This essay, published on Saturday, September 11, 2010, is exclusive to Notablog.
[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019; 2020]
TIM DRINAN, STUDENT
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
A native New Yorker, Tim Drinan was born at NYU Hospital in Manhattan and lived with his parents and his younger brother in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn until he went away to Brown University. He attended Berkeley Carroll, a private school in Park Slope, from pre-K through 8th grade and then attended one of the jewels of the public education system in NYC, Stuyvesant High School, from 2000 to 2004. Today, he works with the Department of Education.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Tim was into his fourth day as a sophomore at Stuyvesant. His first period English class began at 8:45 a.m., when the first plane hit the World Trade Center's North Tower. "I remember feeling a sort of trembling, but it seemed insignificant. Just before 9:00, I had raised my hand and was in the middle of making a comment about 'The Odyssey' when the principal broke in on the public address system: a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. There would be emergency vehicles in the area, but we shouldn't worry. He advised us to continue with classes as normal. We were on the 6th floor on the south side of the building, so students rushed to the window to catch a glimpse of the towers---but our teacher lowered the shades and told us that we had work to continue with. I myself didn't see anything, and my only thought was one that I'm sure many people around the world shared: some small Cessna pilot had probably fallen asleep, lost control and grazed one of the towers accidentally."
But when a second plane struck the World Trade Center's South Tower, he felt that same sort of trembling again, and the lights flickered briefly. He had proceeded to the fourth floor for his second period class, Mathematics, at 9:30 a.m.. The shades on the south side of the room were also down, and the students "made it through most of the lesson, before a student in the back, who had a small radio and a headphone in his left ear, raised his hand and then approached the teacher to whisper something I couldn't hear. The teacher looked worried but told the student to return to their seat."
Within 10 to 15 minutes, the teacher told the class to pack up and follow him out of the classroom. The students proceeded to the second floor. A security guard had locked the glass doors to the main entrance. Tim remembers: "Outside was a sea of people trying to get in. In retrospect, I assume that most of them were parents who worked or lived downtown, who had come to the school to retrieve their child. But at the time, it was just chaos: people packed like sardines on the footbridge outside the door, security guards yelling to each other, administrators running in and out of offices."
The students were told to return to their classrooms, but moments later classes were canceled and everybody reported to their homerooms. "My homeroom was on the 7th floor, on the south side, and my homeroom teacher never showed up that morning. For some time---it could have been 3 minutes, but it felt like an hour---we were there by ourselves, a bunch of 15-year-olds, crowded around the windows, watching the Twin Towers burn."
"I remember ... the jumpers. From our vantage point, we could see straight into the thick black hole that the first plane had bored in the North tower. And we could see people jumping out of the upper floors. At first it wasn't clear what they were, but it was the same motion, over and over: A small white speck, shaped like a capital 'T.' They would appear at the edge of the building, and they would fall forward, towards us, with the T flipping upside-down, and then they would shoot down into the mass of smoke."
Eventually the students were ushered into another homeroom by a teacher across the hall. "Administrators were making announcements asking for individual students to report to the front door to meet their parents. I think my feelings of worry and fear became a lot stronger a few minutes later, when another student with a radio said that another plane had hit the Pentagon. 'Is this some sort of conspiracy, some sort of organized attack?' I wondered. Students began asking the homeroom teacher if they could leave, or if they could go downstairs to use the pay phone. We saw students in the hallway crying and shaking, huddled on the floor.
"Then the announcement came that we were to evacuate the building."
With Stuyvesant High School in diagonal proximity to the World Trade Center site, FBI agents entered the building after 9 a.m. and set up a command post in the principal's office. They assured the principal that there was no chance of either of the Twin Towers falling and that keeping the students in the building was the most prudent course of action. By 10:30 a.m., of course, the wave of dust from the collapse of both towers had engulfed Stuyvesant and the surrounding buildings.
The evacuation of Tim and his fellow classmates from Stuyvesant took about a half-hour. "We were to proceed calmly to the nearest exit and walk north as far as we could. That was the end of the instruction. So like a jittery class enacting a very serious fire drill, our whole school flowed out the north doors of the building and began walking up the Hudson River. We joined a herd of people already on their way: athletes and students and businessmen and elderly women. I thought I was walking next to a homeless person for a few meters, and then I realized it was a man with a briefcase who had been covered from head to toe in ash. He was so dirty, I did not even recognize that he was wearing a suit at first."
Tim is not entirely sure where he was when the Towers collapsed. "All I know is that at some point I turned to look over my shoulder and the Twin Towers were not there. At first I assumed that they had just been covered by smoke, because there was so much smoke in the air and in our lungs and on everybody and covering the sun, but eventually I realized that the buildings were simply gone. It was only then that I realized that if the buildings had toppled sideways, instead of straight down, I and everyone I was with would have been injured or killed."
"Over the course of the next few miles," Tim states, "I found other students I knew, a loose band of friends and acquaintances. I think we made it all the way to 14th street before making the decision to leave the West Side Highway and go to the home of one person who lived in SoHo. Walking back through the narrower streets, I was unnerved by how quiet the city was. There were no cars or buses or trucks rumbling by, there was no music, no sound of the subway, nothing at all. Just people walking or standing quietly around a car, listening to radio broadcasters make guesses at what was happening. It was like a Twilight Zone episode: the biggest city in the country turned completely silent in a matter of minutes.
Tim's mom met him at his friend's house and the two of them walked back to Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge. "It's easy enough to remember what I did that day, how I physically navigated the danger and the city. It's much more difficult to remember how it all felt. I think that's partially because what I felt were not emotions that I'm used to, not emotions that I can easily identify or name. It was a day filled with tension, worry, confusion. For a moment on the Manhattan Bridge, when the subway started running again and we felt the ground shaking beneath our feet, I was fairly certain that terrorists had attacked the bridge and I would momentarily plunge into the East River. But in my certainty, I didn't feel afraid. I was surprised and confused, but I was so sure of what was happening that I felt almost calm. When we discovered it was just the Q train being sent back over the bridge, of course, I was overwhelmed with relief.
"It was also a day filled with gratitude---gratitude that my friends and family were okay, that I was able to get home, that there were kind people on the street giving out water and bread to anyone who needed it. That day, and in the days that followed, this city came together in a way that I have never seen. From delivery men to grocers to strangers on the subway, everyone made eye contact with me. Everyone's look seemed to say 'We're here, all of us. We're here, and we're grateful, and we'll take care of each other. We will.'"
Tim never needed any therapy and he didn't have any nightmares in the wake of the tragedy. In the short-term, however, he slept a lot and felt sort of listless when he was awake. Stuyvesant High School students went back to school a week later, having been relocated to Brooklyn Technical High School in downtown Brooklyn. "I remember it feeling good to have a routine ... and to be around people. Everyone in the school was pretty distracted: we had short classes and spent an inordinate amount of time before and after school every day sitting in large groups, eating pizza and milkshakes and Junior's cheesecake."
For about 2 years after the tragedy, Tim would react involuntarily whenever he heard a plane fly overhead: "my muscles would flinch, my breath would quicken, my stomach would drop. A few minutes later I'd be back to normal, but that remained one of the only lingering physical signs of anything approaching trauma."
"Socially, I still feel the effects to this day. Whenever 'September 11th' comes up in conversation, I become much more silent than I am usually ... it usually takes me 15-20 minutes to feel like myself again in conversation."
One of the positive experiences that emerged from that day was Tim's involvement, in the winter of 2001-2002, with a play at his high school. Similar in style to the works of actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith, the play featured the strung-together interviews of people in the Stuyvesant community: teachers, students, other staff, etc. The play, a series of monologues, was later published by Harper Collins as With Their Eyes: The View from a High School at Ground Zero. The process of creating that play and working with other students was clearly cathartic: "I'm not sure if it was the weight of the material or the random combination of personalities, but the group of people that came together to create that play is one of the best, strongest communities that I've ever been part of. Nine years later, we still get together every winter at someone's house for a reunion. And our reunions today are just like our rehearsals were then: full of great and meaningful conversation, but also full of stories and laughing and a perhaps-intentional lightheartedness. It sounds cheesy, but it's true: out of September 11th, out of all my feelings of loss and sadness, came some of my best and most lasting friendships."
Another thing that has come out of the tragedy of that day is Tim's feeling that "[t]his is a country---and more important to me, this is a city---founded on tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Everyone's 'togetherness' on September 11 (and September 12 and September 13) was palatable to me. I could feel it in the air, and it made me feel proud to be a New Yorker. I think we need to summon that togetherness once again, to remember that we are all part of the same city, the same crazy tangle of subways and restaurants and baseball fields and places of worship."
Tim Drinan. Photo by Drew Durbin