Twenty hears have passed since the tragic day that changed America forever. FFYF honors the memories of those lost on 9/11, and we celebrate the brave first responders who raced into danger to save lives.
Among those who risked their own safety for others were the teachers and staff at the Children’s Discovery Center at 5 World Trade Center — barely 100 yards from the twin towers.
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Onica Sarjeant, another teacher at the center, had her 3-year-old son with her that morning. “When the first plane hit, I was outside, coming out of the train station, walking with my son,” she recalls. “And I looked up and that’s when I saw the building on fire, paper flying and smoke.”
But she ran to work anyway, carrying her son, knowing she knew she would be needed.
Inside the center, Caycedo sprang into action. “You had to act and you had to act fast,” she says. “It was scoop up the children and head out.”
“We had infants, we had 4-month-olds, we had 3-year-olds,” says Sarjeant. “Because there is no way a teacher is going walk away and one child is left there.”
The teachers had to think quickly amongst the chaos. Instead of following their prepared evacuation plan, which would have taken them closer to the twin towers, the teachers had to rely on instinct.
“We just ran,” says Caycedo. “We went to the left, we went to the right.”
Each teacher carried two babies, with the older children holding on and running to keep up. “We said, ‘You have to run. Whatever you do, don’t let go. If you fall down, we’ll pick you up,'” says Sarjeant.
They ended up taking three shopping carts from a grocery store along the way to ferry the children the rest of the way. “And they thought it was a jolly ride,” says Caycedo. “They were having the best time of their lives.”
Winding through the narrow streets of lower Manhattan, they made their way across town, encountering the kindness of strangers.
“The debris was falling and these men took their shirts off their backs to cover our children,” says Caycedo.
After hours of walking, they stumbled into the office of a Head Start Program in the East Village of Manhattan, where they were offered an empty classroom.
They sat there and calmed down. But then the waiting began. The teachers knew some of the parents worked in the World Trade Center towers, and may not be able to reclaim their children.