I can still remember even the most minute details of Sept. 11, 2001, and I suspect I am hardly alone in that category. In an instant, that beautiful late-summer September morning, a Tuesday, became, for generations of Americans, the new “I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard President John F. Kennedy got shot” moment.
For me, it was Day 2 of the fourth year of my tenure as a teacher at St. Anthony High School in Downtown Jersey City. Our building, situated on Eighth Street, shared a parking lot with the Jersey City Police Department, a parcel of land with the Haz-Mat Unit of the Jersey City Fire Department and the east side of the school building had stunning, albeit partially obstructed views, of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. That view still haunts me to this day, but more on that later.
En route to the school most days, I took Montgomery Street to get there, and it was if the Towers were the anchors to the street — one on each side. It was an optical illusion, but it was breathtaking, I tell you. It was something to behold. And it was a view anyone who traveled on Montgomery Street took for granted, especially now.
People traveled the world, near and far, to visit the Twin Towers. Yet there they were, right in our backyard.
That Tuesday was to be the first day I had all five classes. Mondays, I had an abbreviated schedule. It was the first period of the day. Pedro Rodriguez, a senior, passed out the syllabus to the entire class for me. He was a great kid, always willing to help. Played on the school’s lesser-known baseball team, too.
A few minutes after we started going over the syllabus, we heard a loud exploding sound. Our presumption was that since we were situated a few short blocks, within eyesight, of the Holland Tunnel, that a truck may have overturned. So it was no big deal, really. And it was the kind of sound we heard often. Thing is, something didn’t really sit right.
And that was when CJ Flaherty, my colleague, came into the classroom and said, “Dude, the F-ing World Trade Center just exploded.” At St. Anthony, I was known as the joker of the faculty, so I looked at him and laughed, and said, “CJ don’t screw around like that — this isn’t even funny.”
His look, however, was nothing close to funny — so I went outside to look for myself — and I wound up staring into the north side of the north tower, this gaping hole of multiple floors, that had insufferable black smoke and vivid orange flames just shooting out of it. By this point, you could already smell the smoke which was making its way across the Hudson River. It’s a smell that lingered, and only got worse, as the months passed by. It was a scent I could never forget.
After gazing at the hole for what was probably only about 30 seconds — it seemed like an eternity, the visions thereof etched on my brain — I went back inside and did all I could to keep the kids calm. They were incredibly well-behaved that day, despite several of them hailing from Manhattan and a small number having had parents who worked in or near the World Trade Center.
The sirens began not too long after. Hundreds of first responders were the ones who were able to use the Holland Tunnel that day. No one else. These were sounds that, to this very day, occasionally haunt me, even if I know it’s just ambulance going to a routine call or the FD on a paramedic run. It lasted for hours, the entire time we were in session that day, until we all were out of there round 4 p.m.
As the schedule would have it, I had classes Periods 1 to 3. I wouldn’t have a break until 11:04 a.m. And, whether this is a benefit or a curse, I still don’t know — none of the classrooms I was teaching in that day faced east.
The windows on all three rooms I was in looked north. And so, despite not having a TV on, two towers were hit within an earshot, both somehow collapsed, and I saw nothing but the gaping hole cause by American Airlines Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower early on in the morning.
Some of the kids saw people falling out of the windows, having opted for certain death over the incomprehensible suffering of burning alive or choking to death. They appeared so small, but they were so brave. Many kids watched as the South Tower came down first, followed by the demise of the North Tower not that long thereafter.
The smoke from what became known as Ground Zero was as sickening a sight or smell as one could ever imagine. It flowed to the south, almost appearing to be attracted by Lady Liberty in the Harbor of Jersey City.
By 11 a.m. that day, people whose days started off in Lower Manhattan began flowing by the school building. Some were covered, head to toe, in ash. Others were bloodied. Some struggled to walk and needed the help of others just to remain standing. They had all taken ferries across the Hudson to get back to Jersey. It was a horrific sight — and these were the people who had made it out alive.
I couldn’t help, even by 11 a.m., but think of how many of those people narrowly escaped with their lives. How many of them knew someone killed. I wondered how many of the cars that were parked on the street might never get moved because they were driven there by people who didn’t get out of the Towers.
And if you remember, the City’s Mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, asked for 10,000 body bags initially. Could that many people really have died? Fortunately, if you could say that even, fewer than 3,000 died that day. Tens of thousands got out, itself a minor miracle. But that very day, when so many people left their homes so innocently that morning, never to return, when so many cops and firefighters were killed just because they were doing their jobs, when airplanes were used as Kamikaze weapons by religious zealots who thought they were doing the right thing, all these years later, I still find myself asking why it had to happen.
I still ask myself how the hell it happened. I still long for that day to turn into dream, to wake up one morning to find the Towers are still there and it was all just a nightmare.
But it was real. It did happen.
So much that day was fluid. The news had reports of planes heading to the White House — perhaps that was the intended target of the hijackers of United Flight 93, which took off from Gate 17 of Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport, a gate I often used to travel to and from Florida when that was my home.
There were reports of car bombs outside the Department of State. They actually thought a third plane was en route to Manhattan, perhaps a reinforcement to get the towers toppled — though we would later learn there wasn’t a third plane and the towers didn’t need such flights to bring them down.
That day, a colleague had even informed me that he heard someone say 1010-WINS was reporting a nuclear warhead was en route to the city. I would years later hear WINS’s coverage as it happened that day and never was such a report proffered. But at the time, everything seemed plausible. Why wouldn’t they, the terrorists (and it was clear by 9:05 a.m. that this was all orchestrated by terrorists) try to ruin us all with a nuclear attack, too?
I remember wondering what it was going to feel like. I was certain death was imminent. Would we all just singe away? Would it burn? Would it hurt? Fortunately it never happened, but this happened at around 11:15 a.m., so there was a lot left to the day and we were asked not to tell the kids about the possible nuclear attack. I didn’t oblige — if they were going to die, they deserved to know. But again, we know it never happened — so imagine what it was like getting to this point?
Still, and somehow, we all banded together and formed a much stronger, more resilient nation, that at the time seemed unbreakable, following the atacks. It’s why 20 years later, I still watch every time there’s a documentary on Sept. 11, 2001, on TV. It’s why once a year, I watch the as-it-happened footage of the local news that day, reliving it all, as painful as it is.
Are we better off today than we were 20 years ago? There’s not been a repeat — or anything even close — on American soil since. Are we stronger people because of what we lived through that day? I sure hope so. But we must never forget the souls lost that day, whether they were flying on airplanes, sitting in the wrong office at the wrong time, were killed by pancaking collapses. Whatever it was.
Because as cliché as it sounds, whenever we forget our history, we’re doomed to repeat it.
God-willing, may we never have to repeat a day like Sept. 11, 2001, ever again, not today, not tomorrow, not 20 days from now, not 20 years from now. Not ever.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.