In New York, the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11 stirs old memories, strengthens resolve

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NEW YORK – On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Annie Thoms was teaching freshman English at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan. Her classroom full of 13- and 14-year-olds shook as the first tower fell just five blocks away.

Thoms was teaching freshman English again on Tuesday afternoon, when a man drove a pickup truck into pedestrians and cyclists on a bike lane next to the school, killing 8 people and wounding many more.

For Thoms, and many others in the neighborhood, the incident brought back painful memories from 16 years ago.

On that day in 2001 it was evident the whole world had changed. But Tuesday’s attack, Thoms said, “just feels like another steady drumbeat” – one more frightening event for New Yorkers to face down and then, with characteristic bravado, move past.

When the order to “shelter in” was announced over Stuyvesant’s PA system Tuesday afternoon, Thoms’ students took it mostly in stride. They are products of their era, conversant in the language of “lock downs” and “lone wolves” and “active shooters.” They called their parents, texted friends, then started looking up news on their phones.

At one point, in an effort to quell speculation about the crime, Thoms took out her own phone and read aloud a primer on the smart way to consume breaking news.

It occurred to her that in 2001, there was no such primer. She didn’t own a cellphone. Her students hadn’t even been born.

Six floors below, social studies teacher Matt Polazzo was scanning the crime scene from the window of the school’s student union, which overlooks the bike path. Students crowded around him. “It looked like all hell was breaking loose,” he said.

Gazing north, Polazzo saw two bodies lying on the path, and recalled a scene from 16 years earlier: teenage students watching desperate people fling themselves from the burning towers of the World Trade Center.

“That was obviously a parallel back to September 11th,” Polazzo said. It seemed like something kids shouldn’t see. He pulled the students away from the window and closed the student union.

Upstairs, as it became clear the violence below would not reach them, Thoms’ students’ attention drifted. They wrote out chemistry problems on the blackboard, practiced dance routines in the space between desks. These kids are also products of their city, Thoms said. They are New Yorkers, accustomed to carrying on with their lives while major events unfold on the streets below.

After about three hours, a police officer came to the classroom and guided Thoms and her students down eight flights of stairs to the school’s ground floor. On 9/11, the evacuation had been chaotic – nothing like the fire drills that were the school’s only preparation for such an emergency. Now Stuyvesant regularly practices lockdowns.

“It was much slower today and much more organized,” Thoms said Tuesday night. “It definitely felt like it was part of a plan.”

Her students scattered, and Thoms found herself standing on a sidewalk swarming with police officers. Blue and red emergency lights reflected off buildings.

“That was when I felt very shaky,” Thoms said. “It was that moment of, oh my gosh emergency vehicles in Lower Manhattan again.”

For a long time, the memory of 9/11 was a palpable presence in the neighborhood. First there was the smoke, and the dust, and the constant grind of construction equipment.

Even after the debris was removed there was the huge hole in the ground, like an open wound, marking the place where the towers once stood.

Now the site has been turned into a museum and a memorial, and the area around it built up into a gleaming financial center. The neighborhood’s population has more than doubled, and owners of luxe new apartments include Beyoncé and Meryl Streep.

“Ultimately the holes in Tribeca, those holes have to be filled,” Polazzo said. “For better or for worse New York City is defined by change . . . by the hustle and the bustle and moving forward rapidly.”

Still, every so often something brings the memory back. It can be subtle: the sound of a siren, the smell of smoke from a fire downtown. Thoms said she feels flashbacks at the sight of a pristine blue sky over Chambers Street.

On Tuesday, the reminder was stark.

“It’s different, but it’s really not,” Nikki Mejer, 47, said Wednesday morning. “You hear the helicopters, the sirens running down the highway . . . You’ve got that element of terror in Lower Manhattan. Again.”

Mejer had just returned from dropping her children off at IS 289, a middle school across the street from Stuyvesant. Ordinarily, her 11- and 13-year-old kids take the bus by themselves – “they’re New York kids,” Mejer said, “they know how to do things” – but the M20 was unusually empty today, and she didn’t want them to travel alone.

Walking back to the bus stop with another mother, Lauren Moss, Mejer murmured a quick thanks to every police officer she saw. It’s something she did after 9/11, too.

The women compared how their kids have responded to this incident. They hadn’t been born in 2001, but they grew up expecting such violence could strike again.

“The thing my kid worries about is a terrorist attack,” Moss said. Her daughter had been standing outside her school, across the street from the spot where the truck finally came to a stop. “And this morning she was like, ‘Oh my god, my nightmare happened.’ ”

On Wednesday, a long swath of the West Side Highway, which runs parallel to the bike path, was cordoned off. Dozens of police officers patrolled the area, and figures in white Tyvek suits gathered on a grassy median where the truck had crashed.

Yet the majority of people rubber necking across the caution tape were members of the media. Stuyvesant students blithely followed a cop’s directions to follow a route to school that would circumvent closed areas; few paused to glance over at the crime scene.

Jason Huh, who uses Bikeshare to get from 42nd Street to his dry cleaning business near Battery Park, took his usual route down the West Side path until he ran into the police blockade.

He felt sad, he said, and frazzled because he was running late after cycling around the closures.

Huh was here in 2001, when the twin towers fell. Was he scared now? He got back on his bike and shrugged. “Not really.” Then he pedaled away.

“There’s a lot of resilience that we have to have here,” said Jennifer Berg, a veterinarian whose clinic is across the highway from the bike path. It’s how you get by in a city that’s all too familiar with historic tragedies – 9/11, Hurricane Sandy – and daily indignities – slow-moving tourists, subway delays. “There’s a feeling in a way of, ‘We’re not going to let anyone get to us.’ ”

Still, Berg felt shaken. This was her second close brush with terror: in 2001, she’d been working at an animal hospital near the World Trade Center.

“God, I just didn’t expect it to be like this again,” she said, wiping away a tear.