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I was just a kid when 9/11 struck my neighborhood

Helaina Hovitz is author of the forthcoming memoir After 9/11: One Girl's Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning. She is also an editor, writer, and co-founder of Headlines for the Hopeful, a news site dedicated to positive news sto...

I was growing up in the shadows of the World Trade Center when 9/11 happened

I was in school in the seventh grade three blocks away from the World Trade Center on 9/11, separated only by a highway and a few sidewalks.

After the first plane hit, we were led down to the cafeteria and told not to stop at our lockers. We weren’t sure what we were waiting for. We were all speculating about what was going on, but at that point, I wasn’t afraid. Not yet. Some kids who had working radios on their portable CD players said two planes had hit the towers. When the bomb squad burst through the doors, along with droves of hysterical parents crying and screaming, I knew my parents wouldn’t be among them — they were still at work far away. I did see Ann and her son Charles, who I walked to school with every day, who I instinctively hustled over too, knowing they could get me home so I wouldn’t have to evacuate to wherever the other kids were going.

Outside the school building, the burning smell instantly stung our eyes and nostrils. The crowds were almost impossible to move through, but we had one objective: Get home to the east side, to our neighborhood, which was also just three blocks away from the World Trade Center on the other side of town. But police on the west side kept refusing to let us through, directing us uptown only.

Soon, we were running from a giant cloud of smoke and debris that Ann told us not to look at. “Just cover your faces, don’t look back and run!” The scene for the next hour, during which time we tried every possible way into our own neighborhood, was the stuff that nightmares are made of — bleeding bodies; people covered in debris; piercing, blood-curdling screams and cries. I was covered in debris and kept forgetting to pull my shirt over my face to protect it. We spent an hour navigating through the horror trying to get home, normally a 10-minute walk from school, but police blocked every possible way. Once we finally made it back to our apartment, we found our neighborhood had become a war zone.

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The lobby to my building was dark. People hid inside, covered in ash.

When I pushed open the staircase door, I saw Grandma at the end of the hall, standing in the doorway of her apartment, holding the white-chorded phone to her ear.

“She’s here, Paul!” Grandma cried into the phone. “She’s here! Oh my God!”          

She was already sobbing, and I started to cry. So did Ann and Charles.

I ran to her, and she hugged me harder than I thought possible. She kissed me 12 times in a row, just like when I was little. Grandpa was standing next to her, hugging Charles, hugging Ann, hugging me.

“If it wasn’t for you, she’d be dead,” Grandma kept telling Ann.

“No, I put them in harm’s way by taking them out of school . . .” Ann said.

My grandmother gently thrust the phone to my ear, smoothing my hair and kissing my head as I assured my dad that I was OK. There was this sense that time was limited — the dark lobby, the elevators out, Devin’s cellphone that had stopped working. We quickly called my mother next. She was still at work.

Through tears she asked, “Are you OK, baby?”

She’d never called me that before and never would again.

“I’ll get down there as soon as I can,” she sobbed. Then the phone line went dead.

Charles and Ann kissed my grandmother goodbye. She thanked them again, profusely, and then they were gone. It was only 11 a.m., just two hours after the first plane hit, but if you had told me that 10 hours had passed, I would have believed you.

I turned toward the TV, which was showing the same image over and over. The planes hitting — from this angle, now that angle, freeze-framed, in slow-motion, now from closer up. Over and over and over.

Then, they fell down, one then the other. They just... fell.

Finally, I understood. That’s what we were running from all morning. That’s where the dust was coming from.

I picked up the remote and flicked through the stations. My neighborhood was on every single one, and yet, where that same view should have been right outside of the window a few inches away from my face, I could see nothing but black.

Then, new images surfaced, sending a cold, heavy pit of fear into my stomach. The Pentagon had also been hit, and yet another plane had been hijacked. Planes were destroying the entire country.

Soon the power would go out, the phones, the water.

On Sept. 12, 2001, three blocks away, the remains of the twin towers were still on fire, and our couch was still covered in whatever had been incinerated from the World Trade Center.

The neighborhood was no longer completely abandoned like it had been the night before — abandoned in the way that all of us who couldn’t or didn’t evacuate could be alone in their apartments in a deserted war zone, without power, water or phones. Senior citizens, asthmatics, people with disabilities, children, infants can be alone and yet together, as the fires continued to burn, crumbling by the minute.

Stepping outside was like being swallowed in a physical fog, a smell of burnt metal and rust lingering heavily in the air. The smell, the smog, would rotate in its smell, its color, its density over the next six months, but it would never go away. The air would turn gray and dull, a feeling of doom lurking everywhere.

I overheard our neighbor John telling my dad about one elderly woman he checked on.

“She had a blank look on her face and was just staring out of her apartment window at the burning buildings,” he said. “Her hands were shaking. She was cold, for some reason, and just looked out of the window. It was like she didn’t realize I was trying to talk to her.”

He left after that, bringing an armful of water bottles back out with him.

My father became one of the first responders you didn’t hear about on the news, just a member of the community who coordinated with other neighbors and with the hospital across the street to get people their medications and to bring in food since the pharmacists weren’t allowed in without ID that proved they lived here and with no grocery stores or restaurants open and no deliveries allowed in.

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Otherwise we avoided going outside unless it was absolutely necessary, as the air was full of toxic particulates. Bomb threats for the Brooklyn Bridge, city hall, The Federal Reserve, all within blocks of where we lived, were in high frequency. National Guard members with rifles were posted on our corner, streets were barricaded off, there was no way to get food or medication in and out of the neighborhood until my father and other neighbors began coordinating with the hospital across the street and with local NYPD. Every time we tried to go somewhere, like to see if the grocery store had opened yet, people started barking and shouting and running, and we went right back. We held our own media-free vigil for the Engine 6 firehouse, who had lost so, so many of their men. We wore American flag pins and sang "God Bless America" and watched as the power went off, then on, then off again.

The rest of the city was “moving on” — eating out in restaurants the next day, going back to work — but in the days and weeks that followed, we remained without water, phones or electricity as the fiery remains of the nearby twin towers continued to burn, leaving a black fog over the sky.

Even when our school was relocated two weeks later, our neighborhood was part of the “do not enter” zone, the barrier between Lower Manhattan and the rest of the city. I continued to listen and watch for orange alerts, anthrax scares, suicide bombers, subway nukes, “weapons of mass destruction” and shoe bombs. Physically ducking planes, jumping and crying at sirens and screams, garbage truck booms bringing on tearful panic attacks.

The camera crews hung around for months, and long after they left — though they continued to pop up for years on anniversaries or with new threats — tourists came along, using what was essentially a cemetery, a smoking graveyard, as a stomping ground to pose and smile in front of for photos.

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After the camera crews leave, communities still continue to struggle, just like they did after the wreckage of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina impacted those communities for years, and the emotional impact of the Bataclan Theatre in Paris and at Sandy Hook Elementary would never quite go away for those they scarred. Just because you don’t see it on the news doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge piece of the story you’re not getting. That piece of the story could be missing from history forever if we don’t find a way to tell it.

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