PUNXSUTAWNEY — That Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, some of them were in school, some of them were at home. Mostly, they didn’t understand why their parents were fixated on their televisions, which were showing images of crashing airplanes, smoke, fire and crumbling towers.
When they asked about what was happening, some of their parents delicately tried to explain how some bad people were trying to hurt their country. Other parents encouraged them to keep doing what they were doing, playing outdoors or elsewhere. Some parents didn’t say anything.
When asked today what they recall about Sept. 11, 2001, some have vague ideas or none at all. Some remember being scared. Some remember other things going on at home.
Ten years ago, they had been born in 1993 or 1994, and were around six or seven years old, preparing to enter first or second grade, the day terrorists attacked the United States with commercial airliners.
Today, they are 16- and 17-year-old juniors and seniors at Punxsutawney Area High School.
Back then, they were perhaps too young to remember. But not anymore.
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Friday, juniors and seniors in Don Gill’s criminal law class at PAHS were asked what they were doing when they learned about the attacks of 9/11. Punxsy students were not yet in class due to a delay in the start of school, but classes at SS.C.D. School and the Punxsutawney Christian School were underway.
Afton McAfee, 16, of Punxsy, recalled not knowing anything was happening until a friend told her two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, and her mother talked to her about it more when she got home.
Pat Defelice, then a first-grader at SS.C.D., recalled choosing books in the library when another teacher whispered something in his teacher’s ear. She then turned on the TV in time to see United Airlines Flight 175 crash into Two World Trade Center.
“She was just in awe,” he said. “She didn’t believe what was going on.
“I didn’t understand what happened,” Defelice continued. “I thought it was just an accident. I didn’t think people would do that.”
Shannon Rosetti, 15, of Stump Creek, was actually attending school in Rome, N.Y., and sharing cupcakes with her classmates on the occasion of her birthday. While the kids enjoyed the cupcakes, the teachers stood stunned, watching the TV.
“I went home, and my mom was on the floor crying,” she said. “I knew something happened about the planes, but I couldn’t comprehend.”
Both Nathan McGregor, of Punxsy, and Luke Janocha, of Rossiter, both 17, said they saw that their families were watching TV, but couldn’t understand why.
“I knew something bad had happened, but I could not really understand what was going on,” said Janocha, whose family was vacationing at the time.
“My parents wouldn’t explain why, but I knew a lot of people had died,” said Heidi Rodgers, 17, of Punxsy. “I saw people dying, and I pretty much knew it was really bad. I didn’t realize how it would affect things today.”
Shannon Monoskey, 17, of Rossiter, said her parents didn’t explain much, but their silence and uneasiness made her nervous.
“I saw what was on TV, but didn’t understand,” she said.
Students at SS.C.D. and PCS continued school, but for Punxsy students, when they did return to school, the events of 9/11 were not a topic of conversation.
“My friends and I talked about it a little bit, but we didn’t understand it,” Rodgers said. “The teachers didn’t talk about it because it was a touchy subject.”
For Shane Johns, 17, of Glen Campbell, it did sink in, almost immediately.
“I was watching ‘Between the Lines,’ and I heard my grandma scream,” he said. “I came out to the kitchen, where she had a TV, and she was crying. She explained it to me, and then I started crying.
“I remember seeing people jump from the towers,” Johns said. “It was hard to watch. I still see that sometimes. They had no hope or any other way. It was rough.
“My grandma said she didn’t know who was attacking us, but it was someone killing thousands of people, like our neighbors were dying at the hands of someone else,” he said. “And it was a reason to mourn.”
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Since they were six and seven years old, 9/11 had been in the lives of these students for 10 years. But they said it took a few years to sink in.
That happened only recently for two students in Gill’s sixth-period class, Kelsey Young and Shainah Rugh, both 17, both of Punxsy.
Young said she, along with a friend’s family, visited the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, where the gravity of what occurred there 10 years ago finally sunk in.
“It was kind of scary,” she said. “Then it kind of sunk in. These people tried to stop the hijackers, and everyone died. It made me think of what if I was on that plane, and what would I have done?”
A similar experience happened for Rugh, who, along with a group of select students from around the country, toured Washington, D.C., with United Electric.
One of the sites was the Pentagon Memorial, in honor of those killed inside the building and aboard American Airlines Flight 77.
“We pulled up in the bus, and that’s when it sunk in how bad it was,” she said “We could see the benches” for each of the victims.
There, the students saw a youngster about their age, visiting the memorial which includes the names of both his parents.
“That could’ve been any one of us,” Rugh said.
Both McGregor and Rosetti said they have visited ground zero, which they described as a “big, empty place,” marked by a solemn sense of calm.
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Gill’s seventh-period class also said 10 years ago, they didn’t understand what al-Qaida was, but they knew its leader, Osama Bin Laden, was “a bad man.”
They said his face — with a long graying beard — and appearance — disheveled, dirty, “nasty,” one girl said — put them ill at ease. They didn’t know about bin Laden’s previous links to terror, or why he was placed at the top of the list of 9/11 suspects. They just knew he was a bad man.
When Navy SEALS killed bin Laden this past March, Rosetti said it didn’t seem like a sense of joy, but a sense of relief.
“That’s as close as you can get to being happy about someone dying,” Johns said. “I felt like he got what he deserved. I think some families and police officers and firefighters who were killed got some justice.”
• • •
Today, these students are quite a bit further toward completing school and taking a few more steps closer to adulthood than a decade ago. Eddie Serafin, 17, Punxsy, said 9/11 will be something that is a part of their lives — and everyone else’s lives — forever.
Even after changes and improvements in technology, security, military intelligence and other areas, some acknowledge some nervousness.
Most of the students didn’t have a true grasp of the changes made in the airline industry in terms of security. It wasn’t something that bothered Angela Davis, 17, Punxsy — until recently.
“I fly a lot, and in seventh grade, my mother was (concerned) when I flew to Florida by myself,” she said. “But nothing hit me. I didn’t think about Sept. 11. But now I’m familiar, and I realize anything can happen at any point in time,” she said.
“It’s scary because you never know if something is going to happen sooner or later in life,” McAfee said.
“I’m aware that things can happen, but I’m not worried to the extent of letting it stop my life,” said Liz Keller, 16, Punxsy.
“I’m nervous it might happen again, but like this recession, it will go away,” Johns said. “We always come back. We always rise to the challenge. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll get through this.”
“I’m from Rossiter,” Janocha said. “Nothing bothers me.”