The Department of Education announced plans to contact 19,000 former students who were present in the September 11th Exposure Zone following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. A New York Post article written by Carl Campanile details the DOE’s task of informing students about free medical care they could be eligible for as survivors that were present on 9/11 during the attacks. As part of the September 11th Victim compensation Fund (VCF) - which was recently made permanent, students who suffer from any of the 68 World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) certified 9/11-related diseases would qualify for coverage.
An HBO documentary, In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 directed and produced by Amy Schatz, shares the stories of 8 former public-school students, now in their 30’s, who were at Stuyvesant High School on September 11th, 2001. Stuyvesant High School is just blocks away from and in direct view of the World Trade Center. Many of the students in the film are children of immigrants and they made their way to school from all over the city, some traveling as far as an hour and a half each way every day.
September 11, 2001 was the second or third day of the 2001-02 school year. Himanshu Suri, one of the students featured in the documentary, makes a comment near the beginning of the film addressing what the DOE is taking action on with the letter they are preparing to send out. “We were there, and I don’t think people really talk about the fact that kids were there.”
Stuyevant student Mohammad Haque shares his memory of the first plane hitting. “It felt like any other day. My first class was actually Math and I was sitting in my Math class staring out the window and I was gazing off at the North tower when I saw an explosion. I saw something enter the building and then an explosion.”
Carlos Williams also tells about the first plane striking the tower. “I saw the crash of the plane into the North tower. I remember asking someone, “Was that a missile?” and they said “no, it was a plane…I saw the tail.” And I realized that I had also seen the tail.”
The students were sent back to home room. Everyone was unsure of what was going on. Even though there was a lot of commotion, they were sent to their second class of the day. Following the second plane hitting the South tower Michael Vogel shared “And everybody at that instant realized it was a terrorist attack.”
It was in that second period class that the lights flickered off for a few seconds before coming back on that the South tower collapsed.
Student Liz O’Callahan recalls that moment. “I remember that I was in that room when the first tower fell and we saw the dust cloud coming towards our building and we piled our book bags on top of the air conditioner just in case the dust cloud was going to come into the room.”
“There were random rumors flying around. A rumor of there being potentially a bomb in the building. There was a rumor of a gas leak. There was a rumor of more attacks. Um. Things just kind of kept popping up and frankly anything was possible” said Taresh Batra.
The principal decided to evacuate.
Catherine Choy describes the evacuation of Stuyvesant. “I remember that rush of light. The doors all opening all at once and us like trekking out onto the West Side Highway and we’re seeing the towers, you know, the towers are right there. It was so surreal. It just felt like a movie, you know, you’re seeing that debris and the smoke and all of us just like a mass exodus.”
After the evacuation the second tower collapsed, and Mohammad tells what that was like. “The ground started shaking again and whatever we saw of the remaining tower started crumbling onto itself and we just ran, as fast as we could in the opposite direction.”
The students couldn’t get home by bus or train. Many were young and looked different than the average, white American. Thankfully, they had each other. Friends found friends as they made their way. Cell phones were not as popular as they are today. The line for the payphone circled the block. All the while not knowing if there were more threats to come. They stuck together for the long walk home.
Within a few weeks of the attacks, Stuyvesant reopened and students went back to a changed school and neighborhood. There were armed guards, mass amounts of toxic debris and a horrible smell. As Ilya put it, “I remember the smell. It smelled like burning and maybe chemically, but it just smelled terrible.”
“One of the barges that was removing debris from the World Trade Center was placed just north of our building in the Hudson River” recalls Mohammad.
“We were 4 or 5 blocks from this burning pile of rubble. You could smell it every day going into school. It had a very unique smell that you never want to smell again. But that was reality and that was life at Stuyvesant,” said Michael Vogel.
“I think there was a point of pride of not letting ourselves be too affected or letting ourselves show that we were too affected,” said Liz O’Callahan.
Unfortunately, as Ilya puts it “the world is still feeling the shocks of 9/11.” Countless first responders, residents, workers, students and visitors who were in the exposure zone in the 9 months following September 11, 2001 became ill and many are still receiving new diagnosis of 9/11-related cancers and other illnesses.
The film was dedicated to former Stuyvesant student Catherine Choy who died of cancer at the age of 32 after the documentary filming ended.
Stuyvesant High School is just one of the many schools in the Exposure Zone.
During a 9/11 health seminar held at the Borough of Manhattan community College, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced the launch of the campaign to inform all 19,000 former students via a letter that will include details about the WTCHP and the VCF.
The DOE will be joined by the United Federation of Teachers to contact 3,000 teachers who worked at public schools near Ground Zero at the time of the attacks. Many students, teachers and school employees have battled 9/11-related cancers and other diseases linked to exposure to the dust and debris that was present in the area around Ground Zero.
Lila Nordstrom, health activist and former Stuyvesant student commends the DOE’s decision to reach out to 9/11 students “I’m happy the city is showing a commitment to reaching the 19,000 public-school students who returned to lower Manhattan after 9/11 before it was safe to breath’’.
Read the New York Post article here : bit.ly/DOEtoContact911Students