Friday, September 11, 2009

It's been 2920 days

Eight years ago today, it was my fourth day of high school at Stuyvesant High School, the magnet high school giant in Manhattan, and I was beginning to feel at home in high school. I was 11 days away from turning fourteen, which is a huge milestone in teenagerhood--you go from a middle-school teenager to a High School Kid. I was excited and I was beginning to get the hang of my new schedule at school. I had an early world history class with Mr. Valentin, who moved a mile a minute and erased his notes from the board seemingly every minute. I got out of class at 8:40 or so and headed excitedly to the library to log onto a computer terminal and write my mom an email. Another thing about high school was my shiny new email address. I had been quite a sadsack about high school up until today, and I was excited to share my new happiness with my parents.

So I logged on--I still remember my old password, thutosh--and began typing to my mom:

Dear Mom,

I'm here at school and I think I'm beginning to like it.

or something of the sort, when there was a massive thump that seemed to come from the floors above the library. It was too sudden and muffled to cause any commotion in the meticulously maintained Stuyvesant Library, but everyone looked up, startled, from their computers or books. People quickly stopped thinking about it until someone sitting by a window hissed "look at all that smoke!" we rushed to the window and looked out to see a plume of smoke rising from what looked to be the top of the red brick residential building across the street, although no flames were visible. "A boiler room explosion!" someone asserted, and we all agreed that there had been a catastrophic explosion in the upstairs boiler room that the building must have had.

It was the beginning of Period 2, and kids who were a little bit late to class had begun filtering in, and their story was a little different. A rumor spread like wildfire through the library--a plane had run into the World Trade Center. A plane had run into the world trade center. A plane had run into the twin towers. A small passenger plane had hit one of the towers. I laughed, not even connecting our neighbor's "boiler room" explosion with the comical image I had of a small propeller plane hitting one of the towers and bouncing off, props and wings mangled in every zany direction imaginable. I sent my email and left the library.

I ran into one of my many new friends in the hallway. "The World Trade Center is on fire!" he breathed, and then everything clicked. The plume of smoke was not coming from the top of the building across the street, it was coming from behind the building across the street. It was coming from the World Trade Center, four blocks away. This was no cartoonish aerial mishap. There was something seriously dangerous about the thoughts beginning to take shape in my mind. "Come on--let's go to the tenth floor! Apparently you can see!" My heart was pulsing and my face was beginning to flush with excitement and nervousness. A familiar gravelly voice came over the public address system: "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your principal, Stanley Teitel. Ten minutes ago, a passenger plane flew into the side of one of the Twin Towers..." I can't remember if he asked us to remain calm, I can't remember if he asserted that everything was under control, but I will never forget how little response it got. People were nervous and jittery and walking fast, but nobody was panicking except for a few kids whose parents worked in the Towers.

My friend, whoever it was, and I had made it to the tenth floor. We found a vacant art class and ran to the windows. Looking south, we could see over the building across from us and see that there was a gigantic hole in one of the Twin Towers. The smoke had turned black and was billowing upwards, countered by a shimmering waterfall of debris flowing downwards 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 left my friend with a gaggle of other onlookers and headed downstairs to see if I could find any of my football buddies, with whom I was closest at this point in school, when there was another muffled thump. Minutes later, principal Teitel announced that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. Someone I passed on the stairs proclaimed "It's terrorists!" Someone else added "This can't be an accident..." All I could respond with was "Holy shit. Holy shit!" I ran downstairs to the fifth floor, the popular football hangout and several of the guys were there. We exchanged high fives, pounds, and daps and all began acting masculine. Someone began holding forth about terrorism. Other football players expounded on how fucking nuts this was, yo. Others, including me, milled about silently.

I can't really remember anything until my next class, Honors English Research Seminar with Gail Greenbaum. Mrs. Greenbaum was a very in-touch woman. She had us do calming alternate nostril breathing, turned half the room lights off, and then turned on CNN. There was a live feed on the Twin Towers. We kept the sound off, and turbulent chatter filled the room. The window faced North, away from the scene of the attacks. We crowded around the seats nearest to it and watched as a small stream of foot traffic began to trickle up the West Side Highway and a flock of media and police helicopters began to form coming straight at us, each one sending us ducking and cursing as it whooshed over our building. An announcement came over the PA system and told us that the building was being locked down because it was unsafe to go outside, and that we would 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, and the building shook as CNN showed one of the towers collapsing in a plume of grey. Our room went silent. Some of us put our heads down. Some 0f us cried. I sat in silence, and thought about death. The room vibrated both with the aftershock and with the nervous energy of thirty 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 came over the loudspeaker instructing us all to calmly get out of our classes and evacuate the building. Details for which classes were to follow what exit paths were given to the teachers, and all 3,200 of us--students and faculty--began organizing into groups and lines. Never did I think that fire drilling was more than just an excuse to get out of class, but here was an example of mass organization and fire planning at its best. 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 front a maze 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 North doors to a gorgeous late summer day, no sign of disaster except for the stream of businesspeople walking up the West Side Highway. A call for water was made and we all handed any bottled water we had up the line.

I was walking North with some of the guys from the football team, chit-chatting about baseball, about the upcoming football season in which we were going to finally suceed after so many years of being the New York Public School Athletic League bottomfeeders, about girls, and certainly not about the maelstrom of dust, debris, and smoke we were walking away from. 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 us to get home, 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 father.
My dad.
The first words out of my mouth were "I knew you'd come." Because somehow I did. I had known all along, somehow, that my father would come find me. Out of the tens of thousands of people streaming uptown, out of the three thousand Stuyvesant kids, I knew my dad would find me. Because he was my dad. That's just how it was. Of course he 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 ran against the flow of foot traffic. It didn't matter that he was one man running towards the disaster, towards his confused 13-year old son. It didn't matter that I was one small pre-pubescent, confused, rattled teenager in a crowd of 13,000 or more. I knew he'd come. And of course he did. He found me, and put his hand on my head, and I looked up, and framed against the brilliant, empty blue September sky was my dad.

"Hey, Nick! How are you?" He smiled. 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 it was my dad.

"Let's go home."
"Are you hungry?

That's what happened to me on September 11th, 2001.

it's been 2920 days and this is the first time I've written this story down.


Nick Lerangis


  1. Wow, what an incredibly moving account of what happened. Thank you for sharing it Nick.


  2. I was a Stuy '06 so my memories involve being stuck in 8th grade in Astoria, smelling burnt rubber and no one telling me anything when I asked if my mom (who worked in WTC 8) was dead. Your post makes me remember my years at Stuy-- as well as this sense that, despite the fact that everyone in NY had their own experience of it, our entire graduating class had arbitrarily evaded something huge that set everyone else apart.

    Strangely, my brother (Stuy '05) had a similar experience as you did -- everyone was just spilling into the streets and suddenly our mother was there. Hah. :)

    Anyway, this was an amazing post-- thank you for writing it and thank you for making it public.

  3. Nick, you are a wonderful writer. This is so moving and powerful.