The Kids Who Saw It All

What Michael Mascetti wants to remember now is another September day three years ago, during his first week as a freshman at Stuyvesant High School. He was a skinny kid back then, who just wanted to hang out on the corner with his buddies in Queens. That day, at lunch, Michael and some friends decided to walk four blocks from school to the mall underneath the World Trade Center. He ordered cheese-and-broccoli soup and looked up at marble walls that seemed to stretch forever. From Queens, the towers were as remote as the moon. But that day, he says, "I felt like I was in the middle of everything." He started studying harder, fell in love with math and got a part-time job at Morgan Stanley. He bought a replica of the Wall Street subway-stop sign for his room. And every day, when he came into Manhattan, he'd see the towers and feel that same awe. "I'd always ask myself tough questions in the morning like, 'Why do I go to this school and spend over an hour getting here?' And every morning I would look up at the towers, and they would give me my answer."

This week, when Michael, now 17, and nearly 3,000 other Stuyvesant students return to their school for the first time in a month, they will all have to look somewhere else for answers. Instead of the glorious towers, they'll walk past a pile of rubble nearly eight stories high--a site so disturbing to principal Stanley Teitel that he spent much of last week trying to figure out how he could possibly prepare his students for it. And then decided there was no way, really. "I think it's going to be tough for many of them," he says. "I've gotten very little sleep. I worry about them all the time, always."

Just a few weeks ago, Stuyvesant's students were among the most privileged in New York's vast public-school system. Their sleek, 10-story postmodern building opened less than a decade ago, just as New York, and especially Wall Street, started to boom. From their riverfront perch near the tip of Manhattan, they could look out on two equally alluring visions of the American Dream: the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and those gleaming skyscrapers of the World Trade Center.

The competition to get in is fierce; more than 16,000 hopefuls take a rigorous entrance exam for about 750 places every year. There are sons and daughters of lawyers from the Upper East Side and students whose parents are so new to this country that their children must act as translators at parent-teacher conferences. They study hard, and take some pride in complaining about it. But there's a reward: a good chunk of the senior class usually ends up at the nation's most prestigious colleges.

On Sept. 11 the students were settling in to their second week of school. Seniors were starting to think about early-decision applications for college; the freshmen had just finished orientation. That morning Karl Josef Co, a 15-year-old sophomore on the football team, rose before daybreak at his family's apartment in Queens. Karl and his family had immigrated to the United States from the Philippines just three years ago. He changed into his school clothes behind the partition that separates his bed from his parents' and his sister Michelle's--all crammed into the single bedroom. Then he took a bus to the subway, and an hour and 15 minutes later he caught a few seconds with friends before his first class. "It was such a normal day," he says.

At 8:48, when the first plane hit, Karl was in European history on the south side of the building, with a clear view of the towers. It seemed like something out of a movie, not real. He panicked. "It's a bomb," he thought. "I'm going to die." In his mind he could imagine all the people who worked in the towers trying to escape. The teacher asked Karl, at six feet the tallest kid in the class, to reach up and turn on the TV. But there was no information, just more confusion from bewildered reporters. Students started trying to dial out on their cell phones, but none worked. At 9:03 the second tower was hit. That's when Karl first heard someone say the word "terrorist."

Just before 10 there was a rumble, the lights flickered and the TV went out. A gigantic cloud of smoke--the remains of the South Tower--roared up Chambers Street. Karl was in homeroom, and his teacher told the class to sit down and be calm. "We should leave," Karl yelled. "I want to leave this building. This is f---ing crazy!" His teacher yelled back, Karl remembers, telling him to "shut up and sit down."

Over the next half hour, school administrators mobilized a buildingwide evacuation. Students were told to leave through the north side, away from danger. Armed FBI agents showed up in the hallways, directing them to the exit. Most of the students and teachers walked north in a group to 23d Street, where Karl and eight others headed to a friend's apartment. "We were grabbing on to each other," says Karl, "holding on to each other's book bags so we wouldn't get lost." As they all marched uptown, Karl kept looking back at where the towers once stood and saw only smoke. People were taking pictures--must be tourists, he thought.

While everyone else headed north, senior Laura Lopez led 10 friends through the back alleys of Chinatown to the housing project in lower Manhattan where she lives with her mother, Maura Juarez, and her two younger brothers. Most of the streets were blocked off by police, and there were crowds of stunned people covered in dust running in the opposite direction, away from the wreckage. The air was full of smoke. "It burned your lungs," Laura says, "and made you cough. I remember my friend Maddy said to me, 'If I get lung cancer, it's your fault'."

Laura and her friends became a tight clique when they met six years ago at a summer program that helps disadvantaged students prepare for the rigors of Stuyvesant. Two of them, Alana Valhackett and Chaz Clark, had special reason to worry: each had a parent who worked in the Twin Towers. Laura and her friends finally made it to her apartment around noon. "My mother just rushed at me," says Laura. Then her father, who lives in the Bronx, called. "He was yelling at me, 'Where the heck were you? Your mother was worried sick'." Alana reached her mother on the phone; she was safe. But Chaz didn't want to call his home, where his stepmother, Lashawn, was anxiously awaiting news about him and her husband, Benjamin Keith Clark, an executive chef for Sodexho Marriott on the 96th floor of Tower 2. "He didn't want to face the inevitable," says Laura.

For much of the afternoon they were all crowded into Laura's living room, watching the news. "Finally my friends were like, 'This is too depressing'," says Laura. They put on her little brother's video of "Aristocats," and then "Toy Story." They drank hot chocolate and coffee, and slowly parents arrived to pick up their kids. Late in the evening, Chaz sat alone in an armchair with his chin in his hands, staring blankly. Laura tried to reassure him, and they stayed up talking in the kitchen until 4 a.m. about "anything and everything," she says.

After he left just before dawn, she went into her mother's room and sat on the bed, under the crucifix that hangs on the wall. Her mother was still wide awake, staring out the window at the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge. She had heard a rumor that there was a bomb in a car on the bridge, and she told Laura her escape plan. "She said, 'If the bridge blows up, there are two buildings between our building and the bridge. They will fall first, and we'll take your brothers and run'."

For close to a week after the attack, Maura Juarez wouldn't let her daughter leave the apartment. The air outside was still hazy and choked with dust, and Maura worried about pollution. She kept all the windows closed, turned on the air conditioning and gathered her family around the TV, flipping from station to station in a weeklong news vigil. Laura felt stranded. The phones were down, which meant no computer, no e-mail and no contact with anyone. Finally, that Sunday they left home for the first time, to attend mass. "There was a lot of people that I'd never seen before," says Laura. "All different races. There were Asians, Indians, Hispanics. You name it. They were there."

Across the river in Brooklyn, junior Amalia della Paolera spent the first days after the attack trying to process the horrible things she had seen from her classroom window. "It sounds really stupid, but at first we thought it was people throwing their computers or desks out the windows, trying to save whatever work they had," she says. Then she understood: those falling objects were people. "They were wearing suits," she says. "Their ties were flapping." On the way out of school, she saw four firemen sitting on the stairs. They were all crying. A police officer collapsed nearby. "That's when I knew," she says, "that it was a really big deal." As she and her friends raced uptown, they passed a group of people eating at a restaurant. Amalia screamed out that there might be a gas leak. "A guy had a sandwich in his hand, and he threw it over his shoulder and started chasing us," she says. "It was really crazy."

Her clothes were covered in soot and her blond hair was matted with debris, but she didn't stop running until she reached her friend Oliver's house in Greenwich Village, a couple of miles uptown. Later that afternoon she walked all the way back to Brooklyn with her younger sister, Lucia, who was at another friend's house. When they finally arrived home, Amalia's mother, Pamela Wheaton, reached out to hug her; Amalia wouldn't let her. "I was all dirty and freaked out," she says. "I didn't want to get touched." Later, Wheaton remembers Amalia asking: "Will we live through the night, Mommy?"

Amalia slept with the blinds open that night. Usually they're closed. "I was afraid of a plane flying by my house and I wouldn't see it," she says. The next morning, the clear blue sky seemed ominous. "For the first four days after, I didn't eat anything," Amalia says. "I had no appetite. We were all worried about what would happen next." She craved protection. "I really wanted to crawl in my backyard, dig a hole and build a bomb shelter." But even that wasn't good enough; she wanted out. "I wanted to move to Arkansas, where my grandparents live," she says. "There's no way they're going to bomb Arkansas."

In that first week, when most New York City students were back in the classroom, the Stuyvesant kids had nothing to distract them from what they had seen. Their school was being used as a triage center, where exhausted rescue workers were being treated, mostly for minor cuts and bruises. Memories of Tuesday haunted Michael Mascetti. "I saw a man having a heart attack in the street. He was a block north of Chambers at West Street. He had dust all over him. I saw lots of people who were badly cut up and bleeding. Many of them were running from the dust cloud. It was like those pictures of Hiroshima." Seeing so many people hurt made him question his goals: "I remember thinking about medicine again. I used to want to be a doctor. Then I got into business, and I wanted to start my own company and use my engineering and science knowledge to build something. Kind of like Bill Gates."

On that long walk home, he says, "I was thinking a lot about God. I'm not religious, but you had idiots in the street screaming that 'this is the moment. You better be at peace with Jesus.' They were making a scene and adding to the hysteria. So I started thinking, 'What if I lose my life today and I have no comfort?' "

Toward the end of the first week, Chaz Clark's stepmother, Lashawn, made it into Manhattan from Brooklyn to report her husband officially missing. But Chaz had already done the job for her. "He took on this role, like an adult," she says. Chaz's mother died eight years ago. Now his father's gone, too, leaving behind Chaz, the oldest, and four other children. When Lashawn asked him why he had filed the papers, he told her simply, "I was trying to find Daddy."

On Friday night, varsity-football coach Dave Velkas sent an e-mail to team members, urging everyone to volunteer as a show of unity. The next day about 50 players, including Karl Co, ended up at a Salvation Army site. Wearing their football jerseys, they formed long assembly lines to move donated food, bottled water and other supplies out of the warehouse and onto trucks for rescue workers. Some of the players started leaving at 5, but Karl and a friend stayed on for an extra couple of hours. "It felt so good to help," he says.

Amalia wanted to help, too, so early the next week she and her mother biked into Manhattan and handed out water and food to rescue workers. After her mother left, another volunteer helped Amalia sneak past the police barrier to the site of the collapse. She tried to take in the incredible destruction. "You could see pieces of buildings standing up," she says. "They really looked like gravestones. It was like the grave site of the World Trade Center." On the way out she passed an equally grim sight: a half-filled body bag.

On Sept. 20, after more than a week out of school, the Stuyvesant students moved into a temporary home--the campus of Brooklyn Tech, another of the city's elite high schools. In order to accommodate more than 7,000 students in the combined schools, classes were in shifts--morning for the Brooklyn Tech students and all afternoon for the Stuyvesant kids. Amalia's house, just two blocks from the Tech campus, became a gathering spot for her friends--a desperately needed chance to hang out, have lunch before class and just be 16 for a while. "We have pasta like every other day," says Amalia. "Spaghetti with red sauce, spaghetti with garlic sauce, macaroni and cheese. You have to make at least three boxes to feed everyone." Everyone pitched in with the cooking and cleaning, but, she admits, "I usually end up wiping the table."

Sometime that week Laura Lopez made a decision. Before Sept. 11 she had dreamed of going to Tulane University in New Orleans. She strung Mardi Gras beads around her teddy bear, studied French and Creole culture and was enthralled by a video Tulane sent her. "Imagine going to school in a place like that," she says. "There were big trees, and it was so clean." Her mother, a Mexican immigrant who earns about $18,000 a year at a day-care center, was trying hard to let Laura make her own decision about next year. But after watching Maura that night at the window, Laura started filling out an application to the City University of New York's honors college. "I couldn't leave my mother," she says.

Michael Mascetti made some changes in his dreams as well. Wall Street isn't what he's after anymore. He was inspired by a new hero, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to get involved in politics. "I loved that this Italian immigrant guy from Rockaway did a better job leading than any of the others," he says. And he hopes to stay in New York, maybe go to Columbia.

Last Friday, Karl and the football team ran through a new defense for their game against Kennedy High School in the Bronx. Amalia's friends had their final pasta party. For just a moment, Laura and her friends forgot the attack. "We were talking about shopping," she says. "Two of my friends are going to buy boots." At an assembly about the return to their own building, the students were reassured that the air in and around the school was safe to breathe and that Stuyvesant was freshly scrubbed, both inside and out. But Michael noted one more piece of bad news: students are no longer allowed to leave the building for lunch.