As students at North Lee Elementary School learned about the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they got the chance to hear from someone who was in New York when the World Trade Center Towers were …
As students at North Lee Elementary School learned about the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they got the chance to hear from someone who was in New York when the World Trade Center Towers were hit.
Cynthia Shonts, who had been visiting Manhattan on business, shared her story with Kristi Schalk’s fifth-grade class on Monday.
Shonts, a Cleveland resident and the mother of North Lee student Jack Shonts, said this was the first time she had shared her story publicly.
“It’s hard, but there’s only so many generations that will get to hear firsthand accounts of 9/11,” said Shonts. “If these children can take something from my story, I want to share it.”
Her voice cracked with emotion as she described the horror and fear people were experiencing in New York that day.
At the time, she was the associate director of admissions at LaGrange College in Georgia, and had planned to participate in an event in one of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. She also planned to have breakfast with a friend at Windows on the World, a restaurant in one of the buildings’ top floors.
However, bad weather the day before led to a cascade of delays which kept her out of the wrong place at the right time.
“Never underestimate the power of unexpected events,” Shonts advised. “They can make a world of difference in your life.”
Bad storms on Sept. 10, 2001, kept her flight to New York from landing when planned. Her plane circled in the air for two hours, with additional delays causing her to arrive five hours later than planned.
While there for business, she met up with a friend named Michael Kratz. Because of the flight delays, their plans were shifted. They ended up staying up late and decided to cancel their breakfast plans.
They would have been eating breakfast at Windows on the World when the planes hit the World Trade Center buildings.
Shonts said she was preparing a later breakfast in her friend’s apartment not far from the World Trade Center when the news came.
Her friend was flipping through channels on the TV and saw news about the World Trade Center. He shrugged it off, thinking it was a segment put together to remember a terrorist attack years earlier.
Not much later, Shonts received a frantic phone call from someone who had seen a TV news report about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center buildings.
They dismissed that too, because it wasn’t entirely unheard of for planes to accidentally hit skyscrapers. Still, they leaned out the apartment’s windows to see what they could see.
“Then, we saw the second plane hit,” Shonts said. “Our stomachs dropped; we knew then this wasn’t an accident.”
Soon, police began going down the street with their car speakers blaring instructions to evacuate the area.
They quickly complied, taking very little with them in the process. Shonts recalls wearing flip-flops for what would turn out to be several miles of walking.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” Shonts said. “We were just part of this huge mass of people walking north.”
She said it was “surreal” to see thousands of people, all heading in the same direction in a panic. Nobody knew for sure what had happened, and they were having to pick their way through falling dust and debris.
Still, Shonts said moments of kindness were apparent in those horrific moments. Shopkeepers along the escape routes opened their doors to help. Bodega owners gave out bottled water; hardware store owners shared particle masks. One shoe store owner was even giving away free athletic shoes to women who had to evacuate in their high heels.
They ended up walking several miles, with sirens wailing and fighter jets scrambling overhead to guard New York’s airspace. Nobody was allowed to drive; police had closed the roads.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” Shonts said.
They finally wound up at an art museum, where her friend was to be involved in an art show. They stayed there for some time, until it was safe enough to walk home. Even then, they encountered numerous police checkpoints.
She also remembers being stuck in New York longer than planned, because flights were grounded for about a week. She and her friend watched as New Yorkers helped each other try to pick up the pieces.
“Adults always ask each other where they were on 9/11,” Shonts said. “I have these experiences as my answer, and I’ll never forget that day.”
Students said they learned quite a bit from her story. Fifth-grader Macy Bivens said the presentation “made 9/11 alive” for her, even though she’s too young to remember it.
Jack, the speaker’s son, also said he got to hear the story in a way he had not been able to before. His mother had shielded some details from him when he was younger, and this time she used maps and other visuals to illustrate them.
“The biggest thing I got was how simple things can change everything in your life,” he said. “I wasn’t alive then, but ... who knows how things would have been?”
Schalk said she was grateful Shonts had been willing to share her story.
The class also heard from Stephen Crass, a retired publisher of the Cleveland Daily Banner.
He shared what it was like to produce the day’s newspaper on Sept. 11, 2001. Because it was an afternoon newspaper, staff were keeping a very close eye on the events, so they could be shared with that day’s readers.
“I love that he always points out how quickly the events happened on 9/11; they were so close together,” said Schalk. “And though these kids weren’t alive then, he encourages them to think about how the events they see in the news today could one day be big historic events.”
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