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It Made Madness Come Out: A Father’s Story

Jacques Menasche, a New York-based writer, editor, and filmmaker, spoke at the opening session of ACIA’s “Children of 9-11” conference. That session took place at 7 World Trade Center, which stands on Greenwich Street — the same street as the school Menasche’s son Emanuel was attending in 2001. The windows of the 10th-floor meeting room where Menasche spoke overlook Ground Zero.

Menasche, whose documentary film  “Brothers of Kabul” won Australia’s Walkley Award and was a finalist in the Rory Peck Award for Freelance Features, was a few blocks north of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, taking his then 6-year-old son to school. In early 2011 Menasche set out to interview the other members of Emanuel’s first-grade class and their parents about their memories of 9/11. The project was supported by the Dart Society, an organization of journalists concerned with covering violence and trauma, A video and other material from those interviews can be seen at www.dartsocietyreports.org.

On September 5, 2011, PBS Newshour broadcast a segment of the video. Click here to play The Class of 9/11.

Menasche began with a recollection of Emanuel’s school:

P.S. 150, where our son was, was an option school, meaning that parents who went there did not send their children to their zone school but opted for this school. On our part we opted out of a bigger school that was in our neighborhood in the West Village and opted for this school because it was smaller, it felt like a more protective environment. It had been an early childhood center, which means it had concentrated on kindergarten, first grade, and second grade until the year of 9/11. So that’s what attracted us to it. It was known that year as the Tribeca Learning Center.  It renamed itself. The name came from parents mostly because they liked saying TLC, and that’s how the school thought of itself, as the school of tender loving care. Little kids, one grade per class. One first grade class. The class that I have been thinking of and working on for the last three months was Emanuel’s class, the first grade class at P.S, 150 in 2001.

On 9/11 and afterwards there was a hierarchy of suffering: what block you were on when the attacks came, and when the buildings collapsed, made a huge difference in how you felt about the event and how others who experienced it felt about you. Three or four blocks was thought of as the difference between being a survivor and a spectator. P.S. 150 has the reputation of being the most protected of those three schools closest to Ground Zero. P.S. 234 is two blocks closer and P.S. 89 is also closer, although it is a little off to the west, but those two school have their windows facing the World Trade Center.  In P.S. 150, on the other hand, for the most part the classroom windows face north, away from the Trade Center.  So when I mentioned to a few people that I was looking at the class at PS150, those in the know said oh,  they didn’t go through anything, they did not see anything — which would have been really nice if it was true.

I have no doubt that in many regards the children at P.S. 234 and 89 did suffer a lot more. Only one P.S. 150 parent was lost in the attacks, Frank D. Martini, who was an architect for the Port Authority. Some here might know about him, that he went into the Trade Center and with his background and understanding of the engineering of the building, was trying to work as hard as he could to get as many people out of the building as he could, and died there.

The Morning of September 11, 2011

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Menasche recalled, he and Emanuel were late to school and it’s because we were late that at the time of the attacks, when most of the kids were either on Independence Plaza or walking up the steps of the school or already in the classroom, we had only gotten to the corner of J Street and Greenwich. New Yorkers will know that from J Street you had a really clear, amazing view of the World Trade Center, unobstructed.  It was about as close as you could get and see the entirety of the towers in one glimpse.  It was far enough away that you could see the whole thing.

Emanuel and I were sort of playing a game and we stopped at the corner to cross to the west side of Greenwich Street.  We stopped and I took his hand.  So we were holding hands  and then we heard this tremendous noise. It was not the noise of the crash, it was the noise of the plane. Instinctively we looked up towards the World Trade Center. We saw the impact and explosion and heard it, but at different moments. There was a disconnect between the sound and the visual sight of what was happening. And this is one of those things that cannot really come across on TV, but when we were standing there holding hands, the impact on the building sent what felt like a shockwave down under the sidewalk to where we were standing and up through the soles of our feet.

So we stood there, rooted to the spot. The first reaction was just to freeze. We were standing there looking at the Trade Center and after the initial fireball there was just black smoke coming out of the north side of the tower. And then Emanuel looks at me and says “oh, this is like a movie, that is too scary.” At that point I have to make a decision — a decision that a number of parents had to make that day. I remember counting the floors up to where the hole was in the tower to try to estimate how many people had been killed, and based on that I said okay, we are going to go to school. That’s bad what is happening there, seven blocks away, but maybe there is still going to be school.

So I took him up the stairs of Independence Plaza. I knew I was going to stay at the school.  A lot of parents were staying around the school anyway because it was beginning of the school year, it was a very touchy-feely school and at the beginning of the school year they let parents stay in the classroom for the first half hour or hour.  So I went up to the school. I saw Alyssa Polack, the principal, on the stairs and I told her what had happened. She had heard it and she said yeah, bring him in, this is the safest place you have got.

I left him in the lobby, he went off to the second floor where the classroom was.  I went down the steps of Independence Plaza back out to Greenwich Street to look at what was happening.  A group of parents had gathered on Greenwich Street and we stood there and a number of things happened in succession.  One was that people started jumping out of the windows. That seemed to go on a for a long time. At first it wasn’t immediately clear what was happening and then it dawned on us what was going on. And then within a few minutes the second plane hit the south tower. From our vantage point, we could not see the plane because it came in flying pretty low and our view was probably blocked by World Trade Center 7, but the explosion was huge and we could feel and hear it and understood right away what was going on.  At that point there was a kind of panic because after a second plane, you had no idea how many more were coming. There could have been 20 planes on the way. It was very clear, it was the start of a war and you have no idea what was happening.

So I ran back up the steps into the little school lobby and I saw Christine, who is the secretary of the school, and I said I’ve got to get in there. And she said no.  She says no, we have to follow the protocol, what we are doing is I will go up to the class, you wait here, I will sign him out, I will go up to the class and then I will bring him down to you.

Well, I was enraged, I was absolutely enraged and from speaking with other parents in the past few months, I know I wasn’t the only one. There is this kind of rage and violence and anger at the moment when all you want to do is protect your kid and there is someone saying, no, wait please.  But I waited. She brought Emanuel down and we sat on the little bench in the lobby and the rooms decorated with the kids drawings and water colors, and Emanuel is okay, and I ask him if he wants to go home. He says he wants to go home later because he wants to be there for recess. I told him that I didn’t think there was gonna be recess today.  So he said okay and we went down the stairs of Independence Plaza back onto the street.

At that point Greenwich Street had become the street of exodus. Everybody was moving north, away from the Trade Centers.  People are crying, people are looking back, a lot of people are taking pictures.  We started walking north and I am trying to angle him away from the view.  That’s something that was common to all of the parents that I spoke to, everyone was trying to protect the children from the sight of it.  Verbally, they were very honest, but they didn’t want their kids to see it.

So I am trying to kind of angle him away, which is really hard because I am running into the parents on the street who are stopping and asking what’s happening and talking to each other. Every time I would stop, Emanuel would stop and look back, and it was hard for me not to look back too.  So he is watching this thing happening and at some point he says to me, “I am scared, my belly is scared.”  So we started to have a conversation about what had happened and he had a lot of questions.  Why did not they build the building out of a stronger material, like titanium?  Why did the pilot fly into the building?  I explained as well as I could, as honestly as I could, that I think the pilot did it on purpose.  He wanted to know, why?  Well maybe he was crazy, or something.

At the time when the north tower was still burning there was fear that the building would tip over. We didn’t really expect it to collapse the way it did; we worried that it might fall and if it could fall north down the Greenwich Street. I was trying to calculate the distances, how high that building is and if it falls on Greenwich Street like a tree, is it going to fall on top of us.  So there was the impulse to get out of there and get north and it was one of the things that felt really strange about the principal’s insistence that this is the safest place for them, because for me that didn’t make any sense at all.

We were a few blocks north of the school when the first tower collapsed behind us.  Here too, every block made a difference because the rolling cloud of debris and dust only reached up until about Chamber Street.  So if you were just a block or two north of that, you were not going to get covered in it.

There is this myth of solidarity around 9/11 — that was not my experience at all. For me it was a very individualistic, atomizing experience. A lot of the parents I interviewed said to me, I thought about my kid. Get them out of the school. I did not think about the other kids in the school, I did not think about anything else going on, I wanted to get my kid, that was it.  And I felt the exactly the same, I am getting Emanuel, we are getting the hell out of here and that’s it.

Later on there was this myth of solidarity or bonding. I thought that Emanuel and I were very bonded on the sidewalk that morning. Because we he had been holding hands. I felt we were physically bonded. But in the weeks after the experience he was really mean, he was really mean to me.  If I would say he could not have chewing gum, he would say I’ll kill you. He had other symptomatic expressions. He wet his bed. He began sleepwalking, he avoided any kind of eye contact, but I remember him being just really mean, and I asked him about it. I asked why, why are you being so mean to me? And if I had not written it down, I would not believe it, but he said to me, “Maybe because of that plane and the explosion and the crashing building. Because it made madness come out and go on to everything.”

I think, as opposed to these myths that we carry around, that the experience kind of released violence, anger, dissension. A number of the parents that I spoke to had serious problems in their marriage, began fighting with each other. The kids started fighting with the parents. Everyone started fighting with the school. People who wanted to go back downtown and people who wanted to stay away.  People who thought it was safe, people who thought it wasn’t, people who thought that the school had handled the incident with tender loving care and people who thought that it hadn’t, people like me who were angry at the school secretary because she wouldn’t give me my kid immediately when I wanted my kid.

Interviews of Emanuel’s Class

When Menasche began interviewing other members of Emanuel’s class and their parents, it was, he acknowledged, “in part out of guilt” from his experience on 9/11 and afterward.

I thought I did things right that day. I felt like I spoke to him in the right way.  I had understood right away that it was a terrorist attack where other parents had not, and so I thought “good for me.”  I had immediately just wanted to get him out of harm’s way. But after that I went and did my own thing.  I started covering what was going on at Ground Zero. Later I went to Afghanistan and covered the start of the war there.  I pretty much abandoned Emanuel, with all of his complexes. We had a two-month-old at home, and I just kind of went off and did my own thing.

I don’t think I was ever interested in the school again.  I don’t think I went any parent days or any events, not that year, not the next year.  From then on it was an effort.  I don’t think I ever tried ever again to get into it.  So when this project came up, I thought, here is what I am going to do, I have the class list of the parents from that first grade class.  I am going to call them all up and I am going to go sit in their living rooms and I am going to talk with all of them and I am going to talk with all of their children and I am going to see how they did on that day. Because I didn’t really care on that day or afterwards, and somehow ten years later suddenly I was curious, how were they, did they have the same experience or did they have different experiences?

I interviewed about half of that class, about 12 of the kids. Two of the kids had gone back to Japan in the interim, a few did not want to speak. There is no uniform frame that I can throw over the kids’ experience or over their reaction.  I know two girls who were walking side by side, experienced, witnessed exactly the same things. One is suffering incredibly today and suffers from PTSD, has an anxiety disorder, is medicated. The other girl who was standing right beside her is absolutely cheerful and seems to show no symptoms, not even any kind of repression. She remembers the incident very well. They were side by side.  Two kids standing in exactly the same place, with very different reactions to the experience.

Emanuel and another girl in his class, Lilly, both saw the plane struck the towers. Nearly every child saw one of the towers collapse, either because like me they left early and saw the first tower collapse, or because when the school was evacuated, after the first tower collapsed and as soon as the last kid hit the sidewalk on Greenwich Street, the second tower collapsed behind them.

When I spoke to the principal a few months ago, she said, like most of the parents, something to the effect of well, our kids were lucky, they didn’t see anything.  I said well, what about the tower collapsing behind them and rolling dust coming towards them? She said “well, yeah, that.”  And a number of the kids said well, you know, it was pretty normal year except for 9/11. There is a real sense among the people who experienced this, especially among the kids, a sense of an unearned specialness — the parents because they weren’t killed and the children because their memories are little bit more hazy, they don’t really feel like this is all that special, that they really went through all that much.

There was a real resistance in the school towards therapy afterwards, for the same reason. A lot of parents said, we are okay, you know.  People were sending things to the school from all over the country, knapsacks, hats, lots of it with American flags. The kids were saying, well, why are we getting all this stuff? We are okay, we are okay, we are okay.  For most of the children today that is still the case, that is what they are saying. But not all.  With the parents, it depends on their situation.  The parents obviously are much more aware and can remember much more about that incident than the children. But there wasn’t one child that I spoke to who remembered nothing, not one.  They were five and six years old and even if they remembered like Emanuel that he left his backpack in the school and never saw it again, or another kid who left his lunchbox and then when they came back to the building months later, it was all moldy, or someone remembering the fire or the building collapsing or having cookies that day, there was not a kid who remembered nothing. They are all incredibly so honest and a special bunch of children.  So I will stop there.