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Ten Years Ago We Used To Live In Battery Park

September 11th, 2011 · No Comments · Charming Mountain Goat, Travel Writing

Downtown Manhattan © Stephan Edelbroich

Between 1996 and 2003 we used to live in Downtown Manhattan in Battery Park next to the Twin Towers. The following is the original text submitted for an article that was commissioned by Junior Magazine in 2002. The published article now forms part of the Make History exhibit of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

The View Two Blocks South

The afternoon session at the Battery Park City Day Nursery in New York City is about to begin. A glittery ‘stars and stripes’ masterpiece welcomes everyone to summer camp. Recently arrived mothers are trying to disentangle themselves from their hesitant toddlers. At one table three children are already squabbling over a puzzle. We are two blocks south from the hole in the ground that people call Ground Zero.

***

Ironically, the nursery stands on a landfill that was created from the soil of the Twin Towers development that started here over thirty years ago. The idea was to turn the run-down docklands into an attractive commercial and residential area. Today, Battery Park City is a popular neighbourhood offering 32 acres of parkland and fabulous views over the Hudson River.

First opened 16 years ago, the school was bought by the current owners, Karen Klemp and Denise Cordivano, in 1996. At the beginning of the school year that started in early September 2001, 120 children  (aged between 1 and 5 years) were enrolled at the nursery – the highest number ever. That number reflected the mood of the neighbourhood; after years of building work downtown had finally become a community.

September 11th was only the fifth day back at school. “We were expecting 70 children that morning,” says Denise Cordivano, one of the partners at the nursery. “And when the first plane hit, we figured there were about 56 children in the building. Like a lot of people we thought it was an accident.” Even though some parents were already returning to pick up their child, Cordivano and Klemp intended to keep the school open. “We felt we were safe here,” she explains. Fire engines and police cars heading off to an emergency – even one that sounds like an explosion – are part of the soundtrack of Manhattan.

“When the second plane hit, we knew something was wrong,” says Cordivano. “We didn’t know what or why, but knew it wasn’t right, we knew it was purposeful.”  Paradoxically, although only two blocks away from the World Trade Center, no one knew what was happening. Information was soon pieced together from passers-by who stopped at the school, staff listening to the radio and the doorman of the building. “The teachers turned on the radio to hear something, but after a while they turned it off, because they didn’t want the children hearing things.”

One of the children’s fathers, a police officer, told them to stay put. “It was just bedlam everywhere,” says Cordivano. “People didn’t know where they were going or what they were doing. He said it would be best to stay here until the police came to evacuate us. With that in the back of our minds we decided to stay.” Sound advice. Parents who had taken their children to a nearby playground on the waterfront not only saw the towers on fire, but also people on the higher levels jumping out of the buildings.

When the first tower fell, more parents arrived – covered in thick dust from the World Trade Center. “We sent parents coming in to the bathroom to wash off, because when they went in to see their children, we knew their children would be scared.” Already, Cordivano and Klemp were thinking ahead: “We didn’t know what was in the dust and what they would pass on when they touched their child.”

When the second tower fell, the nursery lost electricity. This was to be the only time the children cried. “When the dust came, it covered up the sun and it was as dark as you can imagine. And the darkness scared some of the children,” says Cordivano. “When Karen and I came up front to get flashlights, one of the staff had found some birthday candles, lit them and they were singing songs.” They decided it was time evacuate.

Another father somehow convinced the rescue workers that the nursery needed a bus; it was brought over half an hour later. At that point the school was packed with 13 staff and 8 children (aged between 15 months and 4 ½ years), some of the upstairs residents, strangers that had just walked in off the street and mothers who had picked up their child, but didn’t want to leave. When the bus finally arrived, over 50 people boarded it.

Yet while the evacuation trail about to begin was taking on the form of an unusual day-trip out, signs of what that day was eventually going to mean to everyone were beginning to show. Denise Cordivano explains: “One of the mothers that stayed with us actually did lose her husband. So she was on the cell phone all morning trying to get hold of him. I remember asking her a couple of times ‘Did you get through to him?’” The answer was no. “She had already resigned herself to the fact that he was gone. So that was very difficult.”

The short bus trip through dust, darkness and sirens took them to nearby Battery Park. Here they were guided to a tugboat that took them to the other side of the Hudson River to New Jersey.

And how did the children behave? Says Cordivano: “The children realised that something was wrong, but really they were so good. If they were very young they just completely shut down and went to sleep, so the parents were able to pick them up and move them and travel with them. The other children were just very obedient; they just went where they needed to go. I really haven’t heard a lot of stories about the children being out of control. All the children were very calm.” The nursery is currently taking part in a long-term study by Columbia University that looks at the behaviour of downtown children on September 11th.

In New Jersey, they made five different stops. By mid-afternoon as transport was beginning to run again, some staff and children left to go home to the other boroughs. Wherever the group went people had food and drinks. Later that afternoon, with four children and one parent left, only one girl’s parents remained unaccounted for. Continuing to show grace under fire, the teachers made sure at every stop that people knew who they were and where they were going. “A lot of news companies were there and wanted a story. We just grabbed the cameraman and said: ‘You need to take pictures of these children, so if their parents are watching television, they’ll know that they are ok’.” The little girl was soon reunited with her father, who had indeed seen her on television. Both her parents were safe.

Another parent who had also seen the news came to pick them up so they could spend the night at his sister’s house. The next day the remaining children were reunited with their parents who came out to New Jersey to collect them. The nursery lost three parents in total. A framed photograph of their images hangs in the lobby of the school.

On October 1st, three weeks after 9/11, the nursery re-opened, one of the first businesses back downtown. Lower Manhattan was part ghost town, part war zone. Arrangements in those first few weeks were eccentric. Parents had to have permits to drop off and pick up their children to pass the various barriers around Ground Zero. The 24-hour avalanche of traffic that dominated downtown’s main road West Street had been replaced by a never-ending stream of trucks clearing the site; a truck every five minutes 24 hours a day seven days a week.

Fires were burning only a few blocks away. Some days the smell was intolerable. And anyone looking at the ruins of those famous buildings was left in no doubt that two planes had smashed into them. You could sense people had died there. At times the absence of human sounds was unbearable.

And yet, residents came back as soon as they could. Rose Deklerk, mother of 3 year-old Kelly and 6-year old Madison says: “Kelly was one of the first children to be back at the nursery. We couldn’t wait to come back. I don’t know if that was naïveté or stubbornness.”

Cordivano and Klemp were also faced with the sad task of letting staff go. Restarting from scratch with 11 children, nine staff remained and eight others were laid off. William Santiago, one of the nursery teachers who had to leave, explains: “They terminated our contracts, so we could get unemployment benefit as quickly as possible. And they gave us good references.” Although he found another job fairly quickly, he kept in touch with the children and nursery. “I was stuck on the subway on Sept. 11, so I felt as if I had let the children down.” He eventually returned to work at the school in February 2002.

As the nursery settled into its altered routine, children began to talk about what had happened. Although they weren’t prompted, when they did talk, staff would make sure they listened. They missed the shops in the World Trade Center. Most wanted the towers back. The older ones were concerned with the ‘Why’. Others were just baffled; as my 5-year-old daughter put it: “Why is it that if something really bad happens, it doesn’t seem real, although you can see it has happened?

Parents and local residents were concerned with the air quality. Although an unusually warm New York winter allowed the rescue work to progress faster than expected, the fires were only put out by late December. The debate as to whether the air was dangerous or not has divided residents into two camps and is still discussed to this day.

Throughout those months the atmosphere in the neighbourhood was amazing. Neighbours were grateful to see children back in the community and would say so often. The platitude of ‘Hello and have a nice day’ turned into an honest ‘It’s so lovely to see you’ because it meant the other person was still alive. Yet no one talked about what had happened. The ‘disaster tourists’, who came to look at the open grave of 2,000 people, were identified by the fact that they talked about nothing else. It was only in the New Year that people began sharing their version of the endless horrors of that day. Everyone resembled coke cans that had been shaken about hard – touch the lid slightly and it would all be pouring out.

The children focused on new themes in their play. Rebuilding the Twin Towers was a major concern. “Madison was upset that the towers had fallen down. She drew detailed pages of how to rebuild them,” says Rose Deklerk. The younger children moved from playing ‘firemen’ to ‘rescue workers’ to ‘construction worker’. Building blocks were turned into Twin Towers. All of my 3-year-old son’s stories about the towers end with: “But they are going to be raised up again.”

Others became preoccupied with safety. Some children tried to stop their teacher from going the mezzanine level saying: “That’s the Twin Towers – you’ll die up there.” William Santiago says when the children hear a loud noise they are more likely to get worried now and they will say: “Oh, that’s (the noise) what happened when the towers fell down.”

Some children and teachers never returned to the school and the children have accepted that. New students who have moved here since 9/11 have shifted the focus from the events of that day. Overall, both teachers and parents feel the children have adjusted very well.

As we talk about Afghanistan and note that 5,000 civilians (more than double the number of victims at the World Trade Center) have been killed, Cordivano acknowledges that they are getting all the support they could possibly get. Money gifts are still coming in, counselling programs offer all the help you might need. Everyone here knows that others in similar situations aren’t so lucky. Looking beyond Ground Zero, the view two blocks south is a bright and hopeful one.

Ends

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