Students from New York school near the Twin Towers recount 9/11 horror: 'I saw bodies falling from the building'
It was the second day for the high school seniors at the school in New York when the devastating tragedy unfolded right in front of their eyes
Mohammad Haque, a teenage Stuyvesant High School student, was attending his first Math class on the morning of September 11, 2001, when he heard a loud explosion and looked out the window and yelled: "Oh my God!"
It was the second day for the high school seniors at the elite school in New York, just a few blocks away from the Twin Towers, with an impressive view of the mounting landmark from its 10th floor.
There was excitement among children who had just started studying there, a lot of them were immigrant children: "Going to the Stuyvesant High School was a dream for most of us immigrant children grown up in the boroughs," Haque recalled. The teens did not have cell phones back then and were just getting acquainted with the internet, with many still figuring out their subway commute from home to school.
As Haque attended his Math class, many others were chatting in other classes with friends, some musing as they looked out the window, when they heard a loud thud — something had crashed into the iconic towers. "Was it a missile?" a student asked perplexed, with another answering: " No, I saw an airplane's tail!" Everyone rushed toward the windows and were witnessing a raging ball of fire bursting from the middle of one of the towers. Then they saw the second plane hit. "The sound was deafening."
A commotion broke out in the school with the students and staff looking at the television and then out of their windows. Horrified, the children were sent to their homerooms as the school had not accounted for measures to be taken in case of a terrorist attack.
The terrified students helplessly looked on. Some of their parents or relatives worked in the towers. "I had an uncle who worked at the 86th floor," Haque said.
After a few moments, they began noticing debris falling from the towers. "We were trying to understand what the objects were, some thought they were chairs, but then realized they were people. People were jumping off. I saw bodies falling in the sky from the building," Haque said he imagined his uncle being one of them.
The students, after a while, were sent for their second class, moments later, the whole building shook and lights began to flicker. That is when they realized that one of the towers had collapsed. The school officials were confused whether to evacuate or not and made their decision when the rumors of a possible bomb on the premises started spiraling: "Franky, at that moment, anything was possible." The school was evacuated. "It was so surreal, it felt like a movie."
The second building collapsed when the students had just evacuated. "We just ran as fast as we could, we could see a sand storm moving towards us, like a giant wall coming," one of the students featured in the HBO documentary 'In the Shadow of Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11' said.
The students saw people walking everywhere on the roads, trying to get away from the buildings, the fighter hets were flying really low, and then they found out that the subway was shut. "You became immediately aware that you can not get home." Some students came to Stuyvesant High miles away from the Bronx.
As fear settled among people, one student recounted a stranger walking up to his friend named Nadia who wore a hijab and called her a bitch. "We all froze." It did not take long for immigrant students to comprehend that they looked different from others. With nowhere to go, the students stayed together and hankered to make a call. The lines at the payphones ran around the block.
Haque recalled his father, a dentist from Bangladesh, hearing from a nurse a rumor about his son's school exploding. "My dad collapsed." When the teen finally managed to make a call, his father began bawling after listening to his voice, and said: "Please just survive." This made Haque realize that he was "in a war zone."
Stuyvesant High was closed for a few weeks and in this time the immigrant students realized the new reality of America. There was a surge in hate crimes against people of color, and the children's parents were terrified to let them to anywhere. "They were afraid that some random stranger would take out their anger and frustration on a kid who looked different," Haque said.
"There was a lot of anxiety over backlash people of color were experiencing, there was an increase in hate crimes. My mother was scared for me. My parents bought American flag stickers for our car because they didn't want people to think we were outsiders. I was upset by this because I thought you didn't need to prove that you belong here," Haque, who is a healthcare professional now, said.
The students still remember the day they went back to school after the tragedy. "The area smelt of something burning, it was terrible." Military was checking everything, including their IDs while entering school. "That whole sophomore year I was very afraid when I heard planes" another immigrant high school senior Catherine Choy said.
However, the environment inside Stuyvesant High was different from the world outside, there was a feeling of solidarity among the children who had experienced the tragedy together. "My senior year of high school was my most favorite year because of the way we all came together. There was harmony in our class because of what we all went through, that brought us together," Haque said.
18 years down the line, Haque is still friends with many of his high school friends as he says the whole experience changed him and his perception about the world.
"I don't feel that the world is any closer to accepting minority Muslim Americans or minority Americans any more than the days after Sep 11. As long as hate is around and is being perpetuated, people will always be in fear of those who are different."