Another skyscraper: 9/11 youth determined to stand taller

BY HELAINA N. HOVITZ  |  On the morning of September 11th, 2001, the last thing I told my mother before I left the house was “I hate you.” She hadn’t reminded me to take an umbrella the day before, and it poured. My last real childhood memory was running across a flooded Battery Park City ball field next to the World Financial Center to catch the MTA bus.

Ten years ago, at I.S.89 on Warren Street, a generation of children had started their third day of school when they heard a deafening boom at 8:46 a.m. After evacuating to the cafeteria, I waited with my peers amidst the chaos, wondering how I would get home to my elderly grandparents. I began to panic as parents began rushing in, grabbing their children and screaming, “A second plane has hit!”

I had left, along with my neighbor and her son, just minutes before the first tower fell. We stood underneath the flames, then tried to push our way through thousands of others, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, sobbing and screaming, looking up and watching people jump out of the buildings. Soon we heard the sickening thud of bodies hitting cars, and minutes later we were running to escape the debris from the collapse of the first tower and were nearly engulfed in the cloud.

I was 12 years old on that day. I was lucky enough to see my mother again, to wash away that “I hate you” with many “I love yous,” but I never ever again saw the innocent New York City I had known just 24 hours earlier.

For days, Southbridge Towers did not have phones or power, and we barely had food or water. Members of the National Guard were posted at every corner, armed. There were warnings every hour about more buildings coming down, and we avoided going outside at all costs as the air was full of toxic particulates. When power was finally restored, all we saw 24 hours a day on television were images of the planes flying into the towers from different angles. Suddenly, the entire world was watching our neighborhood. The weeks, months and years after were full of holidays carrying a disclaimer known as “Orange Alert” and the threat of more attacks that would “rival or exceed” 9/11.

Ten years later, we still have not gotten our neighborhood back, and it has morphed into an extended Ground Zero. Police and military barricaded streets, some of which are still closed today, and droves of new construction projects began, many of which are still under way. From that day on, all eyes were on Lower Manhattan, and our backyard became one of the most watched places in the world.

But nobody was watching the neighborhood like we were.

The children who were plunged into the middle of a war zone that day have carried the trauma ever since. We grew up physically ducking planes overhead and watching them until they disappeared in the distance. We compulsively scanned our surroundings for signs of danger, and panicked whenever we heard a loud noise coming from the construction in our neighborhood. A siren, a scream, a truck going over a speed bump sent us into a state of panic. We clung to our families, afraid we might never see them again once they left the house. Feeling as though we cheated death, we waited for something else to happen exactly the way we so vividly imagined it. Soon, potential designs for the Freedom Tower started poring in and we all thought one thing: what’s going to happen if they build new towers that reached just as high into the sky?

But it is even worse than we imagined: upon completion, One World Trade Center will be the tallest building in the United States, standing at a symbolic height of 1,776 feet. Adults and children alike who watched the towers fall and ran from their collapse cannot look up at the developing Freedom Tower without seeing the attacks all over again and imagining harrowing new possibilities.

After living with 10 years of severe anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks and health problems, former I.S.89 student Jaclyn Kopel, 23, still lives in the Financial District today. She is convinced that the new site is just asking for trouble.

“When I see how tall the Freedom Tower is becoming, I see a repeat of 9/11,” she said. “The taller it is, the more of a target it becomes.”

Gateway Plaza resident Fuchsia Corbin, also a former I.S. 89 student, feels the same, and worries that the terrorists will find alternative ways to attack the Tower.

“The terrorists will wait years to accomplish what they want,” she said. “They waited eight years after the 1993 bombing and successfully brought them down.”

Christine Byrd-Tucker passes the site every day on her way to work at the World Financial Center. She grows more anxious with each day that construction comes closer to completion. Then 11, she was one of the first children to be picked up from I.S.89, and sat with her mother and brother in front of their St. James Place apartment building, watching as both towers fell. From that day on, she only wore sneakers or flats, in case she had to run for her life. For her, every building in the city is a potential target—but on top of fearing for her life and the lives of those who will inhabit the building, she worries that the new site will, “continue to chip away” at the New York she once knew.

“Living in New York, especially Downtown, the city felt like it belonged to us, to the people,” said Byrd-Tucker. “Cut to post-9/11, and the city belongs to the tourists.”

In theory, it’s a great concept: bigger, better, stronger. However this could easily have been accomplished with a different design that commemorated those who died on that day.

“The entire site should have been one park surrounded by walls with the names of those who died, like the Vietnam Wall on Water Street,” said Byrd-Tucker. “Now, it’s going to become an attraction, something to gawk at and make money off of.”

Or, it could have at least been slightly more practical.

“Four small buildings totaling the height of 1,776 feet could have absolutely honored the previous towers,” said Kopel.

For the damaged young survivors still absorbing the tragedy’s impact on the world around them, the question of another attack is not “if” but “when.” Every potential threat is a very real possibility, and few anticipate being able to even enter the buildings when they are finished—many are already making plans to move out before they are.

But it isn’t just the 9/11 survivors who are living in fear—it’s an entire generation. Recent studies have consistently shown an increased hyper-awareness of danger in American children and teenagers. According to a 2008 survey in the Journal of Adolescent Health, many U.S. youth, ages 14 to 22, expect to die before they reach 30 years old.

Right after 9/11, everyone was asking the same question: “What’s going to happen to all of those children?” But after the news crews got their stories and the sensationalism subsided, the children of 9/11 became invisible, their voices as loud as whispers. Ten years later, nothing has changed. All we can do now is hope that the new symbol of our nation’s resilience does not once again result in destruction, death and tragedy.