The children all asked: 'Why would someone have done it?'

On 11 September, students in Manhattan schools watched as history was made through the classroom window. Hillary Rosner talks to them and their teachers
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The sixth-graders in Deborah Hallen's class in Brooklyn Heights had the most stupendous view of the World Trade Centre. The 11- and 12-year-olds at Robert Fulton School, also known as PS 8 (Public School 8) were able to watch the first tower burning from their classroom window looking out over downtown Manhattan.

Hallen turned on the radio for news. "When we heard what had happened, I shut off the radio and spoke to the class and told them that for sure many people had died," she says. "I told them that they would remember 11 September, 2001 as long as they lived."

The school principal, who had just learnt the news, called for a shelter drill and relocated classes from the rooms with views of Manhattan; shortly thereafter, parents began arriving to pick up their children. The principal also called in members of the Board of Education's crisis intervention team to counsel students and teachers who had witnessed the destruction.

"The kids were concerned about whether they and their parents were safe. We made them understand that they were safe, that this was across the river," says Hallen, who was especially worried about children whose parents brought them to this country precisely to escape from scenes like this. "We have a few students who are from Kosovo. One was very upset and one was withdrawn and frozen."

As Tuesday's horror played out, news began to trickle in to classrooms across the city via teachers, radios, or a devastating view from the window. For children accustomed to getting their images of exploding buildings from movies like Independence Day, the events were near-impossible to process. But for many children in the city, from kindergartens to high-school seniors, the immediate reaction was fear, often on a very personal level.

"At first, me and my friend were really scared because we didn't know how far away our dads and moms were from there," says Kyle Howard-Rose, a fifth-grader at PS 24 in Riverdale, who received the news from her teacher during class. "She told us that something bad had happened at the World Trade Centre, like a bombing thing. And later we found out that the terrorists had come and hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon."

Several students in Kyle's school had parents who worked in or near the buildings. "One kid in my grade, his parents worked there. And another kid, his mom works across the street from it. So everyone started to get worried."

But the fear was not limited to younger children. "It's hard to get that they're not there anymore, said Julia Kardon, a Fieldston ninth-grader, speaking of the twin towers and the thousands of people who perished. "I knew it was life-changing. I turned to my friend and said that this could be war."

Most schools called emergency assemblies, dividing students by age and giving them varying am-ounts of information. Some teachers allowed older children to listen to the radio or watch TV, and at schools that banned access to TV coverage, children took to the internet, devouring the news on and the websites of local TV stations.

Worried children tried again and again to make contact with parents or other relatives via land and cellphones that offered only spotty service. Parents were uncertain whether or not, and how soon, to pick up their children. But by noon, many schools were all but empty.

Tuesday's events changed the lives of everyone who witnessed them – but they will probably prove to have the deepest psychological impact on the children rescued from the federal, state, and city day- care centres in and near the World Trade Centre. "Transport was so complicated that to get to the scene was impossible," says Dr Gail Furman, a child psychologist who was called in to help escort home several children from a day- care centre at Trinity Place.

"There was rubble everywhere, and body bags were there already. During the early part of the day, anyone who was alive could run over there and get their kids. But anybody who was hurt or who worked a distance away couldn't get there later." Furman calls these children – many of whom had one or even two parents who worked in the twin towers – the silent victims of the disaster.

"They went into their schools or day-care centres and it looked one way, and we came out and there was the rubble, the fire engines," says Furman. "These kids were in the middle of, say, the London Blitz. They heard the noises, they had to be reassured, and any reassurances they were given meant nothing.

"They know that the world as they knew it has completely changed. These kids' lives are permanently scarred by what they heard, what they saw, what it meant to them. They were part of it. "

For parents of slightly older children, the problem is one of explanation: how to help them make sense of something that they cannot fathom themselves. "I'm of the opinion that you just tell the truth," said Chris McGuiness, whose five-year-old son Wesley is in kindergarten. "When I told him, he was like, 'why would anybody do that?'. I said, 'there are bad people in the world'. He understands good and bad."

"I wasn't upset that they were telling it like it is, because that's how I treat my kids," says Wendy Howard, Kyle Howard- Rose's mother. "But there were a lot of kids whose parents I'm sure will take issue." Howard's son Conor is in the third grade at PS 24; his class was not told of the tragedies. "I think the big question kids have is, 'why would somebody do that?'," says Howard. "I say that there are crazy people in the world, and along the way America has made enemies, and with the wrong kind of people." You say it in a good guy/bad guy way. Like Power Rangers. It's not like Oklahoma City, where the bad guys were people from our own country. That's much harder to explain."

Teenagers struggled to make sense of the events – and the reality that some friends had parents who would not be coming home. Unable, like most adults, to really process the scope of the tragedy, many spent Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday clinging to friends, awaiting word of missing relations or acquaintances, walking in their changed cityscape, trying to envisage the future.

"I don't think any of us are really grasping it," says Elizabeth Wolff, a senior at Brearley. "We always lived with this view that America is untouchable, so we don't really get it." Wolff and some friends spent much of the afternoon wandering around Manhattan, watching the smoke and the people on the street and taking photographs. "What is anyone going to do? Our parents can tell us minute by minute where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, and now we have something. I never said 'I love you' to my friends and family as much as I did today."

At Collegiate, an all-boys' school in Manhattan, students were haunted by fears of being drafted, of spending next year on a battlefield instead of in a college dorm. "Everyone was stunned," says Michael Lehman, 17. "Some were crying, and the news kept breaking. Every time that happened, everyone gasped. It felt like World War III was going to start. One of my friends said, 'we're gonna have to go to war soon'."

There were also some bizarre reality-checks – tiny ways in which the tragedy touches our lives. "Our yearbook theme is New York City," says Wolff. "We had this idea that a sketch of the skyline was going to be on every page. I keep thinking, there is no skyline anymore."

As students returned to school on Thursday, psychologists were advising parents to tell the truth while trying to play up courage and heroism, and not to let children watch too much TV. But for those children who witnessed the tragedy in full colour, through a window rather than a TV screen, it's difficult to escape the trauma.

Bruce Winokur was teaching his seniors in the Intel maths research course, in the southeast corner of Stuyvesant High School, when they heard the massive bang of the first plane hitting the World Trade Centre a few blocks away. Everyone rushed to the window. "The kids were saying they saw people jumping or falling," recalls Winokur. "They were able to distinguish between the falling debris and the bodies because the debris reflected light whereas the bodies didn't."

Winokur and his students saw a fireball when the second plane hit. Afraid of glass shattering, Winokur ordered his students away from the windows, but they watched the TV coverage. "It's the kind of class where we always discuss things," he says. "And that's what we were doing. After the first explosion, one student talked about how it couldn't be a normal bomb because they couldn't bring in that many explosives. They were speculating that maybe it was brought in in a Xerox machine. This is a research class, so we were problem-solving."

Toward the end of the period, they felt a large vibration and looked out to see a huge dustball where one of the towers had stood. And then the period ended.

Returning to some approximation of school-as-usual was what the teachers sought. At PS 8, they wanted to ensure that classrooms had an American flag, and all students recited the Pledge of Allegiance daily; they also recommended that the school hold assemblies at which the "Star-Spangled Banner" or "America the Beautiful" would be sung.

"The students need to understand that we're one people and that no one here is responsible for what happened," says Hallen. "We need to ensure that the democracy goes on. These young people are the future leaders, and we need to ensure that we keep our freedoms."

The writer is a journalist in New York City