Essay: My Mind’s Too Small, The Towers Too Big by Nadja Spiegelman, Stuyvesant High School Student

All my life I’ve lived downtown. And all my life, the World Trade Towers stood tall and proud whenever I looked out of my door. All my life, news was something that happened elsewhere, and the words war, terrorism, and death hardly ever came up in conversation. Yet on September 11th, everything that had always been so stable and consistent disappeared into a thick white cloud of fear and confusion. Buildings fell, millions of people died, and I feared for my life. Until then, life had been routine and ordinary, airplane trips had been safe and fun, I slept well, and school was my biggest worry. Then, one day, in a few quick hours, everything changed. War is now a constant terror in the back of my mind, my safety will forever be in question and the sound of an airplane flying low overhead never fails to strike fear in my heart.


Towering at their full 1,368 feet above the ground, those buildings were an indispensable part of my skyline, part of the view when I walked down the street. They were so much part of my thoughts that I had long since stopped noticing them. Now I am forced to notice the pure blue and empty sky where once the massive buildings stood.

The towers were engineered by Skilling, Helle, Christiansen and Robertson . They provided some precautions against fires and planes but they never anticipated anything even nearly as catastrophic as what happened last September.

“I’m sort of a methodical person, so I listed all the bad things that could happen to a building and tried to design for them. I thought of the B-25 bomber, lost in the fog, that hit the Empire State Building in 1945. The 707 was the; state-of-the-art airplane then. We studied it, and designed for the impact of such an aircraft. The next step would have been to think about the fuel load, and I’ve been searching my brain, but I don’t know what happened there, whether in all our testing we thought about it. Now we know what happens-it explodes,” Robertson said afterwards.(1)

The buildings were able to adequately resist their first terrorist attack, on Friday, February 26, 1993. In fact, even though the bomb created a 22-foot wide, five story deep crater, the buildings were repaired and reopened in less then a month. Yet after the Sept. 11th attacks the buildings will never be reopened. The structure of the building was strong enough to survive the impact of the plane, but the raging fires caused by the full fuel tanks in the planes caused the steel to melt.

As soon as one story collapsed, all the stories above it began to collapse as well, and the weight and momentum crushed the structurally intact floors below. The buildings were constructed soundly enough to allow some 25,000 people escape before they collapsed. Even so, when Robertson made his only public appearance at the at the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, on October 5th, in New Hampshire, and a fellow engineer asked Robinson ” Is there anything you wish you had done differently in the design of the building?”, Robertson broke down and wept at the lectern. When an engineer sent him a letter of admiration for keeping the building standing even for those few vital minutes, he received this note in response:

The fires writhed inside me too as the towers collapsed around me and my world tumbled to the ground. “Everyone around the world with access to a television set saw the cataclysmic destruction of the World Trade Center towers, saw it in constant replay, burning-and burning itself into our collective retina. I saw it that way, too, but first I saw it unmediated,” my dad wrote in an article later. What follows is my story of the events of that day:

I was sitting in the library with my friend Esther. It was my free period (second period) and my math homework (due fourth period), was still undone. We scribbled away silently, both trying to get our homework done in time. The period was half over, and my homework only a quarter done. There was a large bang and the librarian laughed and said “It sounds like someone dropped a weight in the gym above.”

There was smoke visible through the window, and talk of a water tank exploding on a building near by. I turned my attention away from the minor commotion, and focused fully on my homework. After years of living in a noisy household, I had learned to block out all the sounds and activity around me, and concentrate solely on one thing,

Last year, there had been a fire in a tall building across the street from my school. No one was injured, three apartments were burned and scores of firefighters came. Everyone had left their classes and rushed to the roof to watch, excited by anything out of the ordinary. From the roof we could see the flames and the jets of water streaming out the windows. We lay on the roof and sunbathed, watching the fire burn, glad that they had let the classes out. A news helicopter flew overhead and everyone looked up and waved. I thought this was exactly the same thing, so I ignored the crowds clumped around the library windows and concentrated on my math.

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When the period was over, and my math homework was finally done, I looked out the window directly behind me. There were a lot of men and women in suits carrying briefcases and talking on cell phones milling around in the street. They had presumably come out of neighboring offices to watch the spectacle and take a break from work. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the windows at the other end of the library, behind the bookshelves.

“You can’t see anything from here,” they said. “Go over there.” Out those windows was an even stranger sight. Someone had hung a picture of the World Trade Center over the window, and then cut a big rip in the building with a pair of scissors. I noticed the smoke billowing out of the rip and I turned away, still half-believing that the smoke must be dry ice hidden somewhere in the picture.

I went back to Esther, who was about to leave the library. “Come look!” I said, pulling on her arm, “it’s pretty impressive.”

“Do we have the time? Class starts soon,” she replied, looking anxiously at her watch. I insisted, and finally she came. “What happened?” she asked, bewildered.

Nothing happened, the voice in my head answered, nothing happened at all.

“A plane crashed into it,” a boy said in front of us.

No it didn’t, my inner voice soothed.

“Looks like a pretty bad accident!” Esther said.

“It was no accident!” said yet another boy with a huge grin, “There were two planes! It was a terrorist attack!” Boys!, I thought contemptuously, and Esther and I walked off to our next class.

In English, Ms. Moore attempted to teach us the lesson, but was easily persuaded to simply let us sit and talk. Josh told us about coming out of the subway, and seeing the commotion. Then he sheepishly pulled a disposable camera out of his backpack, explaining with a grin, “So of course I went and bought a camera…”

We all laughed. Whenever anyone mentioned that they were scared, one kid in the back of the class went on about what sissies we were. Why, he saw things much worse than this and thought nothing of it, why didn’t we grow up?

The PA system just wouldn’t shut up. Voices crackled incessantly telling us that, much to our dismay, we would not be allowed out for lunch today. Or, more accurately, they said that maybe we wouldn’t be allowed out for lunch today, but they weren’t quite sure and they still had to discuss it and they would tell us definitively later but they thought that it would be nice to give a little warning, just in case we wouldn’t be allowed out. I was glad for the break from the routine of school. Yet I wished they would let it get a bit more routine (for it was only the second or third full day) before they decided to give us a break from it.

I sat there listening to everyone talk of their experience that morning, until a serious voice emerged through the static of the PA system. ” We have received some news. There is, at this very moment, a terrorist attack being waged on America. Attacks such as the one on the World Trade Center are happening all over the US, especially in Washington. We will give you more news as it arrives. You will not be allowed out for lunch today.”

For a moment, I was incredibly scared. Until now, it had all been a silly commotion. But this announcement sounded just like the news I heard on TV. Terrorist attacks simply could not happen in my immediate surroundings. They happened on TV and in far off lands. That, in part, is why I simply could not admit to this being one. There was no such thing as a terrorist attack in New York next to my school, near my house. But as soon as it was happening in Washington, and “all over the US”, well then maybe it was real. And if that was real, then wasn’t what I’d seen out the window in the library also real? No, I thought, it isn’t, don’t worry. They’re all mistaken. And I promptly suppressed my fear.

Shortly after, the lights flashed on and off, and the building shook. As I felt the ground beneath my feet tremble, part of me yelled, Surely you must believe that something is happening now! Someone yelped softly, and the boy in the back of the class told her to shut up.
“What was that??” a kid asked the teacher, worriedly.

“Oh don’t worry. That was only a plane passing overhead. You know, like the static on cell phones under bridges,” Ms. Moore replied, with astounding assurance and tranquility. Oh, all right then, I thought, and ceased worrying. In retrospect, I’m incredibly grateful that Ms. Moore thought up a slightly plausible (however illogical) explanation, or I would have undoubtedly fallen to pieces right then and there.

The voices on the loud speaker interrupted my thoughts yet again to announce that we were to proceed to our homerooms and not to our next class. I cursed internally. My next class was math, and I’d gone through all that trouble of finishing my homework. But I had bigger problems. Namely, the idiots had shut off the escalators and elevators, our homeroom was on the tenth floor, and my friend Anna had a broken leg.

Anna and I made our way slowly and painfully up the many flights of stairs. I held her crutches as she tried to maneuver her cast in such a way so as to not slip and fall back down the stairs. At the top of the stairs we ran into my friend Beryl.
“There you are!” she exclaimed, “Your dad has been looking all over for you.”

Dad? Here? In school? My mind asked, befuddled. We turned the corner, and there, like a hallucination, was my dad in the middle of the hallway.

“Nadja!” he said. He seemed relieved, angry, confused, and frightened all at the same time. Frightened. My dad was never frightened. Not like this, anyway. Unless there was good cause. I pondered the syllogism, and concluded there must be a good cause to be frightened. Suddenly and abruptly, the whole façade fell away, and my mind struggled to understand what it knew now must really be happening. I was scared out of my mind. I sobbed openly as my dad grabbed my arm firmly and pulled me down the stairs. People stared at me slightly. I didn’t care. My mind was still trying to get a small grip on the huge impossibility it was faced with.

In the lobby we met up with my mother, her face streaked with tears. I had stopped being startled by such things as my mother being in my school, and the frightened tears in her eyes. In fact, I barely noticed them. Terrorism? Here? Now? Death? War? Now? Here? Really? No, couldn’t be. But maybe…? My mind repeated incessantly. After a while I just shut off my brain, and went numb. My mind was too small to hold thoughts as big as these.

When I rode to school that morning, I had chained up my bike outside. “Should I take my bike with me?” I asked my father, expecting a no, as we were all going to walk home and it would just get in the way. “If you don’t, you’ll never see it again,” he responded, and I wondered briefly what he meant. We walked along the river. More people than I’d ever seen on this esplanade walked alongside us. Next to us were an old man and woman, pulling a suitcase along behind them. They looked completely shell-shocked. Their backs were covered in white dust, their fronts completely clean. I wondered what that dust could be, as we walked along. We didn’t walk very far. When we were only about two blocks from the school (which was four blocks from the towers), everyone around us simultaneously turned around.

” Look!” about ten people shouted. I saw the World Trade Tower (there was only one left by now) for the last time. The powerful building that had always been part of my life and my skyline hovered before me, bigger than it had ever seemed before. Then, it slowly vanished, crumbling straight downward, disappearing into a huge cloud of smoke, until I was looking only at the empty sky. My father’s arm around my shoulder tightened, and my mother screamed hysterically.

“Cathy!!!!” she screamed hoarsely between sobs, “Noooooooooo!!!” She was envisioning her best friend Cathy, and her three sons (my brother’s best friends), who lived very close to the World Trade Center, being buried alive under the rubble.

“Shhh, shh.” My father soothed unconvincingly. My mind exploded into tiny bits. Tall buildings simply did not crumble to the ground right in front of me. They didn’t dare. My parents simply never screamed or panicked. It was unthinkable. Things that happen on the news simply couldn’t really happen in my life. In fact, it was easier to think that they didn’t happen at all. Yet for some inexplicable reason, all these things seemed to have just occurred. I went into hysterics. I started screaming, crying, whimpering and talking aloud, as I stared dumbly at the huge cloud of smoke that was advancing towards us rapidly. My family just stood there, as everyone around us started running in the opposite direction. Right as the smoke began to overtake the school, someone rushing by us yelled, “Run! Run! The smoke will kill you!”

“We’ve got to run!” I insisted, tugging at my parents, who were still staring at the ball of smoke, “We’re going to die.”

As we stumbled away from the school, my battered mind fit together the thoughts “The smoke is deadly”, “The smoke is in my school”, and “all my friends are still in the school”. I panicked even further (if that was possible). I staggered along, sobbing raggedly between loud repetitions of “No! No! No! No!” and “My school! My friends! My school! My friends!” Two people tried to offer me water. My parents thanked them and refused on my behalf. I couldn’t speak.

We turned off onto Canal St, only a few blocks away from my home. There were people everywhere. Seated calmly on a stool in front of a store, a street artist painted solemnly at his easel. He was adding the finishing touches to a picture of the two towers aflame. He looked up at the now empty sky, like an artist whose model has moved. “He doesn’t even have a very good view from here”, my father remarked, as we walked amongst the crowd towards the safety of our home.

In a school on the east side, ten blocks below the UN, one of my best friends, Sarah Kay, was coping with the tragedy in her own unique way. Sarah is the most sensitive, caring and open person I know. She is also a downtown resident; she lives even closer to the towers then I do. She is peaceful, and unfailingly kind. She never curses or insults anyone. She is sweet and tender and sheltered in a cocoon of love. She was the first person I worried about after my brain had cleared enough for me to think logically again. I expected her to react in a way even worse then I had, yet, faced with the horror, she was unbelievably strong. She concentrated on calming the people around her, and not ’till after the fear had passed did she cry.


Every night before bed, Sarah Kay makes a list of things she has to do the next day and sticks it someplace where she will see it the next morning. Usually she throws the old notes away, but when I asked her about her experiences on Sept. 11th, she triumphantly pulled the note she had written on the night of Sept. 10th out of a drawer. It read:

” -Find out about play
-Soccer tryouts!!!!!!!”

“It’s amazing how quickly my worries changed,” she added, wistfully.

This is her story, as she told it to me:

Sarah had arrived early to French class, on the morning of Sept. 11. She put down her backpack on her desk, and walked back out of the classroom again. In the hall, she saw her best friend Tim.
“Sarah! Sarah! C’mere!” he shouted excitedly, ” I think the WTC is on fire.” She wandered over to the empty classroom where he waited impatiently. He pointed out the window, but when Sarah looked, she saw nothing.

“Yeah…. What about it?” She asked.

“Bend down and look up,” he replied simply.

Crouched beneath the window, Sarah could see the sky filled with thick black smoke. “Oh, God!! What happened??” Sarah wondered, shocked.

“Well, it’s a big fire… maybe it’s a bomb!” Tim mused.

“Yeah, genius. A bomb. Right!” Sarah jeered sarcastically.
Sarah glanced at her watch and realized with worry that she was already ten minutes late to her French class.

“Why are you so late!?!” her teacher demanded.

“I think there’s a fire in the World Trade Center…” Sarah began.

“Just sit down!” Her teacher said, inwardly rolling her eyes at yet another ridiculous excuse.

About halfway through the lesson, a boy from a different class ran in, interrupting the class. Everyone stopped writing to look at him. “Get out of here!” the teacher commanded, knowing his reputation as a trouble maker,

“But, but… didn’t you hear? A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!” he protested.

“What?!? This is serious. My sister in-law works there!” said the teacher as she worriedly rushed out of the room.
The children, left to their own devices, began to talk amongst themselves. Sarah’s uncle owns a small, one-person plane, and she immediately assumed that his was the sort of plane in question,

” What sort of airport would give the plane directions that were so off they crashed into the WTC?!” someone asked.

“Yeah, and they must have been flying way too low!”

“Some people just don’t open their eyes.”

Just then, another teacher walked in. When he finally had gotten the class’s attention, he announced solemnly:
“I have a message from the principal. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center earlier this morning.”

As soon as he left the room, the class began to laugh again.
“Don’t you think they’d have learned their lesson, after the first plane?”

“But wait…if there were two planes, maybe it was a terrorist attack!” A heavy silence fell over the classroom, and the smiles disappeared from their faces. They were easily able to see that all the facts pointed to this indeed being a terrorist attack. They dismissed, however, what was quite clearly the reality, in much the same manner that I had. The class continued to banter only it was slightly more strained now.

“Well, at least we know what will be on the front page tomorrow” Sarah’s friend Natalie said.
The French teacher walked back into her classroom, and told her students to settle down. Their French class continued as normal. They took notes and answered questions diligently, trying to ignore the tiny terror forming in the back of their minds.

After French was over, the students were let out for “break” and they had time to talk freely amongst themselves. Natalie, another downtown resident, and one of Sarah’s close friends was “freaking out”. Her brother goes to Stuyvesant, and her house is only a couple blocks away from the towers.

Sarah devoted her time and energy to trying to get Natalie and her other friends calmed down.
“God, I wish my mom and dad were here!” Natalie repeated many times. Sarah committed herself to trying to find a cell phone that Natalie could use to call her mother. And although Sarah lived only one block north of Natalie, it never even occurred to her to call her own mother.

“I know I would have gotten really worried about my parents if I’d had the time to think about it, but I was too busy trying to help other people who were worrying about theirs,” she told me after.
When Sarah’s mother, Jan, showed up at school to take her home, Sarah wasn’t nearly as surprised as I had been. Jan was often at school, taking pictures for the yearbook, or helping to organize events. And although her mother had been at home when the airplane had hit, and she had seen it all happen, she was extraordinarily calm. Jan, Sarah, and Phillip (Sarah’s younger brother) drove downtown to the safety of her father’s studio in Soho. The TV was on but Phillip was not allowed to watch it. Afraid of the rumored food shortage Jan and Sarah soon rushed out again, to a nearby store.

“It was like Disneyland.” Sarah reflected, “There were long curling lines behind each cash register. It seemed like there were hundreds of people in that tiny shop.” As they left the store, Sarah saw a man across the street in a hard hat talking on his cell phone. He was covered in mud with big brown splotches on his shirt, face, and in his hair.

“Ew…” She said, pointing him out to her mother, “Look at that man covered in mud.”

“Sarah…” Her mother began gently, “That’s not mud dear, it’s blood” Sarah froze in her tracks, and slowly turned around. She kept staring and staring but it wouldn’t connect. She knew now that it was blood, but she couldn’t see anything other than a man covered in mud.

“I kept thinking ‘That can’t be blood! That can’t be blood!’ I was freaking out at the thought that it might be, but I would have gone into hysterics if I had actually believed it.”

Her mom rested a comforting hand on her shoulder, and turned her around. “He’s fine, Sarah. He’s one of the lucky ones”

She was shaking as she climbed the stairs back up the studio. When she got back inside, her dad gave her one concerned look and she melted.
“I rushed into his arms as I tried to explain. ‘I saw this guy…’ and then I just started crying. He hugged me and said ‘it’s okay honey, it’s okay’ That was when it got to me. Everything wasn’t okay.”

And that is how these two young girls dealt with the fear of death, the radical changing of their realities, and an unimaginable tragedy.

I’ve been told many times that I have experienced history; that someday I’ll be telling this story to my grandchildren. Yet the event is so immediate that imagining it on a page in a history book, as a date kids will have to memorize, seems impossible. The smell of death still lingers in the air. Though I long for the days before the tragedy, the days when I felt warm and safe, and death didn’t seem to lurk constantly in the shadows, I am forced to come to terms with this new horrendous reality.

The human mind adapts quickly to new situations, and now what seemed a nightmare has started to seem slightly more real. But no matter how much I try to deal directly with the tragedy, the sight of a picture of the towers causes tears to spring to my eyes, and a sickeningly vivid replay of the events and nightmares I had experienced. No matter how many times I tell my story, or try to reconcile myself to the facts, a small part of me still cannot believe the horrors that it witnessed. I know that I will never be able to truly understand what happened. I must content myself with the simple facts that I am alive, my friends are alive and my family is alive. Although I will never again feel truly safe, at least we are in this together.

(1) The New Yorker Magazine, “The Tower Builder” by John Seabrook
(2) The New Yorker Magazine, “The Tower Builder” by John Seabrook