The 9/11 attack through the eyes of a child…

Mark and Suzanne Winkelman, owners of the Pajama Factory, have called New York City their home for over forty years.  They worked there, raised a family there, and witnessed the 9/11 attacks directly almost 17 years ago.  Below is a story, written by their son, William, just days after the attack.  As we take a moment to remember this day and those affected by this tragedy, we thought we would share his words about the experience he had on this day.

The Letter “e”

By William Winkelman

The day started off like any other day although I didn’t have many days to compare with since school had begun less than a week earlier. I trudged into the school at 7:45AM, a little early but I like to be there early. It would be my first full day with a science lab and I was looking forward to it. We had biology first. In front of the classroom door, there were already a handful of kids waiting. I sat down on a bench and talked with someone about school so far; did he like the teachers, what was his schedule?, that kind of stuff. The hallways began to slowly fill up as it neared 8:00AM. Our teacher rushed up the stairs and through the door into the classroom trying to organize everything before the first period began. The bell rang and we all walked into the classroom. Each of us went to our assigned seat and the teacher began to take attendance. When she finished she began to explain the lab we would be doing. It involved the letter “e” and we were to look at “e” in the newspaper under the microscope. She talked for a long time on that subject and I tuned out as my mind began to wander. Everyone got up out of their seats and walked to the front of the room. My lab partner said they were getting the worksheets and I followed the other kids. When I got back to my seat, I had to get up again and retrieve the microscope. There was also the lens cleaner, slide cover and newspaper to get. All my materials were neatly organized and I could begin the experiment. The teacher started to explain how to use the microscope but I already knew the basics and plunged ahead. I plugged the light in and switched it on. The newspaper print was small but there was an abundance of “e”s to choose from. I chose one that I would guess was in the word “hesitant” but all I could see was “hesit”. I focused the word under low power, which was 40 times as large as normal. I could see only three letters. In a circle on my paper I drew the letters as best as I could. They were backwards and that threw me off when I was making the letter “e” so I had to erase it and try again. The letters appeared to be made of many large lines. Under 100 times magnification there was only the letter “e” and nothing else. The letter now seemed to consist of dots and lines. Under 400 times magnification there was only a part of the letter. This too looked like lines and dots.

As I finished my last drawing I heard a plane flying very close to our school. I looked out the window near my seat and saw a plane flying straight for the World Trade Centers just down the street. It flew in from over the Hudson River then straight into the building. The whole school shook with the impact – the explosion disrupted our focus in the class- it disrupted everyone in the school, everyone in Manhattan. Above the front blackboard the television screen flickered even though it was not on. Out the window, the plane disappeared into the building and seconds later the flames shot out either side as the fuel ignited and the fire burst forth. Parts of the plane and building showered down from the explosion. Smoke trailed off the pieces as they rained down. The image was fascinating and horrifying all at once. The falling debris captured my imagination just like a firework does. It was so unreal. I wouldn’t have believed I really was seeing this until someone else yelled out in horror that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. As the debris fell, the smoke grew thick and black with all the toxins burning inside the building. Occasional explosions above sent fire shooting out of the building and things falling to the ground. The first hit building was right behind the World Trade Center closer to us so the damage was invisible but the smoke and fire could be seen on either side. Our teacher started crying and told us all to continue working. She closed all the shades, which really didn’t help because you could still see through them. As she left the room to compose herself she told us to keep working and she would be back soon to help anyone who needed it. As soon as she left another teacher ran into the room from the other side of the building to take a look for herself. She started screaming and yelled for everyone to stop working and to come look out the window. Everyone rushed over to look. When everyone calmed down and got back in their seats no one could work. One kid took out a radio and we all listened to the broadcast. No one had been sure about any of the facts so, on hearing the news, many kids burst into tears.

Just after everyone had calmed and collected themselves, the second plane hit the other building. This one was even closer to our school than the earlier strike. All of us could see everything. The crash was just above the top of the window if you looked straight out but when I bent down, I could see the gaping hole. The plane hit in the corner and you could see through the building to blue on the other side before the smoke engulfed everything. Debris was falling everywhere. The kid next to me screamed and said he saw people jumping but I didn’t believe him. I think that my mind failed to acknowledge this reality because of how horrifying it was.

The principle’s voice came in over the PA system. He told everyone to stay calm and informed everyone in the school what had happened since those on the north side of the building wouldn’t know. We were to continue our day as normal and the only change would be that everyone had to eat inside during lunch. My next class was math research. The classroom was in the same place as the biology lab except two flights down. When I was walking to my next class it was so quiet. There were no voices in the halls- a hush—an eerie hush, and there were people in the crowded hallway crying. In the math room the television was on and we were watching CNN and the reports about the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. The room was chaotic and kids were running all over, talking, crying, watching the news and doing homework. There was a group of kids near the corner window watching the fire with fascination. Many of them hadn’t realized how horrible the fire was and thought it was fun- exciting. I sat watching the television even though I could just look out the window. I preferred to see everything on the television- it was easier to deal with, not quite as real. The news reports kept repeating the same thing over and over so I strolled over to the window instead. I sat down on the heater under the window and watched for a while. All of a sudden, the side of the burning building seemed to flake right off the building and dust began to cover everything. No one could see what happened. The electricity flickered and we lost our television coverage. Some thought that there was another bomb on the ground floor but I knew that the building had fallen down. I saw it kneel and then melt- like the witch in the Wizard of Oz.

There were hundreds of people standing on the streets, watching the buildings burn. As the building fell, they were engulfed in smoke and dust. A thick gray wall of dust and debris shot down the street toward our building. People ran screaming, scared, breathless, to get out of the way, many tripping and falling over each other in their frantic flight. Some sought refuge in our school to grab a breath of air and a moment of safety before continuing. I had lunch next and was in the cafeteria. From there, I could see nothing happening and I felt vulnerable not knowing that was going on outside. We were supposed to be having homeroom but our teacher didn’t show up. When an announcement was made to evacuate the building our teacher still didn’t show up. No one knew what to do. Another teacher came over and told everyone to sign a piece of paper for attendance and follow his class.

Down in the lobby it was a mess. Thousands of kids were trying to make their way to the back exit. (our school is 3200 people). It wasn’t long before I lost everyone I knew- my class and I had no idea what to do. I followed the procession. People covered in ash and dust fell in through the front door and sought refuge and water as we filed out. As we made our way down the stairs, someone tripped and no one even stopped to help her up. She scrambled up and continued on because she had to. Outside on the north side of the building everything seemed normal until we rounded the corner. The air was full of smoke and was thick coming from the south. We could hardly see the bridge crossing the street to our school just a few feet away. We began to run north jogging up the side of the Hudson River to safety. Policemen were everywhere telling people to pick up the speed.

I had no idea where to go. I didn’t know if I should go home because home was just a few blocks away. I looked toward home and could only see dust covering the street around the corner from my house. I decided to stop by home anyway but I wasn’t allowed to cross the street by the police so I continued north to see if I could find my mom at her office about a half mile further north. When I got there, I looked around for someone I knew or even a teacher I could talk to but I couldn’t find anyone in the crowd. It was a beautiful day and the sky was blue without a cloud in the sky. The only obstruction was a cloud of black smoke south where the World Trade Centers were, had been. I kept looking back expecting them to somehow be there, but they weren’t. I wasn’t sure if we were all going north to Chelsea Piers but I knew I wanted to find my family. I finally found a teacher where I wanted to turn off to find my mom. She told me to get away from here. To find a friend’s house to stay at because no one would be able to leave the island any time soon. She seemed panicked. I decided to leave the crowd. Everyone was continuing north and I was the only person leaving and heading to the east- but I left anyway.

My mom wasn’t at work. A flock of security guards approached me as I entered the building and asked for some ID. They called my mom and she wasn’t there so I decided to go home. I was walking south, towards the disaster- the only one going south. I had to weave in and out of the crowds to make any progress at all. As I got closer to home, people were moving faster and some were even running. Hundreds of sirens were sounding as they rushed to the scene of the accident. At home I found my mom worried and teary. We were united once again and would not soon part.

Today, as we are all learning to live with the horror of that day while we put our lives back together, I find that even the smallest things have changed. Now, when I try to fall asleep, the sounds of the city- loud bangs, the sound of a plane overhead or sirens going by, hold a new meaning for me- one of uncertainty, fear. I can’t listen to thunderstorms the same way I used to, the noise makes me jump and my heart beats faster. And, whenever I think about the letter “e”, chills run down my back.