About four blocks north of the former site of the twin towers sits Public School 89, a brick building with a playground that’s big and breezy and protected despite being nestled next to one of Manhattan’s only highways. On Sept. 11, 2001, dozens of kids between pre-K and fifth grade at PS 89 witnessed the terror attacks from their school’s own windows.
Terrorists drove a plane into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. and another hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m. By the time the buildings, once the tallest in the world, collapsed at 10:28 a.m. and 9:59 a.m. respectively, the school day had devolved into an evacuation mission.
Twenty years later, in the wake of the United States’ retreat from the war prompted by the attacks that took 3,000 lives, several kindergarteners at PS 89 in fall 2001 returned to that classroom and shared memories of that day, along with adults close to them.
Former PS 89 student, 25
People often shrug off how reliable our memories are of that day. Me, my brother who is two years older and went to the same school, my friends in my classroom — all our memories are so identical. Mine is one of my most vivid from my childhood.
I was 5. My classroom faced south on the second or third floor, so our windows were looking out at the towers. Where the plane had actually crashed was 80 stories higher than where I was, but I remember the towers being level. I was reading a book with my best friend on the couch, and I looked over and said, “There’s a hole in the building.” I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, but I remember a massive, gaping black hole, fire erupting from it, small black specks falling out of the building. They were definitely people.
My teacher asked us to move away from the window, and then my next memory is my mom, who had just dropped me and my brother off and was still in the playground when the attacks happened, coming up to my classroom to get me.
I lived down the block, luckily, so we were able to go home to get our things before we had to run. We got to our apartment, and the second tower had been hit. My dad was asleep at the time because my parents have a restaurant, so my dad’s sleep schedule was reversed. He woke up as we came to the apartment to grab our dog and him, and we just ran up the West Side Highway.
It was just panic, and there was this trust that my mom was going to take us somewhere safe. But it was definitely an understanding that we were under attack but not really knowing why or how. I was terrified. I think we all were. It was survival instinct, just being told, “We’ve got to go,” saying “OK,” and then hearing, “We’ve got to run,” and running with my family. That moment, honestly, was just a war zone.
Hundreds if not thousands of people, just an absolute mob, were running north up the island away from the towers. I remember my dad holding my dog on the leash and having his video camera filming it. I found out years later that he actually erased the tapes.
We ran to my parents’ restaurant, Sosa Borella, on Greenwich Street, just a little north, so we could gather ourselves. I remember a man with a mask and white ashes on his face sitting on a barstool talking about how he was able to get out of one of the towers and found his way to the restaurant. My parents offered him water and food. It was a surreal moment, this restaurant packed with so many strangers not knowing what was going on.
No one knew. I think my parents were just as out of the loop as I was. It was more acknowledging we can’t live at home right now because we’re not sure if there will be more attacks.
We couldn’t live in our home for a few weeks. We stayed with a family friend on the Upper West Side. We couldn’t go back to PS 89 that whole year. I remember we’d sing “This Land is Your Land” every morning before class, not understanding why we were crammed in this new school uptown. When we were finally able to go back home, they were transporting pieces of the towers on barges across the river, and we had to move because in the morning the noise was so loud right under our windows.
After the attacks, I started to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. I’d have severe panic attacks and separation anxiety from my parents and my home. Going to school was really scary to me, and I think 9/11 was a huge reason. I’ve never really talked about that with my friends because it felt like a very private thing. School psychologists would come to our classrooms, and it would be an opportunity for kids to do the drawing-talk therapy, and I’d have drawings of the towers on fire, people jumping out of the windows. I knew physically what I witnessed, but I don’t think I understood why it happened until years later.
Truthfully, it’s a little uncomfortable for me to talk about 9/11. My family witnessed that day from a unique perspective, but it was such a collective experience. It impacted people in so many different ways. I was so young, but there’s a part of me that wants to own the fact that I was there and I saw what I saw and I remember what I remember.
Anabel's mom, 56
It was a beautiful day, everybody will tell you, and I lived at that time across the street from the school, so everyone was getting back together and seeing each other for the first time since summer break. When the first plane hit, I was in the playground, and it literally flew over our heads. Of course, nobody ever thought that the buildings would come down. The initial plane, we thought it was an accident, maybe the pilot had a heart attack, how strange.
It was a hollow sound but it was loud. The first impression of seeing an airplane hanging out of a building in my mind was: Do the people know to move to the side? It was cartoonish, like being in a video game. I couldn’t grasp that people died. In my mind, they stepped away. You couldn’t understand.
When that happened, I wasn’t so alarmed but more thinking that this is really tragic. I went upstairs to see Anabel because her classroom faced the trade center. Nobody really knew what was up. The teachers just tried to keep the kids distracted, and one of them asked me if I could go back to my house and get sheets to cover the window. That’s when I realized some horrific stuff was happening. As I went downstairs, the second plane hit.
I thought, “We’re under attack, we’re screwed.” You don’t have two planes hit. It wasn’t like we had a foggy or rainy day. This was just not right. Things like this don’t happen.
We lived in a very tall building right on the corner on the 24th floor, so I thought that we needed to get the heck out of the neighborhood. I went right back upstairs, and the kids were all sitting in the middle of the room. I just quietly and softly said, “Hey, I need to pick up Anabel.” My biggest impression was the faces of the teachers. There was a lot of fear.
All these beautiful, precious children who saw something — they’re not sure what they saw, but they realized something not good happened — I felt really bad I couldn’t just scoop all those kids up and take them with me. But you do what you do. I did the same thing with my son. His class faced the highway, so they knew something was going on, but they couldn’t conceive the things my daughter saw.
My biggest fear was taking my kids back home because I didn’t want them to go up in the elevator. I knew some people in the lobby and asked them to watch my kids while I go upstairs and get my husband out of there. I was in fight-or-flight mode. We have a restaurant up the block with a cellar in the basement. We have everything we need to survive. We have water, we have food, we’re below sea level, so if there are planes flying into buildings — I just wanted to get out of our building as soon as I could.
I was really scared, but the key is, you don’t want your children to be freaked out. I was still kind of in pajamas, and we started to walk up the highway. It was like a migration.
We ended up hanging out at the restaurant, and it was a tough day. My restaurant became, at that moment, a little bit of a hub. There were people who showed up completely covered in white coming from the trade center. The cell phone towers were dead. People asked if they could use our landline, drink water. The stories you don’t hear about are the people who were on the streets. How many people did we lose because a piece of the facade or plane came down?
There wasn’t much conversation. People were in shock. It was like an apocalypse, like “The Walking Dead.” People were just walking trying to figure out how they could get uptown as best they could. I was grateful I had a place to go to. You get that survival guilt factor, feeling terrible to be fortunate.
We actually went running around 4:30 p.m. up the block of Greenwich because 7 World Trade Center came down, and from our vantage point, it looked like the rubble was coming right up the street. There was a bar that had an old-fashioned TV set, and a bunch of us from the neighborhood sat just watching the news, not knowing what was next.
That night a bunch of us had dinner at a friend of mine’s across the street. Were we afraid that night? I think we were, but we had the kids with us, so we made sure that conversation did not happen.
The school closed down, so the kids were circulated to different schools. They were fighting to reopen come winter, and half the parents at the school didn’t want it to open and were worried about the toxicity of the air. Mostly I think they were afraid to bring the kids back into that neighborhood. I was the opposite. I felt like they needed to feel normal sooner than later.
Former PS 89 student, 25
The way it started was a typical day in kindergarten. I just remember playing with my friends near the window looking downtown on the west side, a pretty good view of the towers, and I remember hearing a big boom, and everyone rushed to the window. I didn’t know right when I heard the sound that a plane flew into the building because I didn’t see it, but I saw the smoke stack coming out of it. I had a pretty good sense that there was some kind of attack going on. Nobody ever told us anything, though. They rushed all the kids and teachers into the auditorium, and they put calls out to everyone’s parents and let them know that their kids are here to be picked up.
By the time I got out of the school, both buildings were hit. My dad came, picked me up, and it was just me and him outside, and I saw the hole that the plane made. My dad remembers that when we first stepped out, I asked, “Why are they attacking my city? Why are they attacking my country?” because I had a sense there was some kind of war situation going on. But other than the building being on fire, it was just like a normal day. I don’t think anybody anticipated the collapse. Nobody would have stuck around the way they did.
We casually walked home along the water, probably a football field or two away from the towers. When the first tower fell, it just started crashing, and everyone looked up, and my dad was frozen watching it fall. Everything was covered in smoke, papers, random stuff flying everywhere. Everything was black, and you could only really make out the lights. Boats were going around, and I remember there being some kind of light, and I was on my dad’s shoulders. The boat started coming toward the land, and we got into the boat. Everyone was covered in ash. It was just a random tugboat that pulled up. Random sailboats, they saw what was going on on the land, and they started picking people up on shore.
I was freaking out, and this old guy put his arm around me, and to calm me down he said we were going to Disney World, which actually worked. We went to this military base somewhere behind the Statue of Liberty. I saw a lot of people from my neighborhood there. I saw my old teachers and young kids, as well, all packed in this base.
I don’t remember what happened in the base so much. I think we were just waiting to find out where the rest of my family was. We reunited with my mom and my sister, but we spent the day after looking for my grandma and my brother, found them. I don’t remember exactly how it went down. I just remember it taking a long time and it was stressful. On top of everything that had happened, we didn’t know how my little brother and my grandma were doing.
We went to New Jersey to live with my aunt. My dad and my mom went back to the apartment. It got destroyed basically because we had all the windows open. It was such a nice day, and we lived on the sixth floor close to the World Trade Center, and all the smoke got in and ruined the apartment.
We lived in New Jersey for a little bit over a year. I went to school there. Even more damaging from an emotional perspective was leaving the neighborhood, not being able to go back home because it was destroyed and having to be in a new place with brand new people. I didn’t really want to be friends with anybody there. These planes fly into my neighborhood and uproot my whole life — it was a bad way to move.
It made me appreciate the value of safety, security, peace. Seeing that kind of war event happening in your hometown puts things in perspective, especially when you’re really young. I was angry. I didn’t understand why it needed to happen, and I definitely was under the impression that it should never happen again. I still feel that way.
Sometimes I cry when I think about it. There was a lot of death. I try not to think about it, get emotional about it. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about it than other times. I realized later in life, that first building that I watched fall, there were 1,500 people in there. When it happened, you don’t really take in everything and what it means, and so you have to unpack it over time.
Maybe the silver lining was it brought that community closer. Whether it was that we just needed people who experienced it to be together, familiar faces to deal with it after the fact, or that it just stuck with us all these years — it just paved the way for an even stronger bond.
I’m still in Battery Park. If it was up to me, I’d live here the rest of my life.
Former PS 89 student, 24
There are defining parts about the neighborhood you live in, and for us, in Battery Park City, that symbol was the trade towers. It was an event that struck everyone deeply, even as a kid, because we could recognize the seriousness of the loss of the towers and what that meant. We were just really close to it.
I remember going to school, settling in with new teachers, and at a certain point in the morning, the adults shifting what we were doing in class, talking among themselves. I was aware something serious was going on and felt confused, like I didn’t have an ability to understand what was making all these adults around us feel so intense.
We were all shuffled to an auditorium and were watching “Arthur.” Since we were so young, we weren’t really apprised of what exactly was going on. Our teachers wanted to keep us comfortable, not alarmed and safe together.
At a certain point, my mom came over and picked me up from school. She had a car parked in the area, but there were blockades and police officers, and it wasn’t possible to leave the city via car. I remember my mom pleading her case to the police officers. “Please, can we take the car? We really need to get out of here.” The police officers were trying to manage crowds of people really focused on getting to safety.
We started walking uptown since my mom had friends in the East Village. I remember her pulling me along and telling me to walk really quickly. I hadn’t had experiences with my mom until that point where I saw her with an intense focus and stress.
As we were walking up to the East Village, I remember seeing a smoothie shop and wanting to get something, and my mom initially saying, “Of course not, just trust me,” but then ultimately getting me this blueberry smoothie to find a moment of relief in these really stressful two hours. I had the security of thinking, “Oh, my mom’s leading the way, she knows what to do.” I felt this sense of comfort. I didn’t feel so personally scared.
There were dust clouds of debris headed through the city. I don’t think we were ever in the path of the dust cloud, but I remember we could see it looking down the avenues we were walking on — a really hazy, foggy cloud encircling the entire city.
Once we got uptown to the East Village, my mom really wanted to find a phone. Her friends let her borrow one, and she called my grandparents, who live in New Jersey. They were really upset, worried, nervous and just glued to the news. They knew that we lived just a half-mile from the World Trade Center. My school was just blocks away, as well.
It was impossible to drive out of New York City for a while after the crash. The next day or two after that, we were finally allowed to find a way out of the city and ended up going to my grandparents’. I didn’t return for kindergarten at PS 89. I enrolled in a small school in New Jersey.
I didn’t have so many years of life, but all of a sudden I experienced this big change of where I was living, who I was living with. It continued to be part of the story about myself I told other people throughout the rest of my years in school. My grandparents recently passed away. They’ve always been so close to me, and I thought of them as parental figures.
After 9/11, I don’t really remember being aware of a shift in myself, but my mom tells stories of that being the case. My mom says that pre-9/11, I was very independent and would spend a lot of time in my room, playing with my things and just being OK sitting for hours with my own thoughts and imagination. But after 9/11, when we moved back and were living together, I was insistent on doing things alongside her, being in the same room as her as she was working. I became much more attached to her.
Sophia's mom, 66
It was a gorgeous day, and I work at home, so I had all the windows open. There was nothing between our building and the towers at that time, and the towers were so big and bright that we called them my daughter’s night light. I took her to school and came home and opened my computer. Then I heard the plane hit. There was a big boom, and I looked out my window and I could see that tower. I saw it on fire, and I actually took a few pictures. I turned on the radio. It said a small plane got mixed up and went into the World Trade Center.
Then, 18 minutes later, I heard another boom, and that was the second plane. At that point, I knew it was an attack. I grabbed my pocketbook, keys and wallet, and I ran out the door to the school, where there were already a lot of people. I ran up to my daughter’s classroom, and the kids weren’t there. They took them into the auditorium, so I put a note on the door in case another parent came.
I ran back outside in front of the school, and I looked up at both towers, and I saw everything. It’s like you can’t believe what you’re seeing, but yes, that is what you’re seeing: People jumping out. It was like Raggedy Andy dolls. They were tumbling down over in the sky with their ties flapping. You saw it again and again, and you realize that’s what it was.
The National Guard radio next to me was crackling, and I heard, “Third plane, third plane,” so I said, that’s it, we’re getting out of here. I ran out to the auditorium, and I grabbed Sophie. I put her in the car, and I drove 5 miles an hour, it was like breaststroking through people. While we were in the car, the first tower collapsed, so we stopped the car. We couldn’t drive anymore.
I looked down the street and saw the other one burning. I picked up Sophie, we were looking out there, and it collapsed, pancaked down. All the people in the street start crying, screaming. I had my daughter in my arms, and we just walked to the East Village to our friends’. It was 1:30 p.m. by the time I got my parents on the phone. My father had been sitting by the phone for five hours and he was just crying.
I went out to try to get the car, and there was kind of a motley group standing around and a haze in the streets. This girl came out and said, “My husband’s a security guard at the World Trade Center. He’s not home yet,” and we just tried to console her.
I got back to the apartment, and Sophie and I fell asleep in my friend’s bed, and all night, we hear the F-16s. But at that point, I was so tired I didn’t care. I thought, she’s in my arms, we’re all right.
It was three weeks to a month before I was allowed back to our apartment, and I had a police escort. It looked like Luray Caverns, swathed in gray because all my windows had been open. My knees just buckled. The courtyard was covered with papers and debris that had blown out of the towers.
I was cleaning for months, and it wasn’t clean. I rented these huge carpet cleaners, the dust even got in shelves that were facing the other way. The heater got taken out, and I started trying to clean the hole where the heater was, and I felt like I was on fire. I looked in the mirror, and my face was all blotched and raised. I went to the emergency room, and they said I had a toxic dust burn.
I brought Sophia back once after I thought it was a little bit better, and then she started coughing. I was like, that’s it, forget it. The fire also was out my window until February. You looked out there, and there was a pile on fire for months.
A lot of the kids in her grade were really affected. I remember once going to pick her up after school at PS 89 a year or two later, after we’d returned to our apartment, and she was in a playground, and all the kids her age in the corner were crying. It was because these fire engines had gone by. It just triggered a reaction in them.
I had anxiety myself. I felt really guilty that we were staying because I felt like I was putting us at risk. What if it happened again? We have a nice apartment, and we were situated, but also for the people that stayed, it was like we were fighting. We were saying we’re not going to give up, we’re not going to let this tyrannize us. I had this weird feeling like I’d have to pick up and run, be ready to do that again. It made me irrationally afraid.
Former PS 89 student
I was in one of the classrooms with two teachers, and the teaching assistant was sitting by the window and suddenly jerked her head in horror seeing the plane approach the first tower. The next thing I remember is all of us rushing to the auditorium.
Pretty quickly it was clear we’d have to evacuate. Everyone was running up the West Side Highway but crying at the same time. I was small even back then, and I remember not being able to catch up, and my teacher picking me up in her arms and running with me, which is incredible to think about now. She was probably the age I am today, just so young and putting all of us first even then.
That perspective, with her running up the West Side Highway and picking me up, meant I was looking downtown and seeing the fire and smoke coming off the buildings and then watching it collapse. It’s crazy that it’s 20 years later, and we still have such intense emotions attached to it.
I don’t remember how long I was at the evacuation site uptown before my dad got me. I just remember sitting in the cafeteria, and public school cafeterias always have those gigantic trash bins they roll around. That rolling echoing through the room, it sounded like the towers crashing, and I jolted every time someone pushed a trash can around. It was hard to tell what was really happening outside. Was there another building falling?
My family moved uptown, and I started kindergarten at a new school about a month later than everyone else. I remember feeling out of place. I wasn’t from the neighborhood, people already had their friend groups. We relied on a lot of generosity from donations. Pretty much nothing was salvageable from the apartment because the windows had been left open. I think I got one stuffed animal out. Donated clothes, donated furniture, we pretty much had to start over.
For my class, it was our first true act of violence. I don’t think anyone thought the building collapsed on its own, particularly because of the second plane. There was a sense that whatever was happening wasn’t just a normal disaster. There was some threat surrounding it.
In recent years, my family would walk past the site out of necessity, and people, to make their own living, would push in front of you photos of the attacks. That was always very triggering, to have moved back downtown and still not be able to get away from the horror of it.
After 9/11, my family never lived higher than the fifth floor. For a while, I was uncomfortable living in New York City at all. There was this constant sense of, “We’re a target.”
PS 89 principal since 1998, 62
On the fourth day of school, I was in the yard with a few lingering parents all catching up, and I remember hearing an incredibly loud airplane. I couldn’t see it, and the noise was so loud that it was all around you, so you couldn’t tell where the plane was. I wondered, “Is the president coming to town?” — random thoughts about what could be happening that this plane was so low.
All of a sudden, we looked up and saw it crashing into the north tower. Of course, we were all like, “Oh, my God,” gasping, wondering, “Is it a commuter plane that just got awry?” We were trying to make sense of it in a very quick minute. We got everybody in from the yard, but we stood out there for a while watching, trying to know what was happening.
After the south tower was hit, which we couldn’t see from our building, a parent who I know well and trust because he’s not an alarmist came and said, “Ronnie, it’s really bad. The south tower was just struck by a plane. It must be a terrorist attack.” If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t have believed them.
We didn’t have any TVs in the school, so we didn’t know what was going on. The only thing we knew was for at least an hour, there was a cacophony of ambulances, emergency vehicles just streaming down West Street. We decided to move the kids away from any windows and glass because we didn’t know what was coming, if there were airplane attacks, if there was going to be fire. We wanted to make sure that when — not if — we had to evacuate, we could gather everyone really fast and get out.
A flood of families came to get their kids. Many of them chose to stay, and many of them chose to leave. I remember telling a whole host of families over and over again, “Please don’t go home.” They’re thinking, “I have to be home, I have to be safe,” but home was actually the heart of ground zero. A lot of our families lived across the street from the site. I kept saying, “Don’t go south, go north. Just stay with us.”
The lights flickered on and off in our school at one point, and that was when the south tower imploded, but we didn’t know what happened. More families came rushing to get their kids.
I remember at one point standing by the window, and I was on the phone with the school superintendent’s assistant. Their offices are in Midtown, and he kept saying, “Hang tight.” I said, “Ray, you’re not seeing what I’m seeing: chaos. People are running north, and ambulances, fire trucks and emergency vehicles are heading south. The highway’s closed. We have to get out of here.” He said go up to PS 3 in the West Village.
We had close to 75 kindergarteners through fifth graders. We told them there was a big accident and a fire, and we had to leave our building for all of us to be safe. As we left, I made sure that every single child left with us was holding an adult’s hand heading up the highway. I couldn’t lose a kid. I wanted to make sure the kids felt safe. Back then, West Street was under construction so there were mounds of dirt and sand and detours.
I was holding the hand of a boy named Sam — 7 or 8, he was little — and we were chattering the whole way up because I thought, let me get these kids distracted. He said, “Ronnie, how do you think the firemen are going to get a ladder that tall to reach the people on the top floor?” I just said, “A lot of people are here to help, and they’ll do the best they can.”
We were out of the building for maybe 10 minutes when we heard a rumble like I’ve never heard before. It was the most uncanny thing. We watched the entire building, the north tower, implode. We stopped and stared because you couldn’t help but do that. You couldn’t believe what you were seeing. There was nothing left in the sky but dust and smoke. We kept walking and walking.
PS 3 was having terrible telephone issues, and we stayed in the gym for hours, until the last child went home. I didn’t leave until after 7 p.m. A lot of the teachers didn’t have a way to get home. None of them had their wallets or backpacks because they left it all in the classroom. It was very selfless.
For about a month, we stayed at PS 3 in makeshift classrooms, very bare bones. Then they moved us to a school on the Lower East Side that was being closed down, so not in great shape, but it was fine for us. We returned to PS 89 on Feb. 28, 2002, as the last school to go back.
There was a great need for emotional support. Kids are incredibly resilient, but it doesn’t mean they don’t experience something. Families were displaced, lost their homes, even if it was only temporarily. The community was in upheaval. It was a rough year, but also a very bonding year.
The thing for me that’s hard to talk about, on 9/11 I was a new mother with an infant at home. We live in Brooklyn, so she wasn’t nearby, but I just kept thinking about Ruby. It was the first time I had that clear maternal instinct of, “I've got to make sure that she’s OK, too.” After we got to PS 3, I called my mom from a panini shop so she could call my daughter’s babysitter, and the minute I heard her voice, I started bawling. My plan was to get the school year started, take off on Oct. 1 and come back in January, which obviously did not happen. I never had maternity leave.
When the dust settled, and I don’t mean that as a pun, we all thought about what could’ve happened. I read reports that one of the intentions of the attack was that the building would topple over, not just implode. If it toppled over, we wouldn’t be here.
PS 89 had parents who worked in the towers, but no one was killed, and I’ll tell you my theory why. It was only the fourth day of school, and in the beginning of the year, a lot of the families come to the building and mingle. No one’s in a hurry, it’s beautiful outside, and I have a really big school yard, so it’s very pleasant to take your kids. A lot of people who perished commuted from outside the city. Our families were at school with us.
Edited by Bryanna Cappadona, design by Jenny Chang-Rodriguez, photo editing by Tyler Essary and Jenny Chang-Rodriguez.