Crew members from one of the 38 planes that were diverted to Gander International Airport Sept. 11, 2001 load some of their belongings on a school bus to be transported to their accommodations. — Transcontinental Media file photo
TORONTO — Few could grasp the depth of destruction and devastating loss of life on Sept. 11, 2001. But for children, the scope of the tragedy was even more difficult to process.
The Canadian Press spoke with three university students now in their 20s who recall how they first learned of the attacks and their reaction to the day’s events.
Heading onto the highway following a visit to New York in August 2001, Adam Gilani looked back towards the Manhattan skyline, catching a glimpse of the Twin Towers.
“I remember asking my dad, I remember telling him: 'Next time we come, we’re going to have to make sure we go all the way to the top of those buildings,”’ recalled Gilani, 20, from Markham, Ont.
“It was so soon after, within a couple of weeks, that they were gone.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Gilani, then 10, was at his private Islamic school in Scarborough, an east-end Toronto suburb.
A public address announcement summoned teachers to the office, while students were sent on an early recess.
“When we had gone back into the classroom, we were told by the teacher that there was an incident that had occurred in the United States, and that it was a major incident and we were going to be sent home for the day, just for our own secure safety,” he said.
Just weeks after musing about a future visit to the Twin Towers, Gilani watched on TV as the mammoth structures of concrete, glass and steel collapsed into a choking cloud of dust and debris.
“Seeing the images for the first time, it seemed like it was a movie. It just seemed like it was a trailer for some movie coming out.
“All the interviews that were happening, and the reporters — everybody seemed to be scared, and so that obviously scared me a little, because I didn’t know what was happening.”
The mood was quiet and sombre at home, with everyone saddened and upset at the scale of the loss of life, and worried for relatives living in New York.
Gilani recalled hearing news the next day of Islamic centres and mosques being attacked. Because of his own school’s proximity to a mosque, the threat “became a lot more real.”
In the months and even years that followed, Gilani said his father would receive threatening messages on the phone at his Scarborough business.
Gilani also remembers conversations with friends in the aftermath of 9-11 and the repeated references to al-Qaida they heard on the news.
“These were names we had never heard of before. So it was also, 'Well, who are these people?’
“’They’re saying that they’re Muslims? But why? It doesn’t make sense. What does that mean? Why would they do something like that?”’
The tragedy would hit particularly close for one of Gilani’s classmates, whose aunt was killed in the attacks in New York.
“It was very real for us that these were very innocent people, and people of all religions and all creeds were murdered, essentially, on that day,” he said.
“We’re constantly reminded of the tragedy and how horrible it was, and how far removed from the teachings of our religion, of Islam. And, again, just reminded to go back into our communities and try to give back as much as we can and be a positive force.”
Gilani said the Islamophobia that emerged in the U.S. post-9-11 also surfaced in Canada. Events in the headlines, such as the opposition to the opening of an Islamic centre near Ground Zero, served as a reminder that negative feelings continued to exist towards Muslims. But Gilani thinks attitudes are changing.
“Definitely people are a lot more educated on what Islam is, who Muslims are, over the years as compared to right away (after 9-11),” said Gilani, president of the University of Ottawa Muslim Students’ Association and board administration member with U of O’s student federation.
“A lot of work has been done in our community and our campuses to educate other members of our communities and our campuses about what the realities of Islam are, and what the realities of Muslims are, that we are just regular people."
From the death of Osama bin Laden to the uprising in Libya, Nick Stark has learned of a lot of news through social media. So it seems fitting that on 9-11, he had his first inkling something significant had happened while online.
On his computer at home in Guelph, Ont., Stark noticed a posting on an Internet message board about thoughts and prayers being with people in New York.
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He didn’t know what was going on and asked his mother, who turned on the TV.
“It did seem surreal,” recalled Stark, 20, a student at the University of King’s College in Halifax. “It was one of those things where at first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
In the current media-saturated landscape, it’s hard to imagine hours passing without learning of an event the magnitude of 9-11. But before Facebook, Twitter and the wide use of smartphones, the prospect of such a news vacuum was not uncommon.
Such was the case for Stark, who didn’t hear anything all day at school about the attacks.
“Nothing really out of the ordinary was going on, except that as school was starting, one of the kids came in late and he was sort of in a very excited mood ... sort of agitated,” he recalled.
“He went up and talked to the teacher and I remember her saying: ‘Don’t spread it around. Don’t tell anyone.’ That was only something I remembered later on in the day when I actually found out what happened on September 11th.”
Stark thinks the school’s intention was to not alarm the students. Stark, treasurer of the Canadian Federation of Students — Nova Scotia, is an avid follower of American politics, and is keen to hear U.S. President Barack Obama’s remarks on the 10th anniversary.
“Obama has this speech in which he’s going to sort of rally the nation together in a way the United States was so united following September the 11th — trying to sort of restore some of that unity.”
Jameela Pereira’s teacher returned to the classroom, her face flushed.
“At first she just said: ‘There was an attack at the World Trade Center.’ And honestly, I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was when I was 11,” recalled Pereira, now 21 and a student at Toronto’s York University.
It was when New York was referenced that it hit home for Pereira, as she thought of her aunt, uncle and cousins living in the city.
“That’s when I started to get a little concerned and worried because we had family down there,” she said. “That’s when I knew something serious had happened.”
A TV was wheeled into the classroom.
“They just had a repeat of the plane flying, and then ... the crumbling happened. And it just kept going, and kept going and going,” she recalled, simulating the action by slicing her pointed index finger sharply through the air, then fluttering her fingers in a downward motion.
“They just kept showing it over and over and over again.
“It just looked like a movie to me almost,” she added. “I was like, ’What is this? What is this?’
“And then when it hit me: 'This is real, this just happened.’ That’s when it got kind of strange. That’s when it started to scare me a little bit.”
Pereira said the teacher wanted the class to discuss the events, but most of the students just didn’t comprehend what was happening.
“Nobody really had much to say,” she said.
“I can’t remember anybody in my class being super-bothered by it — not because they’re not compassionate towards people. But I just don’t think we understood what was going on, really. It didn’t seem to affect anybody too much really, other than our teacher.”
Things changed after Pereira got home.
Among the repeating televised images of the attacks, she recalled seeing footage of Muslims saying “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great.”
Pereira, who grew up in the Muslim faith, was puzzled.
“I couldn’t understand why this travesty and people jumping outside of windows was equated to this celebration they were having. It was just so confusing.
“It wasn’t until my mom explained it to me. She really sat me down and was like, ’When one person dies it’s a tragedy. Thousands of people are dying right now. And it’s because of this, not really war, but this dynamic between the Muslim groups and the American government.’
“It was weird to see,” she added. “I think that was the first time that my eyes were really open to the fact that the whole world doesn’t just get along like they do in Canada. It’s a totally different ball game, and that’s the first time I really understood that.”