Assistant News Editor
On one side of Rachel Dickhoff’s car, the sky was a deep black, on the other, it was blue – not even a cloud disrupted the color.
Dickhoff, freshman from Aquebogue, N.Y., near Long Island, was in the fourth grade when the Twin Towers were struck by two planes on Sept. 11, 2001, but she can remember everything about the day: what she and her mother were wearing, how her mother broke down crying on the way home from school and the smoke that colored the sky.
The day that had started like any other evolved into a series of bizarre occurrences, Dickhoff said.
“It was a normal day, we went to school,” she said. “I went to a Catholic school so they were very strict, so they didn’t really want any of us to know what was happening. The one weird thing that went on during the day (was) that my friend, who normally brought a radio to school, got it taken away. They were really angry about it; it was weird. Near the end of the day, a lot of parents started showing up, picking up kids, which was very odd. We normally bussed because it was far away from our houses.”
Dickhoff said she had no idea what had happened until her mother, who was very bewildered, picked her up.
“My mom picked me up and she was really just very out of it,” she said. “On the way home, she started to just break down and cry, she told me what happened and we could look out the window and see the sky was black and we looked in the other direction and it was blue. So you could tell that there was just a tremendous amounts of smoke in the air.”
Dickhoff said it was her cousin who lived in Queens, N.Y., who called her mother to tell her to turn the television on and watch what was happening.
“She thought it was a joke at first,” she said. “But she turned on the TV anyway and she watched the second plane hit.”
After the second plane hit, Dickhoff started to understand what was happening, neighbors began knocking on doors, checking if everyone was OK and giving condolences, she said.
Emergency personnel from Long Island were called to Manhattan to help with the relief efforts, Dickhoff said.
“Even though we were in Long Island, we weren’t in the city, they called in all of our firefighters, and a lot of our police they called into the city because they didn’t have enough to continue cleaning up or deal with the whole situation,” she said.
This created more worry for the Dickhoffs because many of their friends and family members worked as firefighters, she said.
Long Island residents were in complete shock, she said.
“Basically, everyone was just completely … frozen,” Dickhoff said. “We didn’t really know how to react. I remember, days just kind of went in a blur. There was no school, families just couldn’t get in touch with anyone.”
Dickhoff said despite the fact she was in fourth grade she could remember everything about the day because it had such an impact on her and her family.
Because her house was located a mile away from an air base, Dickhoff’s family was concerned about another attack, one closer to home, she said.
“We were just scared that something else would happen,” she said. “We didn’t know where anyone was. The initial shock had you frozen and confused, you didn’t want to believe it. I know I didn’t want to believe that that actually happened.”
After the initial distress of the attacks passed, emotions set in, she said.
“After that shock was over with, I know I cried all the time,” she said.
Every day at 9 a.m. and noon, news stations on the television observed a moment of silence, which upset residents, Dickhoff said.
“Whenever (the moment of silence) came on, it just kind of brought you to complete hysteria, it was awful, even though I was so young,” she said. “Even today just talking about it or thinking about it, seeing the memorials going up, seeing anything that relates to it can get me really upset and can bring me all the way back to what I was feeling then.”
Dickhoff said even though she didn’t lose anyone to the attacks, the pain was immense because of the uncertainty that her family was alive.
“Even though I didn’t lose anyone, I didn’t know if they were OK for a week or two weeks,” she said.
The doubt was unbearable for her parents, she said.
“It was horribly awful,” she said. “Because it wasn’t just that I could lose them, because we were a close family, it was that I’d never seen my dad so worried, I’d never seen my mom so upset. Before that, I’d never seen my father cry. Watching them made me worse off than I originally was.”
Once school was back in session, Dickhoff said the mood had drastically changed. Her school was composed mostly of children whose family worked in the city, she said.
“It was very hard to be around, it was very quiet,” she said. “I remember not learning anything for two or three weeks. It was more of, we were figuring out how to deal with the situation.”
Three years had passed and the Dickhoffs, along with another family, visited Ground Zero, she said.
“You could still hear things moving, it seemed like it was still smoking, I guess it was just the dust,” she said. “There were still bouquets of flowers being put down and people at all times of the day just kneeling down and crying. In the space where it was it’s just an empty lot of gray everything. There was debris, there was just stuff that they hadn’t had the time to get rid of because there was so much of it. Dust covered everything.”
Dickhoff said when she visited the site it took her breath away.
“I was hysterical,” she said. “I was standing there and at first it was that moment of ‘I can’t do anything’ and then all of a sudden the tears built and then they just wouldn’t stop. I was inconsolable. Everyone was inconsolable.”
Dickhoff said the two families sat cross-legged in front of the site staring, unable to process what had happened.
Said Dickhoff: “It was one thing to, on the day, look up and see the sky literally black and see the sky that was blue that morning was now black, and then to be there and see all these buildings around it. Nothing’s empty in New York, nothing. Every single space is covered with some kind of building or billboard, just stuff and it was just empty. It’s probably just the state that you’re in, but it seems quiet, kind of like how a graveyard is quiet. It seems like you walked into a bubble and the city wasn’t there. It was just this empty debris state of just quiet.”