Sunday, October 16, 2005

What Happened To Us

What I remember:
The morning was beautiful.
I made two mistakes:
I wore open-toed, black leather mules, I brought cup-a-soup rather than edible food.

First period started well enough, about ten kids wandered in late--some for the first time since JUNE--so attendance took longer than usual, until 8:48am.
I had just finished when the first plane hit. We all heard the scream of the engines, like a bomb in a war movie, then the flash. The kids ran to my back window. I ran to my back window. We saw burning paper, smoke, falling debris. I ran back to the front of the room, yelling to the kids to SIT DOWN and WRITE about what they'd just seen--anything to get them away from the windows. A girl said, "look Miss, there's burning paper floating past the window..."

I called 911 over and over on my contraband cell phone, shaking like a leaf and finally realizing the futility of that, I called home, "Remember what they did to the World Trade Center when you were in Slovakia? Well they did it again. Don't come in to the city."

I was full of adrenaline, thus the shaking, but not truly scared then. My mind was racing: would we be evacuated? Would the American Stock Exchange be a target? Wall Street? Just in how much danger were we?

I got the kids to sit and write and got the bright idea to punch up on the classroom computer. What I saw stunned me. The lead photo on CNN's web page was what we couldn't see from my classroom--the north side of the North Tower (WTC 1) with an enormous gaping hole. Similar to this one 
Strangely, that picture was simply the hole. The flames, the fireball, none of that was present or evident in that picture. It was strangely calming to see a simple black hole rather than an inferno. Little did we know...

The AP Ted Bronsnick came over the intercom. A plane had hit the WTC. Stay calm, stay inside.

The kids were very good. Scared, but behaving. One at a time, alphabetically, I called the kids up to see the picture so they could add the new visual information to their notebook accounts. This was still being reported to us and on as an accident. My cousin and uncle are both pilots for American. I knew planes that big don't accidentally fly into buildings. I knew this was an attack but a hijacking never entered my mind. So passe. So 1970s. This must be sophisticated types who've hacked into FAA computers and led the autopilots into the building...but no one would fly on autopilot through such crowded airspace. It just didn't make any sense!


I had gotten to the E's when the second plane hit. This time I was the only one looking out the window and that's a good thing. As before we heard the scream of the plane, but louder this time (it was directly overhead), and the flash. I saw girders as long as my apartment torqued like pretzel sticks, people, computers, glass, desk parts, metal bits that steamed and sparked like missiles...all flying and landing on the rescue teams already amassed on Church Street--our street, Trinity Place, becomes Church Street just north of us.

Now I was scared. We were told on the loudspeaker to go into the inner hall for a shelter "drill".

Joel, my next-door neighbor on the 12th floor took his radio into the hallway and tried to get a report. was down--I imagine our fiberoptic cable went through the WTC. Lord knows every important antenna in the city was located on top of WTC 1. I closed all of the curtains in our rooms. If there was going to be another explosion, I reasoned, it would probably send something into our windows--even if only wind--we didn't need projectile glass in the classroom and hallways. I never anticipated a building would come down. What possible good could my window blinds do in the face of that?

Soon, Ted came to our floor in person. We were to take the kids to Battery Park. Down the B stairwell, the south stairwell, to the street to the park. I yelled and told the kids I'd be taking Roll when we got there. Neil, our Dean, laughed at me. I laughed too. I thought we were insane to leave the building.

We got to the street, and the debris on the ground was already sobering. Basil, a student and I, picked up pieces of honeycomb insulation, I picked up someone's insurance policy, burnt in half and charred around the edges. We turned when we reached Rector street and looked up. The pictures are everywhere. You've seen them. It was horrifying. Words can't describe what it means to look up at those monoliths, seeing ten-story tongues of flame licking the sides of those proud towers through the pitch black and gray smoke. It STILL never occurred to me that a building--cut in half in such a rude and affronting way--could ever, EVER come down. I managed to get through to my husband Andrew for a seond time before the phone lines were overloaded. "I'm okay; we're all okay, we're going to the park."

The kids were trying to use any cell phones they could get their hands on--the service was ON but the signal was busy. Over and over. Kids waited at pay phones to call their moms. We hustled them down to the edge of Battery Park where EVERYONE--traffic, adults, kids, everyone--had stopped to turn and look back in horror.

I pushed the kids on in front of us, to the right, to Castle Clinton. I wanted to be out in the open, no buildings near by to come down on us!

I stood, on a bench, with Liz Collins, a math teacher. The kids rallied around us. One girl needed an asthma inhaler. I whistled like a Dead End Kid and made the announcement. People (kids and adults) came from all around to offer theirs. We were fine--pointing out the irony between the view of the Statue of Liberty and the burning towers, trying to keep the kids upbeat and hopeful...and then the tower fell.


I don't know if I felt it or heard it...or did I hear the people closer in scream? I have no idea. I just remember seeing the slow-moving billows of solid-as-a-wall smoke coming down Trinity Place right at Battery Park.

I had no idea what was coming, and thought if we could crouch in the leeward side of Castle Clinton we would be fine. The debris would blow over us due to the angle and we'd be fine. I don't actually remember moving, leaving the bench, but I wound up at the southern edge of Castle Clinton...

This all happened at once:
An Australian man, his wife (I think) and their baby in an open, flat-bottomed pram were already crouched there by one of the old fort gun holes. He looked at me--he looked like and was as tall as Rupert Everett--he looked at me and said, "They got the Pentagon too."
And then I was really scared. LA would go, Chicago would go, Seattle probably, maybe Dallas, New Orleans... what places do we love? That's where they're going to hit.
I remember distinctly seeing the faces of two of my students. Two boys I had been so looking forward to having in class this year. Peter and Roy. I saw Kerri, our school secretary's daughter behind them. I saw a look of such horror on those boys faces. I kept screaming their names. Trying to get them to stay with me.
Then they were gone.

Then that fine ash started to fall and it got very dark. The woman with the baby was sobbing, the baby was screaming. The kids all ran off in terror and I knew two things with absolute clarity:
One, there was asbestos in that ash and I'd better cover my face. I found my handkerchief. I wished I'd had the foresight to bring an umbrella from my classroom--or ski goggles--I'd actually considered taking an umbrella when we evacuated, the ski goggles were a dream. Two, there was nowhere to go except a boat and I hadn't seen any boats while the air was clear.

No one was running. It wasn't a WHO concert. We were walking quickly but to nowhere. I caught up to a police officer who was in front of me.

"Do you know where we're going?"
"No... Staten Island Ferry?"
"Have you been trained for this kind of thing?"
Half-laugh, "sort of."

My cell phone rang.
My sister Sydney was calling. I think she must have seen the building come down on TV. She asked where I was. I don't remember what I told her, but she remembers I said I was walking behind a police officer. Her voice was scared. I realized then that I was very, very scared as well. I think I started crying. I don't remember that for sure. The adrenaline at a time like this is incredible--everything went so slowly...

I saw people over the barrier to my right, down a bit on a mini-boat ramp. I thought being next to the water seemed like a good option--not only that, but if it did become a WHO concert, I'd have two barriers between me and the crazy-shoving people as well as the water to jump into. My kids were gone--I didn't know where--what had I to lose?

In my dress and non-sensible shoes I climbed (my grandmothers will forgive me) in the least dignified fashion, over the barrier. I crouched next to a man with a green striped oxford cloth shirt. I helped him cut it with my Swiss Army Knife scissors so he could put a piece over his nose and mouth. We shared water. He tried to use my cell phone to call his wife or girlfriend. It didn't work. Everyone started praying. Jesus' rang out all around me. I didn't care. My prayer was to see Andrew and Aaron again. This moment was the only time I thought I was going to die.

I kept thinking about the crying woman with the screaming baby. I kept hearing babies crying--no do you protect a 6-month old from all of this damn ASH?

It was hard to breathe. I couldn't always see the water, so close by, maybe eight...ten feet down? It was so dark. I thought, very carefully and precisely:
I could jump in the water if the fire comes.
I could get some debris and hold on and float to Brooklyn...I think that's where the current goes from here.
There is no debris to use. I haven't seen anything larger than my fingernail fall to the water.
I could jump in the water and swim.
I don't know how cold the water is. How long could I last? How fast is the current? How much deeper would my breaths be in cold water? Is it better to stay on the land?
How do I get back to Brooklyn? My husband and baby are there.
They're going to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge next aren't they?...and then the Statue of Liberty...and maybe The Empire State Building and Central Park...if they're trying to break us, they'll go there. They'll hit the places we love.

We heard the fog horns of the ferryboats. The man to my right panicked and thought the ferry was going to hit us. Everyone got up fast and then realized we were better off under the edge again. We shared our waterbottles and started climbing back down. Silence closed in around us and I could hear tiny pieces of debris and ash plink into the water.

At some point I looked up and to my left and could see the white disk of the sun above me. I tapped the Muslim man next to me and pointed up. Our eyes smiled at each other over our handkerchiefs. Briefly there was blue in front of me then it was gone again.

Relief doesn't begin to describe the feeling of seeing sun and sky even if only for a second. The numbness of the "oh-my-God-I'm-going-to-die" moment passed and was replaced with a new numbness. Hatred. Blind rage. I wanted Afghanistan to be a parking lot. Right then. Glow-in-the-dark parking lot. Pronto. I thought of David Brin's book, Earth and hoped to God that the Swiss Banks would stop their stupid anonymous accounts so events like this wouldn't be funded. I hated secrets. I hated a lot right then. The screaming babies, I could still hear them and it drove me mad.

I still flinch when I hear a baby scream. It's been a week and a half, I HAVE a baby. He cries--no big deal. But a baby in terror is a special sound. I know my Aaron's cries. The sound that stalks my brain is different. You can't easily forgive that sound.

My comrades in hiding were starting to emerge from under the lip of the island and I, too, got up and moved. I started to walk, vaguely, up the west side as the air seemed better over there. The thought that the other tower could fall hadn't occurred to me. It felt like the worst was over for us (which it was) and anything that looked like fresh air had to be better than the muck we were slurping. I lost the man in the green striped shirt, but kept trying his number on my cell phone. I got through as I came to a new memorial being built in Battery Park and heard a woman's voice-mail message. I said, "Hi, my name is Heather. I sure hope you're okay. I was sitting next to your husband, or brother, or boyfriend...I don't know. We were sitting here at...(I looked at my cell phone clock) 10:16 and we were both alive. I think we're going to be okay. I think he'll be okay. I hope you are too. Just thought you should know he was trying to call you."

A woman in front of me lit a cigarette
The absurdity, the sheer audacity of that cigarette after inhaling toxins for that recent eternity actually made me laugh. How bad is that addiction? Bad enough to need a hit of nic after breathing asbestos! What a crime. I hated tobacco companies right then almost as much as bin Laden. How cruel to create an addiction that would make someone need to inhale more toxins at a time like this. (And yes, it's true, for those who have been asking, bin Laden is who I thought of immediately when the first plane hit. I'm not the only one.)

"Ms. Ordover?"

I turned and saw two of my freshmen. One Muslim Yemini boy who didn't speak much English and another recently arrived from Ghana. I hugged them, asked them how they were, if they'd covered their mouths, where were they going? We started to walk together in that general westerly way.


It was Josie Burgos. When I saw her I knew what I looked like. She, a proud Puerto Rican woman, was white--coated with white ash, prematurely gray. I almost joked that her grandmother would be horrified to see the new "white" her right then, but the moment passed. She was rounding up lost teachers and kids, "we're in that restaurant. It has a red awning." She pointed further south, deeper into the ash cloud, but it was clearing now.
"They got the Pentagon and the Mall," Josie said.
"The Mall?? Jos, my Dad is at NASA," for the first time I started crying--hard.
"Heather, don't go there. You can't go there. The kids can't see this, you can't go there."

I turned my back on them, looking out where the Statue of Liberty might still be beyond the ash. I took a deep breath, coughed.
We headed back.

We heard the planes. The F-16's were up. EVERYONE screamed or jumped or flinched. We heard someone yelling, "They're ours! They're ours!" But we all had to look and see no bombs or missiles coming our way before we actually could trust that. I don't much like planes at all right now. I don't know if I ever will again...and I loved flying.

We found the restaurant and out in front was a portion of my school staff. When I saw my Principal, Ada Dolch, I started to cry all over again. I was certain, in the back of my mind, that she and our AP Ted were dead. They hang back and check the building whenever we drill. They're so careful of the students. But there she was, gray as a ghost, walkie-talkie working and in hand, communicating with...I have no idea who, but it was all okay. She told us the other students were inside.

I walked over broken glass when I entered. Evidently the restaurant owner didn't understand why all the people were trying to get in at 9:59am, September 11th and locked the door. A chair made that lock obsolete.

I was NOT happy about being inside a building and stayed near the door. I preferred being outside. The sky can't fall on you, right? It can pitter-pat on you but not crush you. But I saw the kid's faces. Tear-stained, and some still crying, the kids were calmly sitting down, tearing table cloths, soaking them in water and handing them to other refugees who entered the building. Others just sat, hugging their friends, gingerly drinking bottles of emergency water. (WHERE had those come from so fast? Men had been out on the promenade handing out bottles from boxes...who were those men?). Josie and I went to the bathroom and I tried to wash off some of the grit. That was when I knew for certain that there was either asbestos or fiberglass in the air and that it was now embedded in my neck, hair, face, hands, arms and legs. The prickles reminded me of the time I mistakenly touched the fiberglass-coated lighting cord at UCLA. The invisible prickles remained in my hands for days.

I went outside. The air was clearer and brighter. I spoke with Ada and Ted and then in a daze a group started to walk towards the Staten Island Ferry terminal further east from us. I vaguely remember another low rumble while we snaked around a narrow walkway between the back of the restaurant and a construction site and that's when the ash from the second tower hit. We had gone maybe 50 feet and turned around and got back into the restaurant. As claustrophobic as it was inside, it was better than that ash.

All I wanted to do was get off that island. I joked with a teacher I had never wanted to go to Staten Island so badly. I went outside. It took less time for the ash to clear from this, more northern, tower. Or maybe we were just used to the drill now--tower falls, ash comes, ash problem. I saw some boats, a small NJ ferry that was leaving and a 40'+ sailboat. Some of my students from last year who were seniors now were outside with us and very upset. One girl, Carol, was crying. She lived in Brooklyn and wanted to go home.
I couldn't have sympathized more.
I looked at the water and saw another ferryboat. I looked at Paula, one of our new teachers (what an introduction to the school), and said, "whadda ya think?" What were the chances that New Jersey would be bombed? Nada. In my book Jersey was currently a helluva lot safter than crossing any bridge to Brooklyn.
"Why not?"
We rounded up whoever wanted to go with us and muscled over to the boat. All we had to do was yell, "We've got students" and the shoving adults parted like the Red Sea. It didn't hurt that Carol just kept sobbing, "I want to go hooooommmmeee...I want to go hoooommmmmeeee..."

By 10:38am we were underway--wearing life vests that the ferrymen kept saying we didn't need.
That may have been the funniest thing I heard all day. Try telling someone who is fleeing a crumbling building that they don't NEED a life vest...what, like we're having a good-luck day?
EVERYONE had the vests on!

The ferry was uneventful but the view...oh my God. We could see the edge of the Lehman Brothers building where my husband and sister once worked. The edge closest to Tower One had spines twisting off of it--twisted the way old bobby pins used to get twisted. The Winter Garden was still there. And a lot of smoke. A lot. Two hundred and twenty stories worth.

I remember wondering how anyone's God could possibly say that was okay? What kind of evil justified that kind of response carried out on innocent people. There were children and babies in there...Oh God! There was Trinity Daycare, where Aaron, but for the grace of God, would have been, and the daycare under WTC 1. I found out later that all children made it out alive and safe, but at the time, I didn't know that. My shock that someone could hate us, our movies, our music, our food, our politics THAT much made my mind reel. I mean, I've been embarrassed by American's every time I've left this country, but to hate us THIS much was unbelievable--not in any clich�d sense--it was truly not something my mind could comprehend.

I called Andrew and told him I was headed towards Jersey. His voice always calmed me. He was glad I was safe. Safe was fine, but I really wanted to be heading towards him.

New Jersey did okay by us. The shore was covered with rescue workers, wet towels, water bottles, fruit and frightened smiles all greeting us, telling us to go inside. Everyone I saw I asked, "Any idea how we can get back to Brooklyn?" A few said to try the cops inside an office building, some pointed at the smoke that was thick over Brooklyn's waterfront and said, "Don't expect to get there today..."

The DATEK corporation's lobby housed us and what a spectacular group they were. Their telecom folks set up an emergency BANK of phones--free--that really WORKED. They had donuts, coffee, juice, milk, baby formula, and every office chair in the building down there in their marble and glass lobby--giving us a water-front-row view of the destruction. The kids, Paula and I sat and watched, called home, said we were safe, were escorted to the high-tech-security bathroom by DATEK staff and rested, trying to figure out what to do next. Andrew, during one phone call, said to try a hotel. I'd already tried to make contact with our cousins in Jersey, but without a car, money or a working knowledge of the trains, busses or geography of New Jersey (three important things we didn't have) getting to the cousins was a lost cause. We asked around and the seventeen of us started walking towards the intersection that had the hotels.

There were no rooms at the Inn. At ANY Inn. We were WAY too late and there were WAY too many refugees. The DoubleTree Club Suites at Jersey City seemed a fine place to rest, regardless. They said they were going to open up their second floor as a shelter at 5pm and we needed to sign up--first come, first served. Paula signed us up. I sat in the lobby with a few kids and the rest of lower Manhattan as we watched what had just come down on us via CNN. I sat next to a woman who had been on the 30th floor of the Millennium Hotel. She woke up when the debris from the first plane started hitting her window. She was one of the lucky ones. She had shoes. The Nice Mormon Man had shoes too. Many didn't. Many Battery Park City folks were there, kitties in carriers, babies in Bjorns. Many many, too many, without shoes, in pajamas, in socks. All of us ashy even after the wet towels. I found dried apricots in my bag (who knew!) and shared the few with the Millennium Hotel refugee.

That is, roughly, when I heard the most ludicrous thing I have heard my entire life.
"I'm sorry, but you will all have to leave."
The silence was as thick as the ash.
A voice from behind me said, "Where exactly would you like us all to GO???"
The young desk manager said, "I'm sorry but..." and he got rather embarrassed and mumbled something about fire code violations, too many people, yada yada yada...the hilarity of his statement was lost on us. You have never seen a more RULY group of people. We were shell-shocked and more than a little prim and proper. Silent, silent, silent and still.
No one moved.
My students, who are very used to not being wanted in nice places, slowly moved back out on the sidewalk, in the shade, with their friends. Eventually I went too.

The afternoon moved in slow motion: the fighter planes screaming overhead, the smoke of the burning city in the distance, Paula and some kids got luncheon meat and bread for us to eat...others thought we were the red cross and begged food from the kids...a very kind lady in suite 614 took in a few of us and let us shower, gave us new T-shirts to replace the asbestos soaked shirts we had worn that morning, it was so surreal. In the suite Jason, Gerson and I were really able to watch CNN and see, up close and near the TV, what had very nearly fallen on us. We were sure of two things: our school was gone, and we were all much closer to the danger than we thought initially. The shock of seeing the planes go into those proud towers was much more frightening to all of us somehow, than actually being there when it happened. The boys showered, then I, then, subdued and murmuring many thanks to the denizens of wonderful suite 614, we headed back down.

The Evil DoubleTree was not going to open the second floor as a shelter, and around 5:00pm we were told to go over to the local mall where the Red Cross was opening a shelter.

MORE walking. WHY didn't I wear REAL shoes?

The shelter wasn't open yet. Can we sit here on the grass? Sure.
No, why don't you walk over around that building to the Macy's and wait. That's where the shelter information will be.

So around the corner, the half-mile to the Macy's parking lot where...NOTHING. Not a damn thing.

We see a police truck and ask. Yeah, just wait, they're coming.
We see a New Jersey Transit station and sit on the benches there. A woman walks up and asks where we're from.
"One of the schools under the World Trade Centers," one of the kids says.
"Do you need to get back to the city?"
"God yes."
"Well, they just announced that the Path trains are taking people back to 33rd street."
The cops had just told us differently, but we decided what the heck--better to know for real then guess and wonder all night. It wasn't like there was a real shelter anywhere for us to sleep in.

We walked past a historical marker about some-such boat back in the 1600's landing there on...September 11th. Who knew?

The Path trains were, indeed working, and the (surprised) Path train worked received many hugs from us as we passed through the turnstiles (for free). We were all more than a little nervous being underground, especially seeing that the first station was Christopher Street--it was a little closer to downtown than I wanted to be.

The subways were a mess and a bundle of contradictions, but the National Guardsmen in their sharp uniforms who "greeted" us as we left the Path train at 33rd street were a welcome sight.

We strategized with the kids, who was going home with whom, who needed to be called, who came with us.

Paula and I live two blocks from each other, and Carol couldn't get home by train at all. So she came home with me for dinner and we called her father, who has a car. As our F train (the slowest train in the city under the best circumstances) pulled into Jay Street/Borough Hall, a crazy man started preaching right next to Paula, staring down an Arab-looking man who was seated nearby. Paula motioned to me, and the three of us got off the train. Paula had a bad feeling about the situation and I was all for trusting our instincts at that point. We walked to a bus (free!) and rode to 7th Avenue and Flatbush. We walked the rest of the way.

My sister, her boyfriend David, my high school friend Del (visiting from Tucson and clearly marooned in NYC for a bit) and Andrew and Aaron were all waiting when I walked in the door with Carol and 7pm. It had been 12 hours since I left home that morning.

I started crying when Andrew and Aaron hugged me--later, when Carol?' dad met her at the door they both cried too. I imagine there were a lot of tears that night for many reasons.

The hardest was the next day. The rumors had been flying that my Principal's sister was in Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 105th floor. She was, and was missing, presumed dead. I found that all children were home and accounted for (our Principal, a teacher and our school secretaries had spent the previous day calling), all staff was safe (though one teacher was incommunicado for 24 hours and that had us all worried) and really, all in all, it was a miracle. One of our teachers, Randy, and a security officer, John, had been IN OUR SCHOOL (look at the map) when the buildings collapsed. Their story is much more harrowing than mine. I need to hug them every time I see them, remembering what they saw and went through. No one, NO ONE should have to go through that.

I have noticed that with time my rage has diminished. My nightmares have not. My fear of airplanes and rumbles has increased. I am no stranger to Post Traumatic Stress, but this in different. This is bigger. My fears now center on my son and various acts of random violence. The world was not a safe and happy place before. I had seen violence up close but this was something you couldn't take Aikido to combat.

I hope George Bush and the rest of the country hear us. I hope everyone listens to the people who were here--who were under the buildings and ash clouds.
NO MORE INNOCENTS--no more innocent lives wasted! No more civilians and children should die. I understand Hama rules. I really do. I just hope we can make a new rule book that works--and fast.

I pray we do each time I hear a plane.

Click here to read the stories my students wrote about their experiences on September 11th.

To see a map and other pictures: click here and widen your browser as much as possible. Some pics are rather big...

These are pics from my classroom as of 10/26/01. We were allowed in briefly to grab a few essentials--the kid's college essays, novels with all of my notes, things like that.
A poem I wrote about the 11th

See what some of my fabulous students have been up to since 9/11

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Heather
I am researching a TV documentary focused on Leadership's 9/11 story. I've already been corresponding with Ada Dolch, Conrad Sparnforth, Dan Fielding and others and wondered if you would mind talking to me too? I realise this is a sensitive issue, and if you would rather not take part, I completely understand. However, if you are interested, please do email me at
Very best
Jane Gerber