Students Visit Ground Zero

Among those who joined an East Hampton High School junior class trip to the National September 11 Memorial last week were, in front from left, Hunter Medler, Eros Elizondo, Hannah Mirando, and Jen Wilson, and in back, Laura Molinari, East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo, and Bill Barbour. Judy D’Mello

Last week, Michael Sarlo, the chief of police in East Hampton, took a field trip.

Accompanying 233 juniors from East Hampton High School, he returned to the site where almost 16 years ago he arrived with other police officers from the East End to help with the devastation of Sept. 11, which killed almost 3,000 people.

The trip to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan was the first of what will become an annual outing for junior classes at the high school, thanks to one mother who nurtured a simple wish to fruition.

Jen Wilson of East Hampton, an alumna of the school and a mother of an 11th grader there, was watching a TV show on the anniversary of Sept. 11 and  heard a generation of youngsters speak about how little they knew of the real details of that day’s atrocities, except that they had happened.

“I thought this was a real shame, especially since we live so close to Manhattan and so many of our lives were impacted by the tragedy,” Ms. Wilson said. “I knew I had to do something, not just for my daughter but for her entire grade — all the kids who are only learning about the event because they’re studying it in a U.S. history class.”

Ms. Wilson single-handedly launched a fund-raising campaign that resulted in a reoccurring annual grant awarded by the Greater East Hampton Education Foundation, the Kendall Madison Foundation, as well as reoccurring donations from three local fire departments.

On May 15 and 16, almost three years to the day that the museum opened, the 11th graders — divided into groups of 40, plus chaperones — left East Hampton at 6 a.m. for Ground Zero. For many of the teens, it was their first visit to the museum and memorial. It was also a first for the adults who accompanied them: Ken Alversa, the police officer assigned to the high school; Laura Molinari, a board member of the Greater East Hampton Education Foundation; Adam Fine, the high school principal; Bill Barbour, a social studies teacher, Chief Sarlo, and Ms. Wilson.

 

The museum includes two main exhibitions: “In Memoriam,” which pays tribute to the 2,983 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and a historical exhibition telling the story of what happened during and after the attacks. This history is conveyed through monumental and personal artifacts, photographs, audio and video footage, first-person testimonials, and personal possessions and memorabilia.

Visitors have likened it to a portal to an emotional underworld and the trauma that is so engraved into a few city blocks. For those on the field trip, the effects were profound.

“Suddenly, everything wasn’t just stories,” said Eros Elizondo, a junior at the school. “There were actual visuals of what happened, images of the planes; it all became so real.”

“Hearing about the Sept. 11 attacks definitely hits you, but when you’re there, the impact is much, much greater,” said Hunter Medler, a classmate who hails from a family of New York City Police Department officers and first responders who helped in the days following the attack.  

Their teacher, Mr. Barbour, said every student handled the experience differently. Some students chose to sit in a room for a while and listen to commentary about the event. Others, he said, picked out names from the overwhelming tapestry of faces on display, depicting grief, loss, and life, and tried to make connections.

“What I noticed,” he said, “was that kids were really participating at every stage of the museum. Every kid took away something different. Each one made their own connection. We even spotted the name of a woman from Sag Harbor who was on one of the flights.”

For Mr. Sarlo, the police chief, the field trip forced him to return to the site, something he confessed he was not sure he was ready to do even so many years later.

“It was emotionally draining to relive the experience, but after 16 years it also was the right time for me to be able to do so, and I hope it helped the students understand the enormity of 9/11. Visiting the museum was such a powerful experience I had to sit down for a while. Some kids sat next to me and they asked me a few questions about it. It was cathartic to share the experience with them.”

According to Ms. Wilson, the depiction of the events is so realistic, she felt the students got to experience the force of the tragedy that her generation experienced at the time of the attacks. “I don’t want our students just to read about it in a textbook. I want them to really experience it and learn about it by visiting the site.”

In an email, the police chief commended Ms. Wilson “for making this experience happen,” he said. “The fund-raising effort and coordination of putting the trip together took a tremendous amount of energy, time, and effort.”

At Tuesday’s town board meeting, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, an East Hampton Town councilwoman, praised Ms. Wilson and described the field trip as an important lesson for future high school students.

Ms. Wilson acknowledges that despite the grants promised by local organizations, more fund-raising will be needed as future class sizes increase. Next year, she said, there will be almost 40 more students in the junior class, which means more money will be needed to cover the cost for extra admission tickets and the bus ride.

It is a challenge she accepts and will take on because in the words of New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, delivered during a speech, “The 9/11 Memorial Museum is for all of us. It is for those of us who witnessed the events. It is for future generations who will first encounter 9/11 as history, but who must come to understand it as something real and terrible, something that must never happen again.”