Courtesy Helaina Hovitz Regal I was 12 years old, sitting in school three blocks away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when the planes hit the twin towers. Our teachers had us all gather in the cafeteria. I remember parents rushing in to pull out their children amid the chaos. I began panicking, wondering how I would get home to my apartment building on the other side of the Towers where my elderly grandparents also lived. Then, my neighbor and her 13-year-old son appeared in the doorway, arriving late for the day after an appointment, to walk me home. We left just minutes before the first tower collapsed. What we ran from, saw, heard, smelled, and experienced as we pushed through crowds and ran for our lives from the collapsing towers—the first, then the second—as we tried to get home with police stopping us at every way in and bloody, ash-covered bodies running past us—has become common knowledge in the past decade. But it’s very different to live through it in real time as a child, with no idea if we would be killed in an instant, what was going to happen next, and if the world was going to end before I could see my family again and say goodbye. I survived, but that morning was just the beginning of my trauma.
In 2016, I wrote a book, After 9/11 about my experiences and that of over a dozen of my former classmates, I began to receive emails from children across the country asking me questions and telling me their feelings about the day. I started video chatting with them in their classrooms as well. These are the questions I’m asked most frequently—along with my heartfelt answers.
What was your first reaction when the plane hit the First Tower?
Shutterstock When the first plane hit and we felt the impact in our classroom, my first reaction was surprise, because I didn’t know what was going on. That very quickly led to fear and panic as we did learn what happened, so I would say I was nervous, scared, and shocked. Those feelings amplified as I tried to walk home with my neighbors and more surprising things happened, like the police not letting us get home even though we told them we lived there because they were told to direct everyone to go uptown and out of harm’s way.
What happened to your classmates whose parents weren’t able to come and get them?
Steve Wood/Shutterstock These classmates were evacuated, which means the bomb squad led them out of the building and uptown away from the Towers, but they were also in the street close by when the Towers began to fall, so they all had to run as well. Those students were taken to another school where they waited for their parents to pick them up, once their parents were able to figure out where they were. Some of the kids who lived in Battery Park or Tribeca lost their homes for about six months and had to live moving from hotel to hotel.