Lower-Manhattan Schools Cope With the Unthinkable
They focused on the safety and well-being of the children and teenagers in their care following what appeared to be the most catastrophic act of terrorism in U.S. history.
As the children of PS 150 marched out of lower Manhattan to safety on the morning of Sept. 11, most of them were facing north.
Even as they heard the screech of sirens and sensed the panic of the people around them fleeing from clouds of dust and debris, staff members at the elementary school did their best to keep the children's eyes averted as one of the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed behind them as quickly as a pile of toy blocks.
"We just knew we had to keep them facing forward," recalled school secretary Christine Walford, just hours after the attack that forced the evacuation of Public School 150 and six other New York City schools located near the World Trade Center. "We didn't want them to look behind and see the building falling," she explained, her eyes filling with tears.
As events unfolded after a pair of hijacked jetliners crashed into the trade center's famed 110-story twin towers—which subsequently collapsed in midmorning—many parents and New York school employees reported coping with the horrific course of events in much the same way as the staff members at PS 150. They focused on the safety and well-being of the children and teenagers in their care following what appeared to be the most catastrophic act of terrorism in U.S. history.
With bus transportation unavailable, staff members from the three evacuated elementary schools in lower Manhattan walked students to safety at PS 41 and PS 3, two elementary schools in the Greenwich Village area about 1½ miles from the World Trade Center. Parents reported to the schools throughout the morning and afternoon to sign their children out.
Students at Murry Bergtraum High School and Stuyvesant High School, both a few blocks from the trade center, were evacuated by police and told to go home, said Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman for New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy. At the High School of Economics and Finance and the nearby High School of Leadership and Public Services, meanwhile, students were evacuated to Battery Park, where the Staten Island Ferry took them across the Hudson River to Curtis High School on Staten Island. They were bused home later that evening.
In a statement released the afternoon of Sept. 11, Chancellor Levy asked principals, assistant principals, and school counselors and psychologists to report to their schools on Sept. 12 to coordinate crisis-intervention efforts and arrange for grief counseling for students. Schools were expected to reopen on Thursday, Sept. 13.
"I think it is important that parents talk with their children this evening about the events of the day to reassure them that they are safe," Mr. Levy said. "They should know that teachers and staff will do everything to keep them safe."
At a Loss for Words
Parents arriving at PS 41 to pick up their children or reunite with family members on Tuesday wondered how they could help their children make sense of something so unspeakably awful, something that made no sense to them.
As Mary Citarella ushered her 10-year-old twins, Marco and Martina DaSilva, out of the school, Martina tugged on her mother's arm and said, "Mom, Mom, can you tell me what happened?"
"No one knows exactly what happened," her mother answered calmly. Martina then excitedly responded, "Does this mean we can walk in the street?" as she noted the people crowded on a nearby street corner and the absence of traffic in the eerily quiet New York streets.
"I have no idea what to say to them," Ms. Citarella acknowledged to a reporter. "I have no idea."
Beth Lieberman brought her three children, ages 5, 8, and 11, to PS 41 to meet up with her husband, Paul. Ms. Lieberman had just dropped her two youngest children at PS 234 when she saw a tower of the nearby World Trade Center erupt in flames after the first jet crashed into it. She turned around immediately and retrieved her two children from the school before making her way over to nearby Public School/Intermediate School 89, where she picked up her older son and two of his friends. Both schools were later evacuated because of their proximity to the disaster.
"I just knew that they were with me," Ms. Lieberman said outside PS 41, which is just down the block away from St. Vincent's Hospital, where throngs of people were lining up to donate blood. "You have your kids; you do not panic. I just had to get them and then think about the next second, because I just didn't know what was going to happen next."
Students Witness Attack
John Miller also went straight to his daughter's 4th grade classroom at PS 3 after he saw the first explosion on his way to work. He stayed by her side all day as her school served as a haven for students from the evacuated elementary schools.
When he found his 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, she was drawing a picture of the World Trade Center. Her classroom is on an upper floor of PS 3, where students have a view facing south. The 4th graders had watched as the buildings were hit by the planes and later collapsed.
"Somebody heard a boom, and we went to the window and saw one of the planes crashing," Sarah recalled Tuesday afternoon. "I thought it was just a plane that crashed by accident, and I felt sad for the people who died inside the building."
Linda Willis, a volunteer at the school, went with other volunteers to pick up peanut butter and bread from nearby grocery stores so that the school would be able to provide lunches for the students evacuated from other schools. By midmorning, she said, the street outside the school was filled with people streaming out of lower Manhattan, many of them crying and in shock.
"It was actually a lot better in the school than it was on the street," Ms. Willis said. "Here, there were a lot of very upset parents. But everyone knows each other. Everyone pulled together."