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Manhattan Students Recount Horror of Watching Attack

Aired September 15, 2001 - 07:30   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joining me right now are three people, three New Yorkers who have been deeply affected by this tragedy. They are Elena Galperin, Greg Dubinsky and James McDonagh. Welcome. All three of you were going to school several blocks away when this happened.

Elena, what do you remember from that morning?

ELENA GALPERIN: Well, I was on the ninth floor, facing twin towers. And we were all in the front of the classroom. And then, we hear an explosion. And we all thought it was thunder, but then, someone screams World Trade Center. And we all run to the window. And we see this huge hole in it. And there's smoke coming out. I'm like, "Oh, my God." And it was really scary, but I guess no one realized it then until 20 minutes later when the second plane hit. And that's when everybody started...

ZAHN: So you actually stayed in the school until the time the second plane hit, which happened 18 minutes later?

GALPERIN: We see it until the first building collapsed.

ZAHN: So no attempt to evacuate the school at that point?

GALPERIN: No, because they were scared that debris was going to fall on us.

ZAHN: What were you doing at the time?

GREG DUBINSKY: At the time, I was on the eighth floor, watching through the window, after we were informed that the first plane had hit. And I actually saw the second plane vanish behind the building. And the building just erupted in a cloud, a huge cloud of explosion. And I witnessed people jumping, I guess out of desperation from the towers.

ZAHN: You actually saw that?


ZAHN: And James, you didn't see either one of the blasts, but you certainly got involved in the mess afterwards? Describe to me what happened once school officials realized the severity of what you were dealing with? JAMES MCDONAGH: Well, they said they were going to evacuate the school and to leave through the north exit, at which point we all left and went to the exit. At that time, the south tower collapsed and everyone ran back in immediately.

ZAHN: Now at this point, debris is falling on the south side of your school?

MCDONAGH: Yes, and Tribeca bridge, at least to the school, was totally engulfed by dust and soot.

ZAHN: Wow. We're going to show some pictures now that some of you were able to take, that shows what the area looked like. Describe to us, and you don't have to picture-by-picture, what you saw, but give us a sense of what these pictures point out?

GALPERIN: I was just -- after the first plane hit, I took out my camera and I started taking pictures of the huge hole that was in the World Trade Center and the smoke coming out. And I -- later on, after we ran up the West side highway at 23rd Street, I turned back and I took another picture of the twin towers not there.

ZAHN: I'm seeing this right now.

GALPERIN: This is what I saw outside my -- out of my window.

ZAHN: And I can't believe once you saw that, you guys just didn't run out of that school?

GALPERIN: I really wanted to, but we realized that there was a debris. And we couldn't, but I just really wanted to get out of there.

ZAHN: How many of your fellow students have parents who worked in the World Trade Center?

MCDONAGH: A large number, in fact. And I actually know one person who had both parents in the Trade Center. I know people who had firefighters for parents, who still are missing. And my heart goes to these people.

ZAHN: It is a horrible nightmare these people are living because in the firefighters' case, we know that they are instinctively trained to go where the flames are, of course, not having any idea what hit that building and the intense heat that was going to be involved in it, in its meltdown.

You know, the city officials are telling us, many of those firefighters can be presumed to be dead, but there workers who worked in the World Trade Center below the crash site that were injured and been sent to area hospitals and family members haven't been able to catch up with them.

Do you know of any parents in that situation or kids in that situation, trying to find out if their parents are hospitalized? GALPERIN: Yes, my aunt is looking for someone. And we just know that there's not a lot of hope for them because they were on like the 104th floor of the first building. And it's really sad.

ZAHN: James, what has it done to your school, to the kids who make up the heart of it?

MCDONAGH: Everyone's very traumatized. We all realized it later, just how close we were to dying. And now, we can't go to the school. The south side is completely covered in debris. We have to go to Brooklyn Tech starting Thursday. And we don't know how long we're going to be there. We don't know when we can go back to school.

ZAHN: I know, Elena, you said you wanted to get out of there really badly, but you were afraid the debris was going to fall on you. Do you feel the same way James did? Do you feel like that could've been you?

GALPERIN: Yes, I do, but it's just terrifying. I really want not to be so close there at that point. I really didn't want to be one of the lucky kids next to -- in such a wonderful place in Manhattan. I just wanted to be as far away from there as possible. And we couldn't leave the school and had to just watch it on the news and let out our window. It was terrifying.

ZAHN: I think one of the biggest challenges for parents all over the country is to figure out how you talk to you kids about this. Now you are old enough to understand the reality of terrorism and what it means. I think Bill Bennett yesterday said this is not the end of it. This is the beginning of a new kind of war.

How much discussion has gone on between you and your classmates and your teachers about what you witnessed?

DUBINSKY: Well, for sure, this is going to leave an indelible mark on our generation. And nothing will set this right. Life will be different forever, but I know that as a Statison (ph) student, this incident has only strengthened my resolve to put whatever abilities and skills that I possess to work serving others and helping my country.

ZAHN: You know it's interesting, we have already seen in the last couple days, a tremendous resurgence of patriotism. There are stories of Wal-mart and K-mart selling an unprecedented number of flags, a couple hundred thousand each at each one of those places. Do you feel the same way? Do you feel that sense of resolve as an American?


ZAHN: Are you mad though?

GALPERIN: I'm so angry that this could happen here, to our country. But it's amazing America and especially New York has come together and showed new sense of patriotism. I mean, we hung a flag out. There's candles lit everywhere yesterday. It's just amazing how we've all come together.

ZAHN: And yet, I've heard many people your age, in fact, many adults talk about hearing jet service resume in the city last night. And while some welcome that sound as, you know, a symbol of things getting back to normal, others said it terrified them. Do you think you'll ever hear the sound of a jet in the same way, James?

MCDONAGH: No, not really. When I heard those jets fly over my head every 10 minutes, I'd always get a little frightened that something's happened. I actually walked by St. Patrick's Cathedral when I was going to Greg's house and I heard a jet. And I was frightened that they were going to hit because there was a mourning service there and I didn't know what was going to happen. You don't know whether the jet is on our side or theirs.

ZAHN: So you think you're going to have to live the rest of your life thinking twice every backfiring truck, every jet you hear in the sky? Have you guys been able to sleep at all?

DUBINSKY: Of course not. I mean, the things that we saw are -- just have a horrible effect on this, completely traumatizing. And I just, you know, I can't believe that human beings could do something like this to another.

MCDONAGH: I haven't slept at all, really. The first night I got to bed at 5:00 in the morning because...

ZAHN: Can you speak up a little?

MCDONAGH: Sorry. I could only get to bed at 5:00 in the morning because I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore. And I had to find something help me relax. I was listening to music or reading a book, some kind of distraction.

ZAHN: Elena, final word from you?

GALPERIN: Yes, I could hardly sleep or eat. I couldn't really concentrate on anything else, because it's terrible. It's on the news, the radio, everywhere in your mind. And you can hardly sleep or do much except think or cry about it.

ZAHN: Well, we appreciate all three of you joining us this morning. I know school gets back underway next Thursday, but you were forced to move to a new school. I hope that your studies can go on and that you can heal a little bit.

Thank you for sharing your stories this morning.

Three of these very smart students just shared with you how strongly they feel about being an American.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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