Monica Nguyen survived 9/11. Most of the students she shared her story with on Tuesday weren’t even alive that day to witness the tragedy from afar.
For some students, it was the first time they’d heard a full, personal account of the terrorist attacks that altered the course of the 21st Century.
“I feel like I know a lot about it, but at the same time I’m really distanced from it because I didn’t experience it,” said Michelle Mut, a senior at Lamar High School who was just a baby at the time of the attacks. “I’d never heard about it, from what people were thinking about inside and how confusing it was.”
Mut and dozens of her schoolmates joined people around the country Tuesday morning in remembering Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists associated with the extremist group Al-Qaeda hijacked four planes, crashing into the two World Trade Center buildings, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks.
Seventeen years later, a new generation is learning about that day.
Senior Nick Kramer was about 8 months old when the planes hit the Twin Towers. As the seventh battalion commander of the high school’s JROTC, he organized the remembrance to bring part of the country’s history closer to home for students who might not understand the severity of what occurred.
“They aren’t experiencing it as a life event, but more of a moment of American history,” he said. “I wanted to make American history come alive and make them actually experience it so they can better understand what happened.”
Nguyen, who now lives with her family in Klein, told the students that the week of 9/11, she’d just started working for Morgan Stanley and was at the World Trade Center for a three-week training.
She was on the 61st floor of the south tower when she heard the first explosion and saw debris come down like a ticker-tape parade. Nguyen and thousands of others were funneled into a stairwell, where they slowly tried to escape with little knowledge about what was happening at the tower next door.
While she was somewhere between the 30th and 40th floors, Nguyen said the entire building shook. A second plane had plowed into the south tower, near the floor where she’d just evacuated.
“Everybody started screaming,” Nguyen said. “This was when total chaos broke out. You’re pushing and … it’s still moving very slowly, but now there’s a different urgency to it.”
After about an hour in the stairwell, wondering if she and the others would live or die, Nguyen and some of her classmates made a break for the smoky air outside.
At some point, she and her friends turned around to see the towers collapse. A cloud of smoke started permeating through the air, and they ran 2 miles to the hotel. Nguyen and her coworkers in New York for the training were finally able to get out of the city days later.
Nguyen said her mother calls 9/11 a second birthday - instead of dying, her daughter lived.
“I survived and I just hope to make the most of it by bringing some calm to anybody I can share this story with,” she said.
Mut said that while she already knew what happened on 9/11, she now looks at it differently.
“It’s great that we get to hear these stories,” she said. “It brings us closer to a really big part of our past.”