September 11, 2001, was my fourth day of high school at Stuyvesant High, the magnet-school giant located in the Tribeca area of Manhattan, about eight blocks from the World Trade Center. I was 11 days away from turning 14.
I spent my free second period in the library that day, and at around 8:40 a.m. I sat down at a computer terminal to type my mom an email. “I’m here at school and I think I’m beginning to like it,” I wrote. And then a massive thump resonated from the floors above the library.
It was too sudden and muffled to cause any commotion, but the crowd looked up, startled, from our computers and books. After a moment, we returned to what we were doing — until someone by the window hissed, “Look at all that smoke!” Sure enough, a plume was rising from what looked to be the top of the residential building across the street. No flames were visible. “A boiler-room explosion,” someone suggested, and we all agreed. It must have been catastrophic.
It was the beginning of second period. Kids who were late to class had begun to filter in, and their story was different. A rumor spread like wildfire through the library: A plane had hit the World Trade Center. A small passenger plane had hit one of the towers. I laughed. The image in my mind was of a small propeller plane hitting one of the towers and bouncing off, props and wings mangled in every zany direction. I sent my email and left the library.
I ran into a friend in the hallway. “The World Trade Center is on fire!” he breathed, and everything clicked.
The plume of smoke was not coming from the building across the street — it was coming from the World Trade Center, four blocks away. This was no cartoonish aerial mishap. Already, students were rushing to the 10th floor of the building, where the crash was visible. I followed.
Our principal’s voice came over the PA system: Ten minutes ago, a passenger plane flew into … I can’t remember if he asked us to remain calm. I can’t remember if he told us everything was under control. But I’ll never forget how little response it got. People were nervous and jittery and walking fast, but nobody was panicking — except for the kids whose parents worked in the Towers.
Looking south from the 10th floor, we could see over the building across from us. There was a gigantic hole in one of the Towers. The smoke had turned black and was billowing upward, countered by a shimmering waterfall of debris flowing to the ground. Later I would realize how much of that cascade of material was human.
I was transfixed. I was thinking about how much my grandchildren would enjoy this story about the crazy accident at the World Trade Center my freshman year in high school.
I headed downstairs. Minutes later, after another muffled thump, the principal announced the second crash. “It’s terrorists,” said a student on the stairs. “This can’t be an accident,” said another. On the fifth floor were a few buddies from the football team. We exchanged high fives and fist bumps and all began acting masculine. Someone spouted theories about terrorism. Another guy expounded on how “fuckin’ nuts” this was. Others, including me, milled about silently.
In my next class, our teacher had us do calming nostril breathing with the lights dimmed. She then turned on CNN, where we first saw the live feed of the attack. The sound was off, and turbulent chatter quickly filled the room. Through the window we watched as a small stream of foot traffic began to trickle up the West Side Highway and a flock of media and police helicopters flew straight at us, sending us ducking and cursing as it whooshed over our building. An announcement came over the PA system: the building was being locked down, it was unsafe to go outside, and that we’d all be given free lunch courtesy of the Board of Ed and transported home when the fires and debris were under control.
Then the lights in the room flickered and went dead. The building shook. CNN showed one of the towers collapsing in a gray plume. Our room went silent. Some of us put our heads down. Some of us cried. I sat in silence and thought about death. The room vibrated both with the aftershock and with the nervous energy of 30 teenagers and one middle-aged woman.
I figured that if the north tower were to fall over, rather than implode like the first one had, we would all be in serious danger. Confirming my suspicions, another announcement instructed us all to calmly exit our classes and evacuate the building. All 3,200 of us — students and faculty — began organizing into groups and lines. I never considered that fire drills were more than just an excuse to get out of class. Quietly and in order, we fell in line and exited the building.
The images on the way out will stick with me for my entire life. The gigantic bay window that extended from the second floor ceiling to the doors on the first floor was thick with white dust, and businesspeople were plastered to the window, looking out at their old workplace. As we got to the grand lobby of the Stuyvesant High School building, all in quiet lines, something burst through the south doors.
It was a fireman, white from head to toe, staggering, face streaked with tears, chin and torso a tangle of dust, saliva, and vomit. His retching and sobbing was the only noise in the marble lobby, and it echoed off the back walls and filled our eerie procession with a crazed fear and a wash of gladness that we were inside, not out there.
Finally we burst out the doors to a gorgeous late-summer day, no sign of disaster except for the stream of businesspeople walking up the West Side Highway. We handed any bottled water we had up the line. I was a speck in a crowd of tens of thousands of people, all of us walking away from the towers and toward something unknown.
As we walked, we talked about baseball, football, and girls, never mentioning the maelstrom of debris from which we were walking away. The Hudson River blinked in the sun at our left, the highway at our right was closed down, and all that we cared about was getting home. None of us knew how long it would take. None of us really cared. We talked in fragments, interrupting ourselves to glance back at the catastrophe and whisper, “Holy shit.”
I fell away from my friends and began walking alone, looking out at the river and losing myself in thought about the weather and the upcoming Mets season. Then a hand landed on top of my head. Someone was palming my head. I panicked for a moment, not knowing who was tall enough to do that, figuring maybe one of the Varsity guys was picking on me. And then I turned.
It was my dad.
The first words out of my mouth were “I knew you’d come.” Because somehow I did. I had known all along that my father would come find me. Out of the 13,000 streaming uptown, out of the 3,200 Stuyvesant kids, I knew I would be found. Because he was my dad. That’s just how it was. He had talked his way past the police barricades on the West Side Highway in a cab, and when the cab was finally stopped by the cops he had gotten out and run against the flow of foot traffic.
It didn’t matter that he was one man running toward the disaster, toward his confused 13-year-old son. It didn’t matter that I was just one puny and rattled prepubescent teen in a crowd of thousands. I knew he’d come. And of course he did. He found me, he put his hand on my head, and I looked up, and framed against the brilliant, empty September sky was my dad.
He smiled and said, “Hey, Nick, how are you?” There were no tears, no shouts of relief. There was a fierce hug, or maybe there wasn’t. I can’t really remember what happened after I first realized who it was.
“Let’s go home,” he said.
“Are you hungry?”
That’s what happened to me on September 11, 2001. This is the first time I’ve written this story down.
I was thinking today about how pretty soon after that, I got too tall for him to palm my head. About how back then I was still a pretty small kid, five foot six or so, and it’s one of my last memories before being awkward and tall.
This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.
Images by Jason Powell as part of the series “Looking Into the Past.”