Teachers recall attacks 20 years later

Esteban Serrano and James Peterson

What can 20 years change for someone? What can 20 years change for society as a whole? These are some of the fitting questions that have already been lingering in people’s minds as this Saturday will mark 20 years to the day in which America was devastated by a horrible terrorist attack in New York City- historically known around the world as the September 11th Attacks. As a result, TSA became more intense, the Patriot Act was put into law, and it changed the whole iconic Manhattan skyline forever. What hasn’t changed, is the reflection done every year in people’s minds all across the country. For all the people lost, and all the horror sadly witnessed that day by countless others around the world. 

Throughout the morning of September 11, 2001, two planes were hijacked, then controlled by a third party and were purposely crashed into both of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. That third party was later reported to be Al Qaeda, a terrorist group from the Middle East. The first plane was missed by the live news media, and the second plane was seen by countless others as it was caught on the air live. It wasn’t until later in the day when President George W. Bush, who had gotten word of the attack (at the time deemed ‘accident’) while reading to elementary school kids in Florida, that the President deemed this an attack on America. The lesser-acknowledged crashes of the incident that day was that of the Western side of the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Classrooms are no stranger to these tough and emotional discussions, including classrooms with teachers who lived through the event. Including right in Central’s own community, where those 20 years still bring back clear flashbacks from that day, and what was going through their minds as events unfolded. 

*In this article, you’ll read four different accounts from teachers who are currently at Central. Two of which were still here, one was a teacher at TMI, and the other, just outside Manhattan. The quotes in this article are directly from the teachers interviewed, describing their perspectives of what it was like to be a teacher or in other circumstances on September 11, 2001, and to witness (whether live or later in the day) the actual attacks and reactions unfold. Some of the content in this article may be found upsetting or disturbing to some readers. 

Tammy Schrader, current Head of the Math Department, and Edward Ybarra ’83, current Athletics Director, were both at Central when the incident took place.

Ybarra at the time was the Assistant Principal and Dean of Students. Schrader, was still a Math teacher. That morning, was like any other morning for the both of them. Heading to work and ready for the school day ahead. Until the first plane hit, then emotions on the first floor started taking a dip south- “I remember my Secretary yelling, ‘Oh my God! Eddie come here!’ And I went to her, and it was on her computer. I had a small TV, and so when she told me, she said, ‘Someone had just flown into one of the Twin Towers.’ I got the TV, put it on, and sure enough, we saw it and then we saw the second one… and that was horrific,” Ybarra expressed emotionally.

“I remember teaching our class, it was an Algebra 1 Class, and the principal came on the P.A. and announced there was a tragic accident that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center,” Schrader says.

Dean Cunningham was Principal of Central Catholic at the time of the historic incident, and all the administration, including Schrader and Ybarra were extremely concerned for the local area as well. Specifically, the safety of the school. “We gathered the administration and I called for an emergency meeting… I told them this is what is going on, along with my Principal, (Cunningham) we went through a checklist of what we needed to do, and one of those things was not knowing what else could happen.”

Ybarra and Cunningham played the situation by the minute. After having seen the second plane hit, assuming it was a direct attack, and keeping a close eye on other local media, Ybarra talked about going on lock down. “I think at that time there were also a number of things- people started going on lock downs. Schools, federal buildings, you name it.”

Schrader was still in her room prior to the second plane hitting, and once she heard the second announcement, she immediately knew something seemed wrong. “There’s something going on here. Next thing we know, the school went into lock down,” Schrader recalls.

“We went on a soft lock down,” Ybarra claims. “Nobody could come in the building, without a administrator checking to see who it is, and as well as no one could go out the building.”

Schrader, having some free time soon enough after all the information was slowly being shared, decided to head downstairs to see what the lock down was about. “During my off period, I went downstairs and I remember seeing Mr. Ybarra and the principal down there and they were watching the streets, all the sidelines basically in the lobby, keeping an eye on everything. The school was locked down and they had a little TV there trying to keep up with what was going on, and we found out this was no accident- this was deliberate that someone had done this.”

One of the goals of teachers was also to not distress any of the students. Given the lock down that had already been implemented, parents began to worry. To make matters even more stressful, some parents wanted their boys to leave school, as many across the country during the day did. “At the time, we started getting phone calls from parents. We were making sure that everybody was safe. We reassured everybody that they were safe. Some parents were starting to pick up kids, so I stayed at the front door. I met everybody before they came in and I checked in everybody and checked out everybody,” Ybarra says.

“We were not prepared emotionally,” Ybarra continues. “We had to act on the aspect of what occurred and the safety of our students. We thought it was better for everyone to come in, because we haven’t discussed that- should we send people home? We said no, it would probably be safer if they were here. If parents want to come pick up their son, they may. Or if a parent requests their son go home, they may as well. The vast majority did stay on campus.”

There was some prayers to be said that day by the school as a whole. “We also prayed for the families of all those who were involved in this horrific incident, as well as for the safety of all those first-responders that were going into the building as well,” Ybarra says.

When the long and rather stressful day was over, everyone went home, trying to figure out what exactly had happened. At the time, cellular phones were not technologically advanced like today. Delays in information and news were normal. When Schrader got home that night, she couldn’t help but turning on the television to find continuing news coverage of the event, on almost every network. “I turned on the news to kind of watch, and just… it’s unimaginable the horror that you see when you see a video of what went on that day. The suffering of the people that were involved The first responders that ran up the stairs while the building was on fire… They’re showing you this on TV and showing the smoke and everything, and then when the thing (tower) falls and all this cloud of smoke and the people just running, trying to get away… It was a very awful awful, feeling in time…”

One thing that Ybarra told us that he and his staff did, was hold a fundraiser and donated to two Marianist schools in the New York area. Both of which, had students affected either directly or indirectly with the incident. But nonetheless, after 20 years, two of the most respected administrators still here today, share the story of being on the 1400th block of N. St. Mary’s Street at the time the plane hit. “Everyone knows where they were, when 9/11 happened,” Schrader says.

Brian Curran, a teacher with the Science Department today, was in his living room that day getting ready for school, definitely not expecting what was about to happen soon after. “I was working out at TMI, so as I recall, I don’t know if we had a late start that day, but I do remember getting ready for school, and I had the TV on,” Curran says. “My wife was there too, she worked at the school, and we thought it was an accident. So we were just following the news as long as we could.”

It was then time to leave to get to the school. Curran and his wife were simply trying to go with it and just stay as vigilant as possible. When he arrived there, Curran explains the school’s reaction and what happened soon after. “More information started coming in, people were talking about it, so we basically had our TVs on… And my wife worked up in the Administration and I would go up in between periods because kids were asking about it. The school was basically getting information through the TV.”

Then, the second plane hit live on TV. “After the second tower got hit, we started to realize that something’s not right.” He continues, “It was just basically an entire day of being in a state of shock. Everybody was just very confused and nervous as to what was going on.”

TMI and the Administration at that time, according to Curran, was attempting to run school normally that day. “I don’t know if we had practices or not that day, I just know that everybody wanted to get home at the end of the day to get in front of the TV to find out what information had come out.”

Curran stresses the importance of answers. There was no exact reasoning at the time and he says that they tried to run the school day as normal as it could possibly be. But with parents taking students out early and the worrisome feelings of those in the area, it was a difficult day. Especially the feelings of worried and fearful students. “You try to be honest,” he says.

Gina Rea is a current Religion teacher, and her story is rather remarkable. She lived in Westchester, New York. Roughly an hour away from Manhattan and downtown.

“My sister lived in Manhattan, the school that I had worked in was in the heart of Manhattan, people I knew were working there.”

She was home that day, and her son was in school at the time. It wasn’t until she received a phone call. “Someone called and said ‘turn on the TV.” She did just that, and saw the North Tower burning. “Where I lived, there is something called Three Mile Island… and so I ran and got my child. I was glued to the television and kept thinking, surely people are below in the subway and are safe.”

She was stressed, and more concerned about the people. “I couldn’t give up the idea that there was someone who was safe,” she thought. “I know someone who worked in a hotel which is literally a corridor all the way down at the other end.” She’s talking about how close the hotel was from the building. In fact, one side of Manhattan had the towers, and the hotel was on the other side. Not too far from where the towers would eventually collapse. “And the ash from that, was coming all the way down through the city. And he was covered in it, just from being in there.”

Now, the efforts for clean up and the search for survivors in the massive piles of debris and dust were on the minds of many people. At that time rescue efforts were announced, Rea shared, “Our church had a drive, and it was very silent as people brought in gloves and work boots for those people who were covering…”

She got very emotional at this point in the interview, recalling the aftermath of what was a close-to-home tragic event. “And the highways were blind with people, and flooded with construction workers going in to try and rescue people.”

She continues, “That New York thing, the ‘I’m walking here!’ idea was so strong and people were so kind to each other.”

Rea was also experiencing some sorrowful apologies from people all over. She even shared of when a butcher in Italy said sorry, and children during her vacation on the beach shortly after the event happened. But as she said herself, “It didn’t just happen to New York, obviously, it happened to the world.”

The impact this has had on society, and the cultual impact has obviously, as expressed in this article, is still existent to this day. In 2006, New York opened the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan to commemorate the lives lost during the tragic accident. As for the buildings, a series of smaller towers were built, all years apart from each other, in the past decade to replace the originals.

We as a country remember the victims, families, legacies, and first responders who all were brave enough to deal with the incident, and it’s aftermath. And after 20 years, the towers may not be in the heart of Manhattan no longer, but a distant memory of the incident lives on, and America will never forget that September day.

Claudio Schwartz (via Unsplash)