09.09.2011 0

The day everything changed

By Rebecca DiFede — Tuesday Sept. 11, 2001 started out like any other school day at my middle school in Summit, New Jersey, a small town about an hour outside of New York City. The sun was shining at 7am when I reluctantly succumbed to my alarm clock and got ready for my second week of seventh grade.

At 8am sharp I reported to my first period Life Science class, eager to learn about photosynthesis and the water cycle. Then on to Spanish class for second period, and then I trudged up the hard marble stairs for the start of third period. My third period class was Language Arts, and my teacher Mrs. Mariano was teaching us how to diagram sentences.

She was a jolly woman; tall and round with bright blonde hair. I had never once seen her frown, not even when she was handing out reprimands, which she rarely ever did. Her smile was ubiquitous, that is, until she got a phone call. “Mrs. Mariano, Room 243” she said into the receiver, her bright ever-present smile flashing from across the classroom. But as she listened to the news on the other line, her face completely fell. Her smile faded slowly into pursed lips with a furrowed brow, and finally her jaw simply dropped. I knew something was definitely not right.

After what seemed like an hour she hung up the phone, and it seemed as if she was unsure of how to proceed. “Class,” she began, in a tone of voice I had never heard, “a plane just hit the World Trade Center.” We were all in shock, looking around at each other for answers we didn’t have. The first words out of my mouth were, “was it an accident?” At that time, in my mind, there was no other possible explanation.

Immediately following Mrs. Mariano’s announcement, we heard our principal, Dr. Ted Stanik, over the loud speaker. “Attention students, there has been an incident in New York City and there is going to be a lot of traffic, so if your parents work in the city you may come to the office and arrange for other rides home.” Little did I know, that that would be the single biggest understatement I had ever heard.

The next period was Wood Tech, and as I walked down the stairs and towards the main corridor, there was an air in the halls that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Everyone was drifting through the school with dazed looks on their faces, unable to understand what was happening. We were just kids, after all.

On my way to the woodshop I had to pass the main office, and through the glass wall I saw what seemed like hundreds of students in line to use the phones, and several more about to head in. Being so close to New York, the vast majority of the parents of my classmates worked in the city.

And then I saw my friend Ella standing near the front desk with the office manager Mr. Johnson; she was crying. Not the little panicked sobs that I had seen from people in the halls–a knee-jerk reaction to the terrifying event — but heavy, devastated crying. Like her entire world had been ripped from beneath her.

I tore my eyes away from Ella and continued down the hall, determined to make it to class. When I entered my teacher Mr. Ryder had already turned the TV on, and we watched as not one, but two towers burned like torches in the middle of New York. My eyes nearly popped out of my head, and at that moment I knew there was no way it could have been an accident. One, sure, but not two. I became inexplicably angry.

Rubble was falling off the buildings, and the whole of Manhattan was in a frenzy trying to run. At one point, I looked to one tower and saw people jumping out of the windows. They were so high up, and my classmates and I could only watch in horror as they plummeted to the ground like tiny stones. I remember thinking, “How could this be real? How could this actually be happening?” At twelve I couldn’t fathom how someone could do something like this to so many innocent people.

After a few minutes, my best friend Hannah who was in my class grabbed my arm, looked me in the eyes and whispered, “Oh my God, the train my mom took this morning stops at the World Trade Center.” We both turned back to look at the TV, and quickly ran from the room towards the office. We called both of our parents to ensure that they were alright; my parents both worked in New Jersey but sometimes they did business in New York, and I wanted to be sure. We were lucky.

At the end of fourth period Dr. Stanik announced that in light of the severity of the event, we were dismissed for the day. My father, who had been home recovering from neck surgery and my grandfather, who was staying with us for the Jewish High Holidays came to pick me up, both visibly shaken. My father especially, as he had grown up in Brooklyn and had seen the New York skyline from his home for most of his life.

Once home, family and I sat clustered around the TV, watching as every channel broadcasted the chaos. I screamed when I realized that while I was at school, both towers had collapsed. The news showed the footage on replay and all I could do was sit wide-eyed in terror. My dad kept saying “I never thought they’d fall. I never in a million years thought they’d fall.”

What I remember most about the newscast was the sound of people screaming. Men, women and children, shrieking in terror and their city burned from within. Even though the newscasters tried to talk over them, in the background all I could hear was the screaming. It was as if America had a heart attack, and everyone felt it at once.

School was cancelled on the twelfth, but I didn’t budge from my spot in front of the TV. On the thirteenth, when I arrived back at school, I began to hear what I had always known but hadn’t wanted to think about: Summit had lost nearly a hundred people. My friend Ella who had been crying in the office, her dad was missing. He had been cleaning carpets on the hundred-something floor of the north tower. Another girl a year younger than me lost both her parents, they worked for different agencies within the towers. So many people I knew were taken away in the blink of an eye.

The days that followed were a blur. Counselors came in and talked to us, asked us if we were ok. We were told that if at any time we felt the need to cry or talk to someone, that we could be excused from class and go to the guidance office. But I knew there was nothing they could do for me.

I felt a feeling of anger that I had never felt in my life. It surged through me day and night, refusing to be quelled. The fact that members of a group called al Qaeda had snuck into my country and lived amongst my people, in a complex in Florida adjacent to where my grandfather lived, only to take flying lessons and plan an attack that would change my world forever. How dare they come here and challenge our freedom? I thought. Had I been eighteen, I would have enlisted right then and there.

Ever since that day, the mere mention of September 11th gives me a knot in my stomach the size of a truck, and just a one minute clip of one of the towers falling, or the people screaming, reduces me to tears. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, and I can’t believe all that time has passed. I remember every moment of that day as if it just happened, and I expect that I will continue to remember it just as clearly for the rest of my life. It was no regular Tuesday; it was the day that everything changed.

Rebecca DiFede is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government.

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