A woman who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks from her school’s windows when she was five years old has opened up about her memories from that day, recalling how the trauma led her to suffer from anxiety and severe panic attacks.
Anabel Sosa, 25, was one of four former kindergarten students who returned to Public School 89 in lower Manhattan to share their stories with Today to mark the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001.
Although she was only five years old at the time, she said her recollection of that day is one of the ‘most vivid’ memories from her childhood and is nearly identical to her former classmates’ accounts.
Located in Manhattan’s Battery Park City, PS 89 was just blocks north of ground zero, and Anabel’s south-facing classroom looked out at the World Trade Center, the once tallest buildings in the world.
Candid: Anabel Sosa, 25, was one of four former kindergarteners at Public School 89 who shared their 9/11 stories with Today to mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks
Trauma: Anabel (pictured with her brother on September 11, 2001) was five when she saw a plane crash into the World Trade Center from the window of her classroom in lower Manhattan
Looking back: Anabel’s former school, PS 89 (pictured), was located just blocks away from ground zero
Terrorists crashed the first plane into the north tower at 8:46 a.m., and she still remembers the thought that ran through her mind.
‘Where the plane had actually crashed was 80 stories higher than where I was, but I remember the towers being level,’ she said. ‘I was reading a book with my best friend on the couch, and I looked over and said, “There’s a hole in the building.”
‘I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, but I remember a massive, gaping black hole, fire erupting from it, small black specks falling out of the building. They were definitely people.’
Anabel said her teacher asked them to move away from the windows, and her next memory was her mother, Stacey Sosa, coming to get her.
Stacey told Today that she had just dropped off her older son and daughter at PS 89 and was still on the playground when the first plane hit.
She initially thought it was an accident and went upstairs to check on Annabel. A teacher asked her to run to her house to get sheets to cover the windows.
Confusing time: Anabel said she was reading a book with her best friend on the couch in her south-facing classroom when she looked over and said: ‘There’s a hole in the building’
Looking back: Anabel recounted seeing ‘a massive, gaping black hole’ and ‘small black specks falling out of the building,’ saying that ‘they were definitely people’
Fleeing: Anabel and her older brother were picked up by their mother, Stacey Sosa, before they ran up the West Side Highway to get to their family’s restaurant
‘That’s when I realized some horrific stuff was happening,’ she explained.
Stacey was walking downstairs when a second plane hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m. She went back upstairs to grab her daughter and son, who is two years older than Anabel.
The Sosas lived down the block from the school, and the mom quickly stopped home to get her husband and dog. The family ran up the West Side Highway toward their restaurant, Sosa Borella, on Greenwich Street.
The south tower, the second to be hit, collapsed at 9:59 a.m. followed by the north tower at 10:28 a.m.
‘It was just panic, and there was this trust that my mom was going to take us somewhere safe,’ Anabel said. ‘But it was definitely an understanding that we were under attack but not really knowing why or how. I was terrified. I think we all were.
‘It was survival instinct, just being told, “We’ve got to go,” saying “OK,” and then hearing, “We’ve got to run,” and running with my family. That moment, honestly, was just a war zone,’ she continued.
Changed: Anabel, who was photographed in her former classroom, said she started to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and would have ‘severe panic attacks’ after that day
Difficult: Anabel (pictured with her PS 89 classmates in 2002) recalled drawing ‘the towers on fire’ and ‘people jumping out of the windows’ when psychologists would visit her school
Memories: ‘I knew physically what I witnessed, but I don’t think I understood why it happened until years later,’ she said
‘Hundreds if not thousands of people, just an absolute mob, were running north up the island away from the towers. I remember my dad holding my dog on the leash and having his video camera filming it. I found out years later that he actually erased the tapes.’
Anabel said her parents’ restaurant was ‘packed with so many strangers not knowing what was going on,’ including a survivor of the attacks.
‘I remember a man with a mask and white ashes on his face sitting on a barstool talking about how he was able to get out of one of the towers and found his way to the restaurant,’ she said.
After that day, Anabel said she started to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and would have ‘severe panic attacks’ as well as ‘separation anxiety’ from her parents. She was scared to go to school.
Students were temporarily moved to a new school until PS 89 reopened on February 28, 2002, nearly six months after the attacks. It was the last school near ground zero to reopen.
‘School psychologists would come to our classrooms, and it would be an opportunity for kids to do the drawing-talk therapy, and I’d have drawings of the towers on fire, people jumping out of the windows,’ Anabel said. ‘I knew physically what I witnessed, but I don’t think I understood why it happened until years later.’
Starling: Former PS 89 student Zisis Gribas, 25, remembers playing with his friends near the window when he heard a ‘big boom’
Escape: Zisis (pictured on his first day of kindergarten days before) said he didn’t see the plane crash into the building, but he ‘saw the smoke stack coming out of it’
Scared: Even though he was only five, he recalled having an understanding that it was an attack of some sort.
Story: Zisis was picked up by his father, and they were walking north when they saw the first tower collapse. They were picked up by a random boat that had come to shore
Old friend: Zisis gave Anabel a big hug when they reunited in their old school two decades later
Former PS 89 student Sophia Williams, 24, told Today that 9/11 changed her in ways she didn’t realize because she was so young, but her mother, Lee Williams, noticed the shift.
‘My mom says that pre-9/11, I was very independent and would spend a lot of time in my room, playing with my things and just being OK sitting for hours with my own thoughts and imagination,’ she said.
‘But after 9/11, when we moved back and were living together, I was insistent on doing things alongside her, being in the same room as her as she was working. I became much more attached to her.’
Looking back on that day, Sophia recalled her teachers suddenly talking amongst themselves before taking her and her classmates to the auditorium to watch ‘Arthur.’
Like Anabel, her mom came to pick her up from school, and they started walking uptown because police officers wouldn’t let them take their car that was parked nearby.
‘As we were walking up to the East Village, I remember seeing a smoothie shop and wanting to get something, and my mom initially saying, “Of course not, just trust me,” but then ultimately getting me this blueberry smoothie to find a moment of relief in these really stressful two hours,’ she said.
Tension: Sophia Williams, 24, recalled her teachers suddenly talking amongst themselves before taking her and her classmates to the auditorium to watch ‘Arthur’ amid the attacks
Trust: In good hands: Despite the widespread panic, Sophia said she didn’t ‘feel so personally scared’ on 9/11 because she trusted that her mother was ‘leading the way’ and knew what to do
Moving: Sophia and her mother eventually went to stay with her grandparents, who lived in New Jersey, because their apartment was destroyed by the smoke and toxic dust
Documented: Lee Williams took this photo of the World Trade Center in the weeks after September 11, 2001, before it was demolished
Changes: Sophia said she became ‘much more attached’ to her mother, Lee Williams, and less independent after 9/11
Despite the widespread panic, she didn’t ‘feel so personally scared’ because she trusted that her mother was ‘leading the way’ and knew what to do.
Sophia and her mother eventually went to stay with her grandparents, who lived in New Jersey. Lee enrolled her in a small school in the state, and she didn’t return to PS 89 for kindergarten.
Former PS 89 student Zisis Gribas, 25, also moved to New Jersey with his family, and they lived there for a little over a year after the attacks.
He told Today that he remembers playing with his friends near the window when he heard a ‘big boom.’ He didn’t see the plane crash into the building, but he ‘saw the smoke stack coming out of it’ and had an understanding that it was an attack of some sort.
‘My dad remembers that when we first stepped out, I asked, “Why are they attacking my city? Why are they attacking my country?” because I had a sense there was some kind of war situation going on,’ Zisis explained.
‘But other than the building being on fire, it was just like a normal day. I don’t think anybody anticipated the collapse. Nobody would have stuck around the way they did.’
Terrifying moment: PS 89 Principal Ronnie Najjar made the decision to evacuate the school during the attacks
Where she was: Ronnie was still on the playground talking to parents when the first plane hit
Careful: The principal led the students to PS 3 in the West Village, making sure that ever child was holding an adult’s hand
Leader: Ronnie said she urged parents who came to pick up their children to head north with them, insisting their homes near ground zero weren’t safe
Zisis said they were walking home along the water about a football field or two away from the World Trade Center when the first tower collapsed. He recalled how random boats started picking up ash-covered people onshore.
A stranger on one of the vessels told him they were going to Disney World just to calm him down as they headed to a military base behind the Statue of Liberty.
Zisis remembers the stress of trying to reunite with his mother, grandmother, and siblings, which they eventually did.
His family temporarily moving to New Jersey because the smoke and ash had destroyed their sixth-floor apartment, where they had left all of the windows open.
He said he was emotionally affected by having to leave his neighborhood and home, saying he didn’t want to be friends with anyone at his new school.
‘It made me appreciate the value of safety, security, peace,’ he said. ‘Seeing that kind of war event happening in your hometown puts things in perspective, especially when you’re really young.
‘I was angry. I didn’t understand why it needed to happen, and I definitely was under the impression that it should never happen again. I still feel that way.’
Old students: Ronnie reunited with Zisis and Anabel at PS 89 during the photo shoot
Anonymous: Another former student named Joyce described the horror of watching one of the towers collapse while her teacher carried her to safety, but she didn’t join the group
Paying tribute: PS 89 now has a plaque honoring the heroes from 9/11
Today also spoke with a former PS 89 student named Joyce who described the horror of watching the devastation of the attack while her teacher carried her to safety.
Joyce explained that the elementary school was evacuated shortly after teachers rushed them into the auditorium to keep them away from the glass windows in their classrooms.
‘Everyone was running up the West Side Highway but crying at the same time,’ she said. ‘I was small even back then, and I remember not being able to catch up, and my teacher picking me up in her arms and running with me, which is incredible to think about now. She was probably the age I am today, just so young and putting all of us first even then.’
‘That perspective, with her running up the West Side Highway and picking me up, meant I was looking downtown and seeing the fire and smoke coming off the buildings and then watching it collapse.’
Led by PS 89 Principal Ronnie Najjar, the students were taken to PS 3 in the West Village, where Joyce was later picked up by her father.
She said the jarring noise of the large trash bins being rolled around the cafeteria while she waited for her dad triggered her fear that another building was falling.
Joyce’s family ended up moving uptown after the attacks, and like many of her other classmates, she finished kindergarten at a different school.
‘After 9/11, my family never lived higher than the fifth floor,’ she said. ‘For a while, I was uncomfortable living in New York City at all. There was this constant sense of, “We’re a target.”‘