Students Share 9/11 Memories: ‘My Dad Told Us Bad People Crashed Planes Into Twin Towers’

I still remember the silence on the other end of the phone.

On September 11, 2001, I was in my college residence hall in suburban Philadelphia. My father called me in the morning from his office fairly close by. We were talking nonstop over each other and watching NBC when the second plane hit the towers and it was clear the word accident would be replaced with attack.

In that initial moment of confusion, my dad dropped his work phone while craning his neck to get a closer look at a nearby TV. For about 30 seconds, I heard nothing but a staticky stillness, prompting me to whisper-hiss, “Dad? Dad, what’s going on? Dad, are you OK?”

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Cut to the present. This past month, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Beloit College released the latest version of it Mindset List. As its many devotees know, the annual list is “a look at the cultural touchstones and experiences that have shaped the worldview of students entering colleges and universities.”

According to the 2014 edition, current collegians have grown up amid a myriad of scientific, political and satirical influences — from Fox News, “The Daily Show” and a cloned sheep named Dolly to celebrity selfies, prescription drug ads and the fight for same-sex marriage.

Yet, it was the top entry on this year’s list that most intrigued me: “During their initial weeks of kindergarten, [current college freshmen] were upset by endlessly repeated images of planes blasting into the World Trade Center.”

As a college professor nowadays instead of a student, I wondered if current undergraduates — freshmen and upperclassmen — were actually exposed to those repeated images at such a young age. And I wondered what other images come to mind as they reflect on that day 13 years later.

So I asked them.

Below are the 9/11 memories of a sampling of my students at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. In general, they were not directly affected by the attack, but like many of us they were still profoundly impacted — at an age when most did not fully comprehend what was happening and why their parents, teachers and friends were so concerned.

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The worst sound a child can hear is her mother crying. The worst sight a child can see is her country falling apart through a television screen. The worst thing a child can experience is all of these things without the understanding of why it’s happening. My elementary school teacher turned on the TV during class. How strange, I thought, for her to interrupt class for a TV show. The loudspeaker came on and my principal announced everyone needed to go home. There was some kind of emergency. Mom picked me up. I had a weird feeling. Mom and dad’s friends were on our living room couch. They looked sad. Dad sat across from them in a chair and stared at the TV. I went over to him and hung onto the chair he was sitting in. Silence covered the room like my favorite blanket covered me at night. I looked at the TV. I looked at everyone’s faces. I looked at the TV again. And I started to cry.” – Alli Murray, junior communications major at Saint Joseph’s University

I distinctly remember the words, ‘Mark, you have an early dismissal.’ I was standing on the school playground. Recess was over. Confusion set in. Mark was the ninth or 10th kid to leave early. Usually kids with early dismissals just left. Only unscheduled dismissals were announced to the school, and the loudspeakers had been dismissing students all day. I could tell something was strange. I looked at the recess aide, trying to read her face for more information. I found no comfort. The combination of shock and worry had left her motionless, as if she was frozen in time. Too young to comprehend the look, my confusion never progressed to worry or fear. We returned to class. No announcements were made. No teacher turned on the news. The day continued on as normal, yet eerily small classes left something unsaid. All I remember is a vast feeling of confusion. Clarity about that day would only come years later. I would watch the events for myself. That’s when I felt the fear.” – Brian Radermacher, junior international relations major at SJU

‘Is your mom OK?’ I stared at my blond-haired best friend Alex as the rest of our third-grade class gazed at the TV. Alex’s big blue eyes looked right past me as she said, ‘I don’t know. She had a meeting there this morning.’ I put my hand on her shoulder. Third-grade me didn’t know what to say. Alex’s name stumbled from the loudspeaker, asking her to come to the office. I gave her my package of Dunkaroos — the one my mom had packed me for snack time — before my teacher took Alex downstairs. I didn’t know what else to say or do. A few minutes later, Alex ran back into our classroom and hugged me, crying.  She told me, ‘Her meeting in New York got cancelled when she was on her way this morning. She turned around before she even crossed the bridge.’ Again, I was speechless, but this time it was the good kind of speechless. A few sighs of relief, the return of my Dunkaroos and one long hug later, I knew everything was OK again in our third-grade world. I wasn’t so sure about the other world.” – Jessica Sweeney, senior English major at SJU

I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why is this morning recess longer than usual?’ I was new to the second-grade lifestyle, but I didn’t think a longer recess was part of it. The hallways echoed with voices coming from classroom TVs. The TVs were only used on special occasions. So at first I thought this was a sure sign of a fun day ahead. But my teachers seemed more serious than usual. There was whispering and multiple teachers’ meetings throughout the day. I got off the bus and my whole family was already home, which was weird. Nobody wanted to know how my day was. They just wanted to watch the news. My parents had the same look all of my teachers had. They shut off the news and told me I couldn’t watch TV that night. They told me something happened in New York — bad guys crashed planes into some buildings. At 11 p.m., when I was supposed to be in bed, I sat at the top of the steps secretly watching the news on the living room TV. I remember planes and smoke and crying. Before that moment, I thought the worst kind of people were the boys who wouldn’t let the girls play wall ball with them. But I guess I couldn’t stay that naïve forever.” – Mary Kate Viggiano, junior communications major at SJU

There was a chilling silence followed by a crazed rush: ‘Attention faculty and students, the World Trade Center has just been hit by a plane.’ I thought to myself, ‘World Trade Center? What’s that?’ I was in third grade at the time and had only ever referred to the buildings as the Twin Towers. The single-file line my classmates and I were forming to walk to the library quickly dissipated into a scamper of squeaky tennis shoes and cries. We didn’t know exactly what was going on, but we knew something was not right. The principal dismissed us and my mom picked me up in our gray Toyota Sienna mini-van. We then picked up my dad from his office and went home. My dad turned on the TV and I watched as the screen displayed a burning building, crumbling steadily. A short while passed. I can still remember my mother’s shriek as the camera showed the second plane hit its twin.” – Alex Zerpa, senior English major at SJU

My brother was always small growing up. He sat in the front row for his first-grade class picture. He was the first up to bat on our T-ball team. He sported the nickname ‘little Puleo.’ That was Jesse. Yet, when he was led by the hand into my classroom on September 11, 2001 — amid teachers pacing in front of televisions, parents forming frantic lines in the lobby and hushed conversations drowning out loudspeaker announcements — Jesse looked smaller than ever. I remember looking to the grown-ups, waiting for someone big to pick me up or bend down to comfort me. I remember one parent after another coming in with grief and worry on their faces. And I remember my brother gently grabbing my elbow and leading me away from the chaos to a quiet corner. We sat cross-legged, facing one another. ‘It’s OK,’ Jesse said. Even though he was young and tiny and his voice cracked slightly, I remember thinking he was braver than all those big people that day. I reached out my hand to take his. In that moment, I believed him. I have never thought of my brother as small again.” – Samantha Puleo, junior criminal justice major at SJU

More than 20 rambunctious first-graders piled onto the carpet, chatting and giggling, without a care in the world. Mrs. Accardi situated herself in her chair at the front of the classroom, preparing to read one of her many short story books. Then the phone rang. I was very silent and still on the carpet as I watched the expression on Mrs. Accardi’s face go from glee to gloom. My intuition told me something was off. No other child in the classroom seemed to notice. I could not help but face away from the noise and the kids on the carpet. I watched Mrs. Accardi struggle to keep her composure. At the end of the call, Mrs. Accardi quietly walked back to the front of the classroom. ‘Children,’ she said, ‘something very, very terrible has just happened. I cannot answer any questions, but school is cut short today and you will be going home. If you have any questions, please ask your parents.’ That is when everything became a blur.” – Malia Reynolds, junior communications major at SJU

I woke up on September 11th feeling ill, but not enough to stay home. It was a feeling of weakness and fear that I did not quite understand. I arrived at school and filed into my classroom. I took my seat and stared blankly at the television screen. Our teacher always had the news on in the morning, so nothing felt out of place. The morning bell rang and we all stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I started to feel even weaker. I asked to sit down because I felt as if I could not stand. I looked past the teacher and watched these words fill the screen: “BREAKING NEWS: NEW YORK CITY NORTH TOWER OF WORLD TRADE CENTER HIT.’ I suddenly fell to the floor. I was the first student in my class to see the crash. I think back to 9/11 now and reflect on how intensely sick I felt from the moment I woke up that day. Something was not right, and it bothered me that I could not understand why I felt that way. That day was the first and last time I ever felt that way.” – Sara LaMachia, junior communications major at SJU

Without fail, Pa Tom was always parked outside the school one hour early, in his blue and white Cadillac, waiting to pick me up from third grade. My classmates would invariably look out the window and say ‘Pa Tom’s here, almost time to leave!’ My third-grade teacher even knew my grandfather by name. At first, on 9/11, when our principal proclaimed over the loudspeaker we all needed to ‘go home immediately,’ Pa Tom and his Cadillac were nowhere to be found. My teacher walked me up the steps with tears in her eyes, clenching my hand as if I was her own child. I wondered how something so bad could happen on such a beautiful, warm and sunny day. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to feel safe. When I reached the top of the steps and turned the corner, Pa Tom was waiting inside for me, not in his usual parking lot spot. In the midst of something so tragic, something I barely understood, I have never felt safer than when I saw Pa Tom walking down the hall in his blue jeans. I never wanted anything more than to be strapped safely in the backseat of his blue and white Cadillac.” – Denise Sciasci, senior English major at SJU

Mrs. Kelliani was scurrying around the classroom, doing chores like she was in a rush to have guests over at her home. She closed the blinds that covered our classroom windows only to then separate two of the blinds to take a peek out. The loudspeaker echoed through the school hallways, instructing teachers to close their doors and stay away from the windows. A teacher from down the hall came into our classroom, almost jogging, wheeling a television in on a stand. Mrs. Kelliani floated around the room rather quickly. I felt safe, but could also see the panic oozing from her eyes. I remember later walking into my home through my garage door and seeing my mom sitting on the couch, tears pouring down her face. My dad stood by her side, his arm on her shoulder. And for the first time that day I was exposed to the true emotion of the incident, and the news that reported it to the country.” – Olivia McEachern, junior English major at SJU

A faint jingling emanated from the tan dial-up phone on the wall of my third-grade classroom. Mrs. Vanderspurt danced over to it, flashing her permanent smile and pointer finger to the class — silently telling us to give her a minute. Gripping the phone close to her ear, I noticed her smile fade away. Water began to build up in the bottom corners of her bright blue eyes. Something was wrong. As if a script lay in her hands, she announced to the class there had been an incident in New York City. I instantly questioned the safety of my Aunt Beth who resided in the city. Minutes after hearing the news, several of my classmates began leaving school. One by one they raced to their wooden cubbies, grabbed their backpacks and embraced their guardians. I watched the thin red second-hand on the classroom clock tick by. I wiggled in my seat, awaiting the school’s regular parent pick-up at 3:20 p.m. I spotted my mom when I walked out of the school’s dark green front doors. I rushed to her side. With my head titled toward the sky, I noticed frightening gray smoke clouds and asked, ‘Is Aunt Beth OK?’ Being told that my aunt was safe made me feel at ease. Then I learned my Uncle Steve, a former state trooper, was headed into the city.” – Kelly Patterson, senior marketing major at SJU

Were my parents on one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers? My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. I knew they had left for their honeymoon the day before, but as a 10-year-old I didn’t know the details of their flight arrangements. I knew something had gone astray when a majority of my classmates were getting pulled out of class. My teacher received a call on her classroom phone. The look of terror on her face was a sight I will never forget. Shortly after, an overhead announcement came on that school was being cancelled for the day. My grandma picked me up from the bus stop. She had been crying. That is when she informed me of the heart-wrenching news. I did not understand. I was scared. All I wanted to hear was my mom’s voice. We could not get in contact with my parents. They were in Cancun. Although we knew it was not their flight, there was still anxiety about not having them by my side. It could have been them on that plane. We finally got a phone call from my parents. In that very moment, amid the terror and despair of our country, I felt like luckiest girl in the world.” – Kayla Soders, senior communications major at SJU

I’m sitting in Mrs. Hughes’ class. I was in third grade at the time. The principal came on the PA and told use all to start making our way to the auditorium. Soon after, there are about 600 kids in a small auditorium screaming and yelling and we have no idea why. We were kids, so they told us nothing — just that our parents were coming to get us. A few minutes later, my mom walks in. She takes me, my older sister and two younger cousins home. Right when we were walking out, the fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Tobin walked up to my mother, wrapped her arms around her and began to cry. It was weird. Mrs. Tobin was supposed to be the meanest, most evil teacher in school. And she was crying. She was the Tobinator. What could’ve broken her hard shell and caused her so much grief? I wanted to know. Because, I was a kid, I needed to know. Today, I know why she was crying. I understand what terrorism is. I know what the World Trade Center once was. But at the time I was still just a kid. Seeing someone who strikes fear into your very soul never leaves your mind. It stays with you and haunts you. All I knew as a kid was that if there was something out there that can do that to a person like the Tobinator, then it must be pretty horrific and traumatic.” – Matthew Haubenstein, senior communications major at SJU

Seconds are a funny thing. One second, I am sitting at my desk, coloring. And the next second, my principal, Sister Burke, is announcing an early dismissal from school. I was rushed home from school on September 11, 2001. Leaving my first-grade classroom as calmly as possible, wearing my light blue jumper and navy blue socks and shoes, I saw it as an opportunity to be able to play more at home with my two brothers. My next-door neighbor picked me up, which is when I became confused and anxious. Arriving home around the same time as my mom, I noticed she looked a little frazzled from picking my brothers up from school. I saw it as a fun thing because we all got home early from school that day. She made sure the TV was off or that we were not watching it. We were occupying ourselves with silly games we made up. Looking back now, I should have known something was going on, but I was too young to understand.” – Lauren Carroll, junior communications major at SJU

Uncle Jack was not around to play with us after 9/11. He was always at ‘the pile.’ I did not understand what ‘the pile’ was. I remember collecting socks at school for the men at ‘the pile.’ I remember Mom cooking food for Uncle Jack’s firehouse for when they got back from ‘the pile.’ I remember making ‘Thank you FDNY cards’ for firemen to read when they returned from ‘the pile.’ I remember my Mom crying whenever she talked to her friends about ‘the pile.’ I remember not being allowed to play outside my house for a while because of the weird burning smell dad said was from ‘the pile.’ Grandpa told me bad people sent planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, the two tall rectangle building just eight miles from my house and that a lot of people died. But I did not understand the mysterious ‘pile’ at all. When I asked my grandma what ‘the pile’ was and what was in ‘the pile,’ she got very quiet and told me to pray. I remember praying a lot, and being sad, but not knowing what to make of it. I remember mom taking us in the car and driving to Shore Road, where you could see smoke across the water. She said, ‘There’s the pile. That’s where Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Jack are every day.’ I remember asking my mom what they were doing at ‘the pile.’ I remember she grabbed both of my hands and water began to fill her eyes. ‘They are helping clean,’ she said with a long pause, ‘clean for their friends.’ It wasn’t until I became much older that I realized what this ‘cleaning’ was and what this ‘pile’ was. It was Ground Zero. My two uncles in the FDNY were there, digging and cleaning, searching for the remains of their friends and everyone else who died on September 11, 2001.” – Karen Funaro, junior English and communications major at SJU

‘This is not a drill.’ Those five words played over and over in my head when my elementary school went into an emergency lockdown on September 11, 2001. Immediately following the principal’s announcement, my third-grade teacher directed the class to sit in a hidden corner of the classroom. Next, silence. We were not allowed to speak until the lockdown was over. I remember being so confused as to why we were doing this. Why is my teacher crying? About 20 minutes later, the principal’s voice interrupted the silence, telling us the school is closing early and we would all be sent home. I walked into my house holding my sister’s hand, still in a state of complete confusion. I saw my dad sitting on the couch watching the news, which was weird because dad never came home early from work. My mom later explained we had to leave school because it was located only 20 minutes from Washington, D.C., which many believed to be the next target. I will never forget that day where it really was not a drill.” – Tina Cifferello, senior communications major at SJU

I will never forget the deafening silence. I arrived at school and all was normal. Kids were running around and playing in the schoolyard before the bell rang. When we got inside, our principal came over the loudspeaker. He started using lots of big words none of us understood. We looked at our teacher Mrs. Goia for an explanation. All we heard back was silence. I was more confused than ever. She then told us we would all be going home and our parents would be coming to get us very shortly. All of a sudden, my mom and dad were at school. My first thought: ‘Why isn’t dad at work? This must be serious.’ On the car ride home, everyone was silent. We walked in the door and the TV was on. I saw the collapsing buildings. Immediately, my sister and I started to cry. The silence was broken.” – Mary Kate Gibbons, communications major at SJU

I was in the middle of playing an intense game of kickball with my second-grade class when a hall monitor came in and told me to step outside with her. My dad and sister were waiting. I had no idea why. We got in the car and my dad told us bad people had crashed planes into the Twin Towers. I was so confused by what that meant. I couldn’t understand how a plane could crash into a building or why anyone would do that. He then said my Aunt Barbara would be coming over because she was in the city that day and couldn’t get home to Long Island. When we got home, I watched the footage over and over, but I still couldn’t understand what was going on. Soon my aunt arrived with my mom. She was covered in gray ash from head to toe. My aunt was working in the building next to the World Trade Center and had to evacuate. She talked about how she was trying to run into restaurants with other people, but people wouldn’t open the doors because they were all full. Watching how much smoke was in the streets from the TV was terrifying for me to watch. But for the whole night, my family and I just sat and watched it over and over, trying to understand what had happened.” – Kristin DeCarlo, junior communications major at SJU

I was the last kid left in my third grade class. The TV wasn’t on. My teacher was huddled around a radio with the volume barely breaking the silence of the room. I was tracing the cover of my Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine. Jermaine O’Neal was on the cover. My Mom walked into the room, holding car keys in her hand. We drove back to our neighborhood. “Did you see the plane crash in New York?” she asked. I looked at my mom. She didn’t say a word. I went to the living room and turned on the TV to CNN. I saw still photographs of a building on fire in New York City. My mom picked up the remote and clicked off the television. I knew something had happened, and the sheltering from my school and parents only made my anxiety heighten. I pinned up my Jermaine O’Neal drawing in my room and waited for dad to get home from work.” – Garrett Miley, senior English and communications major at SJU

The TV flickered on and off, on and off. The image of glass spires cutting through a smoke-filled sky flashed so fast across the screen I thought I had imagined it. When I asked my mother why she kept turning the TV on and off, she told me that as long as the news was still running, daddy was OK. He worked for a TV news station. Earlier, when my mother, usually brimming with questions about my day, picked me up from school in silence, I knew instantly something terrible had happened. I spent the day perched on a barstool in the kitchen, watching my mother repeat the on-and-off relationship with the television. She made phone calls in hushed tones. “New York … firemen … helping … leaving…” I picked up these words through the whispers, but they didn’t make sense. I knew daddy was a volunteer firefighter in our small suburban Philadelphia hometown, but why would he be going to New York? When she got off the phone, I asked her if daddy was on another fire call. She said no, he was at work making sure the news stayed on the air. The curious third-grader in me kept asking questions: ‘When is daddy coming home? Why is the sky dark on the TV? Are you OK?’ She answered hesitantly, her normal confidence stripped away.” – Leigh Anne Tiffany, senior biology major at SJU

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