REFLECTION — Sept. 11, 2001: The one day in my life I expected to die

This photo was taken Sept. 10, 2001, at or around Liberty State Park in Jersey City. National Geographic TV

Editor’s note: This reflection was originally written Sept. 11, 2011, for the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks on America. It’s been edited over time.

September 2001 was going to be one of the best months of my life. I was in my fourth year as a teacher at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City (now closed) and we had just said goodbye to one of the greatest classes to ever go through the halls of the school (Class of 2001) and I was finally going to be able to work with another of the greatest classes in the school’s history (Class of 2002).

I started with the Class of 2002 back in 1998 —- knew them all very well and got along with them all notoriously well — yet had never taught them. Finally, in September 2001, I’d get to teach the entire class. All for religion and some in my pre-law class. (My favorite class to teach was always pre-law — it was more of an introduction the administration of justice process.)

Before the first day of classes in the first week of September, we had a series of faculty meetings as we did every other year. But there was a difference this time. A veteran teacher, who had been at the school many years and who left, was coming back to the school. He was and is a legend, a model teacher who taught me so much about being a better teacher over the years. Before 2001, he was Brother Ray. Now, he was just Ray, having left the Marist Brothers order just some time before coming back to St. Anthony’s.

He was, as they say, a “Master Teacher,” and as such, was leading workshops.

On Friday, Sept. 7, 2001, he asked the entire faculty what our biggest peeve was about working at St. Anthony’s. I immediately knew my answer.

“The damn firetrucks,” I blurted out, out of turn, without raising my hand.

You see, the adjacent property to the St. Anthony’s building was and still is the Jersey City Fire Department’s largest station and home to the Haz-Mat unit. They were always going on calls and the screams of the sirens were constant. And as someone who has un-diagnosed ADD, those sirens always threw me off, especially when I was in the middle of a good lecture or a discussion.

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I didn’t realize it at the time, but it would be those very sirens, that very sound that irked me to no end, that would in just a few days become the signature sound of the year 2001. Little did I know that Friday morning, as I drove to Jersey City, and stared at the beautiful Twin Towers, that in just four days, they’d be gone forever.

Little did we know our world would soon be forever changed, our lives thrown upside down. Sept. 11, 2001 was just four days away, and it was the first day in my life — the only day in my life to this very day — when I thought I wasn’t going home.

I thought I was going to die.

I didn’t expect to remember much about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, but because of the enormity of the day, almost every step I took that day I can recall. I woke up at about 6 a.m., and my grandma, with whom I was still living, asked me what, if anything, I needed pressed off. I gave her my favorite pair of khaki corduroy pants, a short-sleeved orange, summery shirt, and she pressed them off as though they were done by professional cleaners.

When I left the house — 37 Ivy St., Kearny, N.J. — I remember looking to the sky to watch a FedEx plane that was taking off, and then marveling at the cloudless sky. Remember that? It was a perfect day. Absolutely perfect day. The plane was a DC-10.

As I did most days, I made my stop at Sunset Deli on Kearny Avenue, and got my usual cup of coffee — cream and one sugar — and a buttered roll. Rarely did I break that routine.

“Have a good day, Kev,” the owner, Joe Petito, said as I left.

I got into the car, began driving toward Jersey City and for one reason or another, I took a different route than I normally did. I went via Montgomery Street, a four-lane road that ran east-west. What was wonderful about this way of going was that once you reached Baldwin Avenue, the street was anchored by an optical illusion — the World Trade Center’s two towers.

It was such a beautiful sight — one I often took for granted. But I remember seeing the sun shining on the two towers. And as I got closer, you could see the reflection of the two towers, including in the waters of the Hudson River.

I got to school, excited and anxious, because for me, it was the first full day of classes. After homeroom, I was in Room 101 for the first period. Senior religion seminar.

One of the seniors, Pedro Rodriguez, helped me pass out the syllabus for the year — the expectations, grading policies, curriculum, etc. When he was done, Pedro gave me the extra copies, I put them back into my folder and suddenly, there was a massive boom.

Our supposition at the time was it was a tractor-trailer overturning near the Holland Tunnel, which was two blocks away. So we really didn’t make a big deal of it, as startling as it was. I grabbed a student desk, sat down on its top to begin reviewing the syllabus with the kids, when out of nowhere, in comes C.J. Flaherty, my colleague who was having a class outside in one of the school’s trailers (there just wasn’t enough room in the school proper to house all classes.)

“Dude, the World Trade Center just exploded. It’s on fire,” C.J. tells me.

“Bro, don’t fuck around like that. That’s not even funny,” I responded.

“No! I’m not kidding. Go outside and look for yourself.”

I really thought he was pulling my leg, perhaps a way to get back at me for jokes I’d pulled on him. I was 26 and sometimes, joked about too much.

C.J. sat with my class while I went outside. I exited the Eighth-Street doors, which faced north, walked east about 15 steps, and looked out at the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which had gaping holes on all sides I could see. C.J. wasn’t kidding at all. It was on fire, and we had absolutely no idea how it happened. I stood there, stunned, able to see inside the Towers. The smoke and flames were sickening. But I was there for, at most, 30 seconds.

Back in my classroom, I ordered the kids to put the syllabus away — and we said a prayer. At that very moment, not even knowing what was to come, we all knew there would be a lot of carnage. Prayer was about the only thing we could do at that moment. It was, perhaps, the most helpless feeling I could ever recall.

After the prayer, we put on the TV. Each classroom had one since we used Channel 1 News for the kids. The only over-the-air channel NOT knocked off the air immediately was WCBS Channel 2. The silence, especially on the first day of classes, where there’s usually a lot of excitement, was deafening.

The kids and I were glued to the television, and all we could ask each other is “What on earth happened?”

At the time, not knowing much, we concluded a terrorist must have planted a massive bomb in the upper floors of that tower. As a few moments passed, we saw what appeared to be a chopper flying toward the South Tower. And with that, a huge explosion and fireball ensued.

Then, the TV went blank.

We knew, then, we were under attack.

It was only a few minutes past 9 a.m. And we were just beginning the first period of the day, of the quarter, of the semester and of the academic year. Yet we still had no idea what was to follow.

Once the TV went out, I wasn’t sure what to do next. We tried to put on the TV again and WCBS was somehow back on the air, using an auxiliary antenna we’d later learn, from atop the Empire State Building. Their regular antenna was at the World Trade Center and it wasn’t functioning.

Along came the vice principal, the late-Brother James Redunski, FMS, who had told me the City of Jersey City recommended all TVs be shut off. So I obliged. He also said we were going to try to make the day one like any other. So for a moment, I got the kids to take out their syllabus again and began to review it with them.

Now this is where that story from Sept. 7 comes into play. It was about 9:15 a.m., when the sirens began to blare. Non-stop. Whether it was firetrucks from Jersey City, the Port Authority Police Department or from tons of municipalities throughout New Jersey, one thing was clear: Emergency-services units from all over Jersey were on their way into Lower Manhattan to help.

That was both uplifting and scary in each’s own way. I mean, could it be so bad over there cops and firefighters from all over the place had to go into Manhattan to help?

One thing was for sure. It was hard as hell to go on as if nothing happened. But I did.

In fact, in second period, I gave my French I students a vocabulary quiz. And they all got 100s. I’ll never forget that.

Fast-forward to third period. It was 10:15 a.m. Michael B. McNutt, the dean of seniors, came into my room to tell me that both towers had been hit by airplanes and that the south tower collapsed. Then he told me the Pentagon had been struck. I was overcome with such fear that my hands turned to a clamy sweat. And somehow, I kept it together.


It was in third period the first mom came to pick up her daughter. It was Diane Colon, mom of senior Francesa Bernarbe.

“I’m taking her the hell away from here,” Mrs. Colon told me. “Be as safe as you can, Canessa.”

Ironically, they lived a few short blocks away from the school — so we were probably as safe as they’d be.

Then, minute by minute, more and more parents and guardians came in to get their kids. Toni Bollhardt, the school’s exec assistant, would call the names one-by-one. Only those whose families came would be allowed out of the building. For the rest, it was 100% lockdown.

No one in, no one out. Except for teachers.

When 11 a.m. arrived, it was my lunch period. Early lunch, yes. I went outside, and as I stood at the curb of Eighth Street, sucking down one cigarette after the other (my nerves were shot by the point), people were starting to come back from New York City via the ferry. PATH trains were totally shut down.

They were covered with an ashen-like substance, which we now know is the dust from the collapse of the Towers. Some were bloodied all over. Others had no shoes. It was orderly, mass chaos.

I walked away from the curb, and this is when the shit hit the fan beyond reason.

John Grutkowski, the dean of students, approached me and told me he had been told 1010 WINS had reported a nuclear missile was heading toward New York City. My stomach dropped. I went back to my car, and turned on WFAN, because I needed to hear familiar voices in Don Imus, Chuck McCord and Sid Rosenberg. Don and Chuck were still on the air. After a few moments, I had to turn off the radio, because all I could think of was how it was going to feel when the missile hit.

Would we burn?

Would we vaporize?

Would we suffer?

Then I took a walk closer to the waterfront, only to smell the smoke which had now reached Jersey City. It was a smell I can’t forget, because it wasn’t just burning paper and melting steel — clearly, it was the scents of burning flesh, carnage that no one could begin to imagine. I can still “smell” it in my mind to this day.

That rising smoke from the Towerless pit was the most unsettling sight I’ve ever seen and this holds true to today.

Grutkowski made me swear I wouldn’t tell the kids about the alleged nuke and I agreed at that moment.

But fifth period would soon arrive, another senior religion seminar course, and there wasn’t a chance in hell of me keeping that news secret from those kids. They were all young adults and if they were going to die, they at least had the right to prepare for it.

I immediately told them and despite the admin’s call to keep the day a regular day, I’d all but given up. So did the kids who remained. They tried to no avail to call home. Cell service was scant. Some got through. Others couldn’t.

One kid’s mom was in the area and he was a member of the State Champion Basketball team. One of the best ball players I ever got to see. He went on to Syracuse where he had a four-year run. But that day, not being able to get in touch with his mom, he cried a lot. We cried with him.

The unknown was unbearable. What was next? Were there 20,000 or more dead people in New York? How would kids get home if parents didn’t come to get them? It was surreal.

We got through that day, somehow. But Downtown Jersey City seemed more like Jerusalem. There were National Guardsmen on every corner of every street within view of the school. When I left at 2 p.m. to go get a cup of coffee, I had to show my ID to the guardsman to walk one block. When I got to the next corner — where Lucy’s Cafe was — I had to give another guardsman my ID, also.

Had to repeat the process on the way back.

The last kid left St. Anthony’s that day at 4 p.m. Those kids who came from Manhattan or Brooklyn stayed with teachers who lived in Jersey City that night. While those who were in Manhattan could get back to Jersey City by ferry, entry into Manhattan from Jersey was prohibited.

I got in my car and had to take a maze to get home. All the while, all I could see in my rear-view mirror was smoke. All I could smell was the smoke. Charles McCord’s voice was the only means of comfort I had. The normally 20-minute ride home to Kearny took two hours.

The traffic heading into Jersey City as I left it was surreal. It was backed up from the Wittpenn Bridge all the way through Harrison on Route 280 and the Newark-Jersey City Tpk. Those people likely had been there since 9 or 10 a.m., with no way of turning around. It was one of the most remarkable sights I’d seen that day.

When I got home and walked up my stairs at about 6 p.m., I grabbed my grandma and uncle Matty and hugged them as though there were no tomorrow. We had a bird’s eye view of the Manhattan skyline from our living room window and the smoke was still a sickening scene.

I’ll never forget later that night, when I went to the deli for a cup of coffee and because I just needed to get the hell out of the house and stop watching TV, a man was furious the Atlantic City bus had been canceled the next day. I recall looking at him and asking what was wrong with him?

He walked away, and I did, too. I had to.

I got back into my car, cried like a baby, and finally went home for the night.

The next day, I was an eyewitness to the disaster on C-SPAN with Brian Lamb. It was the most trying 24 hours of my life. Like you, if you were alive that day, and old enough to remember, I was forever changed. I was two miles away as the crow flies from the greatest tragedy to ever hit our shores. And somehow, I didn’t die, even though I thought, for sure, I would.

What I will never forget are the sounds, the sirens, the people covered in soot — and those who died that day. Almost 3,000 that day alone. Ten years later (now 21), I feel the same today as I did those days. We can never, ever forget what happened that day. When we do, we are doomed to repeat it.

Learn more about the writer ...

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.