In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 (2019) - full transcript

Drawing on intimate access to eight eyewitnesses, this documentary offers a unique perspective on this tragic events of September 11, 2001.


- On September 11th,

I was a senior
at Stuyvesant High School,

which is four or five blocks

from where
the World Trade Center sat.

- I was 13 years old.

- I think I was 15 at the time.

- I was a senior
in high school.

- It was, I think, our second
or third day of school.

- We're just chatting in class,
waiting for our books.

- And there was
a lot of commotion.

- It was so surreal.

It just felt like a movie,
you know.

You're seeing that debris
and the smoke.

- Became very afraid,

just felt like my life
was in danger.

- We were there,
and I don't think

people really talk about
the fact that

there were kids there.

- We experienced
being a witness to history,

but also ending up,
like, if you look back on it,

being a part of history.

- Absolutely everything
changed that day.

The city was attacked.
The way of life was attacked.

And having grown up here

and having become adopted
by New York,

that felt personal.

This is New York.
This is home.

- Going to Stuyvesant was
really a dream for most of us

immigrant children
growing up in the boroughs.

Getting into this elite school
was something

that we were sort of hoping for
and expecting

since we were real young.

- To get into Stuyvesant,

you have to take a test
like the SATs,

and yeah, I was a--you know,
a very high-reaching,

ambitious, academic kid.

- My father, he wanted me
to go to Catholic school.

My family is very Catholic.
My last name's O'Callahan.

We're Irish Catholic.
My dad was almost a priest.

But I had
a different ambition.

- My parents immigrated
from Bangladesh.

They came in the early '70s.

They grew up
in very small villages.

My father, especially, grew up

in a one-room village
in Bangladesh, got educated,

was able to move to the city,
and then eventually

made his way
over to the States.

I can imagine it was
sort of a dream.

They truly believed
in that American dream:

streets paved with gold,

leave everything behind,
and come here and make it.

- I was born in Ukraine.

My parents were born in Kiev,

and we came to the U.S.
in 1991.

And so America was, you know,
my adopted country.

It had taken us in,
had been good to us.

You know, eventually,
land of opportunity,

I was able to get
into Stuyvesant

and had life ahead of me,

and that was all thanks
to America.

A lot of those things
weren't possible

back in Ukraine.

- I grew up in Brooklyn.

We had just moved from
Crown Heights to Bed Stuy.

My was, like, very apprehensive
of sending me

to a school in Manhattan,
and I was like,

"It's Stuyvesant.
I get to go."

- I came all the way
from the Bronx,

and given I don't know
how many students

have an hour and a half commute
at the age of 15.

So going from the tippy-top,

I was at the northern part
of the Bronx,

cutting through the south

and cutting through
all of Manhattan,

but I had this, like,
very ambitious, like,

"I'm gonna seize the day
type of attitude" too.

And Manhattan seemed like
such a special place,

and it's the place to be.

- It was a sunny day.

Most days that we would
commute to Stuyvesant,

we would wake up 5:00, 5:30
in the morning, really early.

First week of school
and really excited

for senior year to start.

- I lived in South Brooklyn,

so I was 15 minutes
from the nearest subway.

So I would take an express bus
every day.

- And I met up
with two of my friends,

which we would always do,

'cause we wanted to take
the train together.

There was a mall there

that we would pop out
of the train station

and walk through
that mall every day,

come out right underneath
the towers.

- My bus used to drop me off
at the Century 21

right in front of the towers.

I walked from there to school
every morning.

- Our high school's unique.

It's, like, ten floors,

we have a large student body,
so in a sense,

our school's pretty awesome
that way.

- It was already
a pretty big jump

to be going to high school
in the city

and just really excited.

Really, really, excited.

- When I started Stuyvesant,
I was about 13,

and it was an interesting time
for kids.

The internet was sort of,

like, making its way
into our lives.

We were just starting to chat.

None of us had cell phones,

so texting was definitely
not a thing.

- This must've have been
the first

if not a second week
of school.

You know, before you get
your books,

before you really know
the routine.

- 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.

And as soon
as the explosion happened,

I reacted, yelling and saying,
"Oh, my God,"

at the top--like,
really loudly,

and it stopped the whole class.

- I saw the crash of the plane
into the North Tower.

I remember asking someone,
"Was that missile?"

And they said,
"No, it was a plane."

And I was like, "No,
that doesn't make any sense

"that, like, so did
someone just fire a missile

at the Trade Center?"

And he was like,
"No, I saw the tail,"

and I realized that I had
also seen the tail.

- So when the first plane hit,

that just, like, usual sound
of a garbage truck backing up

and the driver probably
not seeing,

like, maybe, the garbage cans,
like, that thud,

um, that's what
it sounded like.

And oh, God,
I forgot his name.

He's a really sweet
Spanish teacher,

but I remember he had, like,
curly gray, black hair,

and he was very soft-spoken.

He'd be like,
"Mis señoras, mis señoras."

That's how he'd start the day,

and I just remember him--
his just gentleness

on his face
just quickly disappeared

when he heard that sound.

- And all my classmates
ran over to the window.

Our teacher ran over
to the window,

and we were all looking out
at this ball of fire

that was emitting
from the tower.

- I'm looking at the TV,
looking out the window,

looking at the TV,
looking out the window,

and I just happened to be
looking out the window,

and I see the second plane.

And then look at the TV,
and then it shows it on the TV.

- And it sort of hit you
like a swell of emotion

that this is hap--
it's happening again.

- Everybody at that instant
realized

it was a terrorist attack.

- They sent us to
our homerooms.

I remember there was
some confusion as to whether

we're safer in the building
or outside the building,

so we didn't evacuate
right away.

Just a lot of commotion,
there was a lot of excitement.

It was adrenaline from about--
just about everyone.

- And I think
I was--I don't know.

I can't say what I felt,

because it just
felt like--I feel like

I wasn't processing it yet
at that point.

- A lot of people talk
about understanding

after the second plane had hit
that this was intentional

and that this was
a terrorist attack,

and I could not make that leap.

And I mean, I say "leap."

It was a small step,
at that point.

Two planes hitting
the Trade Center?

My mind just wouldn't
make that connection.

- Some students' parents
or family members

worked in the tower.

I had an uncle that was working
on the 86th floor

of the South Tower,

and I was thinking about him
and what was going on.

And I saw debris falling
from the tower.

And I was like,
"What is that?

"What's falling?

"What is that that's falling
from the tower?

Is that paper?
It's so big."

And we realized
we were watching people jump

from the tower down to

whatever they felt
at that moment

was their best option.

- I personally saw bodies
falling out of the sky,

you know, from the building.

We're like,
"Did you just see that?"

And we thought it was,
like, a chair

or something falling out
from the sky.

And--I mean, later on,
we realized

there might--
there must have been,

you know, people jumping out.

- And as soon as I saw
what I saw--

appendages and arms and legs--

I thought that my uncle was,
like, falling from the tower

at that moment.

That's the way I felt,

so I became hysterical
at that point.

They sent us to our next class.

That class became canceled,
and they sent us, at first,

to our second class, whatever,
and I happened to have gym.

And while we were there,
the whole building shook.

The whole building shook,
the lights flickered, went off.

They were off for about
five or six seconds, I think,

or it felt like that.

And then something, like,
sort of turned on,

and it felt like the lights
came back on.

And we were all yelling
and screaming

and sort of running around.

In retrospect, I understood
that that was the time

when the South Tower
collapsed.

- 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.

Things just kind of kept
popping up

and frankly,
anything was possible.

- The principal decided we're,
like, all evacuating now

and really asking students
not to panic

and to make sure
to walk calmly.

- Imagine being trained
for fire alarms

in single file lines,

and then you have a moment
where it's, like,

50 times worse than a fire,

but you're still trying
to keep your cool.

- 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 tower--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.

- I think
the second building collapsed

when we had evacuated.

- 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 dust cloud was coming,

kind of like what you see
in, like, mummy movies.

You see a sandstorm
that's coming from a distance,

and this just, like, wall
of sand is coming at you,

and at some point,
encompasses you.

Just a giant wall,
like a mountain of dust

kind of moving toward you.

- They have made the decision
to stop

all air traffic control...

- I remember there was
a hustle--like,

a real hustle to get away
at least ten blocks,

because people
were afraid of the build--like,

you know, you don't know
how buildings fall, right?

- There's just people walking
in the streets.

There are people walking
on the sidewalks.

There's just people walking
everywhere,

and then you hear
sirens everywhere.

There are fighter jets,
like, flying really low

across Manhattan,
and so you hear them coming,

and you hear them going.

- And the trains
weren't working.

You know, when you go
to a commuter high school,

like, that's such a part
of your life.

And you are immediately aware
that you cannot get home

unless you're willing to walk
several miles.

- One by one,
on the West Side Highway,

our friend group found
one another.

And we found one friend,
and we found another friend.

Whoever we saw
that we kind of knew

who was South Asian,
we just had to grab them

and said, "Don't be
by yourself, just come,"

because we were young kids
in the city.

We felt like
we looked different.

We didn't wanna be targeted.

- There was a girl.

Her name was Nazia,
and she wore a hijab.

And we're all walking up
together,

and this guy just, like, stops

and literally says--
calls her a bitch,

and, um...

we all just, like, froze.

We just couldn't believe it.

We were feeling like
we were all walking together

away from danger,

and someone amongst us

that was walking
the same direction as us

was looking at someone
that I was with as the enemy.

And it just kind of
blew my mind.

- I remember we were with
one of the younger girls,

I can't recall her name,
wore a hijab.

And I remember somebody
from across the street,

like a construction worker-type
dude, like, yelled at her like,

"Go back to where
you came from."

And we're like,
"We're trying to go to Queens."

Like, "We're trying to go back
where we came from."

- The lines at pay phones,

which still existed
in the city at that time,

were, like, around the block,

because the World Trade Center

was also the primary
cell phone tower.

- My father was at work
that day.

My father is a dentist,
and he worked in Queens.

And on the television,
he saw that this was happening,

and an assistant--a dental
assistant came into the room

and told him that

Stuyvesant High School
exploded.

That's what she heard.

She may have heard "evacuated,"
and misspoke.

And my dad collapsed
on the ground,

'cause he thought
that the school exploded.

And he was waiting for a call,

and we had one friend
who had a Nextel cell phone,

which I don't even know
if they exist anymore,

but Nextel at the time,

they had the biggest
cell phones,

the biggest antennas,

and they just worked
everywhere.

He was the only friend
with a cell phone,

and he allowed each of us,
one after the next,

to call home.

And I called my father,

and he was bawling, crying
on the phone.

He's like, "Where are you?"

I said,
"I'm in downtown Manhattan.

I'm with friends."

He says, "Please be safe.

They don't know if there are
more attacks happening."

And this is something
I'll remember to this day.

My dad, over the phone,
said to me,

"Please, please, just survive."

And him saying that to me
made me realize

sort of the predicament
I was in.

I knew, but hearing
my dad's concern

and his voice
and what he said to me,

I felt like I--that's when
I realized I was in a war zone.

That's what I felt like.

- So pretty much,
we got home,

I wanna say something like
9:00 or 10:00 at night.

But the moment
we entered the Bronx,

my mom, like, you know,
she just broke down,

and she's like, "My baby!"

And she's just like, you know,
just hugged me

and just like--
just smothered me to life.

I mean, it was in Korean.

Which means "my puppy."

And these were words
she used when I was a baby.

She used those words
that she used

when I was, like, an infant
like, "my little puppy,"

"my little piglet," you know.

Like, and I guess, like,
retelling you this,

it sounds very strange,
but I guess she reverted

to those, like, early words
of affection for me.

Like, you know,
"I almost lost you," you know.

Sorry, I didn't--um...

yeah.

- The first thing,
I walked through the door,

and they grabbed me.

And I just collapsed
on the floor,

and I just started
bawling, crying.

Um...

And I asked, like,
"Have you guys heard

"from Shajahan mama?

Have you heard from them?"

She's like,
"No, I called you aunt,

"and we haven't heard.

"The last thing he did
this morning was,

he bathed the kids."

He had four children.

He bathed them,
and he went off to work.

And he told his wife that,
you know,

"I'll be back in the evening."

And she was calling his office,
and we never heard from him.

He ended up passing away, uh,

from, maybe, the collapse
or from the impact.

We never knew.

Um, but he never--
he never came back.

We lost him that day.

- I'm fairly sure that week,
the rest of the week,

I was just catatonically
on my couch watching TV,

trying to get whatever--
trying to extract

whatever information there was,
trying to understand.

- Stuyvesant was closed
for a few weeks

after the events,

and my parents
didn't let me out of the house.

They didn't want me
going anywhere.

They wanted me to stay home.

They were afraid
that some random person

with some preconceived notion
or idea

would take out their anger
and frustrations,

understandably, they would be
angry and frustrated,

on some kid that they see
who looks like something

that they imagine
to be fearful.

- When we came back to school
on October 8th or 9th,

I remember the smell.

It smelled like burning
and maybe chemically,

but it just--
it smelled terrible.

- It was crazy.

I mean, you had armed military
checking our IDs

going into school.

You couldn't cross
the West Side Highway

without being checked.

- I think there was
a point of pride

of not letting ourselves
be too affected

or letting ourselves show
that we were too affected.

I feel like
it's a pretty safe place to be,

and I know that it'll
bring back emotions for me

to be back in the building,

but I think that it's things
that I can cope with.

- One of the barges
that was removing debris

from the World Trade Center
was placed

just north of our building
in the Hudson River.

- We were four or five 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
wanna smell again,

but that was reality,

and that was life
at Stuyvesant.

- That whole sophomore year,

I was always afraid
when I hear planes.

Like--like that: shoo....

you know, the, like,
overhead--that whistling.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.

Any sound like that always,

like, uh...made me sweat
a little bit.

- There was a lot
of anxiety around the backlash

that people of color,
especially that looked like me,

were experiencing across
the city, across the country.

And that was a very real part
of the aftermath.

There were stories about
people of wearing turbans

or people that were Indian
or Bengali

or Pakistani getting attacked
and getting beaten.

And my mother was hearing
all of these stories as well,

and she was scared.

You know,
she was scared for me.

- And we were always
proud Americans,

and my father was the biggest
supporter of America

in every Olympics
leading up to that point.

I just remember I thought
it was so funny.

I'm like,
"Dad, you're not from here.

Why do you like America so much
in the Olympics?"

He was very happy and proud
to be from here.

And that week,
both my father and mother

went out, they bought American
flag stickers,

two each, and they put them
directly onto our cars.

Not only because
they're proud Americans,

but because they didn't want
people to feel like

they were outsiders.

And I was upset,

not because I have
any disrespect

for the American flag,

but I felt like
you don't need to show anybody

or prove to anybody
that you belong here.

- But my mom was
a life insurance agent,

and I remember she had clients

where the FBI would
go over to their house,

Muslim clients, Pakistanis,

and they would just, like,
shake up all their furniture,

look through stuff,
find nothing, leave,

come back two weeks later.

And so these are things
I don't think,

like, the mass media
as talking about,

but through literally
just ground level

community bubble stuff,
I started seeing how

this was really affecting
our community,

that people were losing
their jobs.

People were losing
their business.

The collateral damage
of 9/11 is really, like...

There's so much
collateral damage,

but a lot of it is
brown identity in America.

- Even though our senior year
was completely marred

by this experience,

the internal Stuyvesant
experience

was incredible for me.

My senior year of high school

was my favorite year
of high school.

Because of the way
we came together,

there was just a harmony
in our class.

And that harmony was because
of what we went through

and how it brought us together
and how we understood

that everyone was accepting
of one another

and everyone loved each other.

That was the difference.

- There were a lot more

impassioned political
conversations

in social studies classrooms.

Very strongly differing
opinions about whether or not

we should be getting
into a war,

about what role we had played

on bringing this on ourselves,
if any.

But we sure did get
Bill Clinton to speak

at our graduation.

- I thank the class of 2002
for all you did

in the aftermath
of September the 11th.

And I thank you for the courage
and determination

and spirit with which
you bore this great difficulty,

something someone your age
should never have to face.

- Our graduation song
was just so patriotic.

♪ I vow to you ♪

♪ My country ♪

♪ All earthly things above ♪

♪ A love
that asks no question ♪

♪ A love that stands the test ♪

And there's more stuff,
but, like, seriously?

"A love that asks no question"

is not a love that I wanna have
for my country.

I think it's bullshit,

so I didn't really like

that that was
our graduation song.

It pissed me off.

But the chorus instructor was
a very patriotic woman,

and she totally vetoed
those of us who really wanted

to make
Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"

our graduation song.

So that also colored
graduation.

- We're still in
the post-9/11 world.

As a global society,

like, everything is based on
protection.

We're still fighting wars
against the organizations

that helped perpetuate 9/11.

So that was the turning point
of Carlos

who thought
that the world was gonna be

a peaceful, happy place
by the time he grew up

and the one that was like,

"Okay, this is the reality
that we live in."

- I remember it, and I think
about it all the time.

I just knew that this was
life-altering.

And to this day,
I still feel like

it completely changed
who I was as a person.

- We were just so close.

I think that the people
who were together on that day

and around that day really
solidified relationships

in ways
that have carried forward.

I don't know anyone
who is as close

with their friends
from high school

as I am with the friends
who I had at that time.

- You know, I was lucky enough
to not lose anyone

in the attacks, but--I mean,
the whole world changed.

You know, the world is still
feeling the shocks of 9/11.

- There's a long history
of hate in this country.

And I think how you process
events like this

and how much hate you ingest
into your process

shows what a country is.

And I think in that respect,
we, as a country, failed.

- I don't feel like
the world is any safer

or closer to accepting
Muslim Americans

or minority Americans

any more than the days
after September 11th.

And I feel that as long as hate
and ignorance

is around and perpetuated

and not snuffed out,

people will always live
in fear

of those who are different.

- When my first child was born

and basically every year
since that she's been awake,

when I get home
on September 11th,

and they're shining
the memorial light,

I've taken her out
to the waterfront

to see the light
and tell her a little bit

about September 11th.

I want my children
to understand

that the world
doesn't have to look like this.

It doesn't have to look like
a place

where we point to people
based on their differences,

because there's something
that we think we have to fear.

And I would love for them
to understand that

that perspective doesn't have
to continue to exist,

and they can work to change
that perspective.

- You know, people thrive
and rebuild and recover

despite difficulties,
and I think that's a testament

to all of us.

And the people
who are rebuilding America,

they're also immigrants.

They continue to come,

and they continue
to make America

a stronger, better,
more diverse,

you know, smarter place.

It's the land of opportunity.

People still wanna come,

and I think that is a testament
to, not just New York,

but also, like,
the human spirit, generally.

- ♪ I pledge allegiance
to the flag ♪

♪ Of the United States ♪

♪ Of America ♪

♪ We're going flag shopping
for American flags ♪

♪ They're staring at
our turbans ♪

♪ They're calling them rags ♪

♪ They're calling them
towels ♪

♪ They're calling them
diapers ♪

♪ They're more like crowns ♪

♪ Let's strike them
like vipers ♪

♪ I know why they mad ♪

♪ But why call us Arabs ♪

♪ We sad like they sad ♪

♪ But now we buy they flags ♪

♪ We're going American flag
shopping ♪

♪ Red, white, blue
on our crib ♪

♪ The neighbors threw rocks
at the house ♪

♪ They making it
harder to live ♪

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