagon.

About 20 minutes later, another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. We would later come to learn that this flight, United Airlines Flight 93, left from our local airport and was meant to crash in DC, presumably the White House, but brave passengers revolted against the hijackers.

I was in History with a teacher whose name I don’t recall, but he was always one for honesty. He was the first adult to tell us that we were being attacked. As I sat there, I wondered if this day would one day be taught in a history class much like the one I was sitting in.

It was during this period when loud speaker updates started as well as students being called to the main office. Parents were showing up to take their kids out of school. Again, with no cell phone, it was just a waiting game to see when my name would be called too.

I sat at my desk quietly, constantly thinking about my family. I thought about my sister a lot because I knew how scared she would be. I wanted my mom to pick my brother and sister up from school first, so they wouldn’t be scared as long.

Finally, my name was called and I was able to see my family. It was a madhouse; kids were crying, parents were crying, police were everywhere. Being so close to a major city like New York, many of my peers family worked in NYC. Some hadn’t heard from their loved ones yet. I could not even begin to fathom what New York looked like.

I knew soon enough though. Driving home, we saw all the smoke, and you could hear sirens. The minute we got home, the news was playing as it was happening. It looked like something out of a sci-fi horror movie.

Buildings were on fire and collapsing, people were leaping to their own death out of windows. New York was covered in debris and dust, and everything looked grey. Echoing my history teacher, my mom said, “Someone has declared war on us.”

My father called my mother from Toms River and told her to bring us to the shore to be farther away from all that was happening, but we didn’t go. He came home to us instead.

This was the first time in my life that I was watching something this catastrophic unfold in front of my eyes on the television screen. The rest of the day, and the days that followed, we would watch nothing but the news.

My aunt Denise worked, and still works, right around what has come to be known as “Ground Zero,” and we hadn’t heard from her. It wasn’t even 11 am and we were terrified that she was hurt or stranded or alone somewhere in the city.

I grew up in a two-family home, and she lived above us for most of my childhood. We kept waiting to hear her key turn in the lock. But hours passed and we had no clue where she was.

It wasn’t until after 6 pm that she returned home and recounted her experience. She was stuck in New York for seven hours. Around 2 pm she had heard that ferries were running to Hoboken. She went down to the terminals with about 100,000 others and waited in line with military personnel armed with machine guns (and here I was naively afraid she was all alone.)

She got off the ferry and anyone who had been covered in dust and debris had to be decontaminated in showers that had been set up. At the time, no cars were allowed to come into Hoboken because of the town’s proximity to the Lincoln Tunnel. They started running the Path Trains, and around 6 pm she was on a train and on her way home.

Just recently my aunt told me, “As the day approaches and I have to get on a bus to come into the City, I try not to think about that day but I can’t shut it out.  The memories and the terror I felt come flooding back no matter what. It is not easy, but I have never missed a day of work on 9/11 ever since. It is my small way of saying f*ck you.”

My father and uncle, both captains in the Newark Fire Department, went to help at Ground Zero in the days following. Thirteen years later, the days that followed the initial attacks are a blur of candlelight vigils, speeches from the president, an initial clean-up that would take almost a year and coming to terms with the fact that I would now know who the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda was.

Eventually we would be able to hear sound bites from Flight 93’s passengers calling their loved ones for the last time. High security at airports and tunnels would soon become routine. Our men and women were deployed, and families forever changed. September 11 would never just be the 254th day of the year anymore.

By the time I was in college studying English, I was in a class totally dedicated to “Post 9/11 Fiction.” I always wondered why someone would want to write fiction around such a horrible event, when there were so many stories from REAL people we could have been reading instead.

Some of my friends now teach elementary school children and they learn about 9/11 like how I learned about Pearl Harbor: from a text book. They weren’t even alive when it happened.

Now I am 28 years old and employed in Jersey City, New Jersey, just 7 miles from New York City. From the buildings of my job, we can clearly see the new skyline. The one that was forever altered many years ago.

I drive in every morning and for a brief moment, I always take in the skyline, especially on clear days like today. The Freedom Tower now stands tall and represents all we, as Americans, have endured.

One of the first sayings to come out of this horrific day, was “Never Forget.” It was plastered on bumper stickers and t-shirts and played across television screens. And I have to say, I will never forget what happened that day, either.

Photo Courtesy: Wiki Commons

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Alicia Cook

Contributor

Follow Alicia on Instagram: @thealiciacook. She holds a BA in English and her MBA. She loves champagne, the ocean, and french fries.
Follow Alicia on Instagram: @thealiciacook. She holds a BA in English and her MBA. She loves champagne, the ocean, and french fries.

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