Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2021
Over the last week or so, the nation has paused to remember and reflect on that horrific day on September 11, 2001, now commonly known as 9/11. On that date, nearly 3,000 people perished in the three attacks from terrorists with the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan as the place where most of the people died.
On this the twentieth commemoration of that moment, a tragedy that I have written about each year since it occurred, it is still fresh in my memory as though it just happened. I had just returned from attending the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa. I was among 400 delegates from America on a mission to charge the United States with a crime against humanity in the Atlantic Slave trade and to demand an apology and reparations.
Ordinarily, I don’t watch television early in the morning but since I had been gone for more than a week, I cut it on to catch up with the news, particularly information on this Election Day. Suddenly, the room was aglow with images of one of the World Trade Center towers belching out smoke. There was no sound and so I believed it was footage from a film. When I heard that a plane had crashed into the building, and a possible terrorist attack was underway, I grabbed my camera and tape recorder and headed downtown.
A livery got me down to 59th Street and wasn’t allowed to proceed any further. I had to continue my journey on foot, all the while talking on my cell phone with Don Rojas from Baltimore, who told me that the Pentagon was under attack too. I was completely exhausted when I reached Chambers Street where a blockade prevented me getting any closer to the towers. I was there when the second plane blasted into the other tower.
For the next four or five hours I documented the burning towers, watched them collapse, interviewed firemen, and people who had escaped from the towers. One elderly man told me he had just come down some sixty floors. His face and body were covered with white ash which contrasted with the black soot on the firemen on February 26, 1993 when the WTC was attacked. I was in the building when an explosion rocked the building. When someone screamed cyanide, and smoke began billowing from the ceiling, there was a mad dash to get out of the building. Unlike 9/11 only six people were killed then, when a truck bomb was detonated in the parking facility below the North Tower.
It was about a week later that I learned that one of my former students, Margaret Mattic, was among those killed in the towers. I was informed by the mother of one of my daughters who, like Margaret, was a theater major. I only vaguely recalled her since those days at Wayne State University in Detroit were so long ago. But I was reminded of her experiences at the school, particularly her performances under the tutelage of the late Earl D.A. Smith. “She was a tremendous actress and aspired to Broadway,” her classmate told me. All of this was new to me, and I had no idea she had come to New York to study and had secured a job in one of the towers. But let me share with you her obit I found online. “Dimples right and left, Margaret Mattic was the only one of the five Mattic girls of Detroit to have dimples. Right and left, the dimples set off the shy smile and the lilting, gentle voice that everyone remarked on. As a young girl, in elementary school productions, she played Snow White as well as Gretel in ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ “The love of performing stuck with Ms. Mattic, a surprise since she seemed so quiet. She studied theater at Wayne State University. After college, more productions followed, mostly in Community Theater, often in plays like “Sty of the Blind Pig,” the 1971 work by Phillip Hayes Dean about a Black family in Chicago. Eventually, Ms. Mattic wound up in Manhattan to pursue acting. She usually took temporary jobs, typically as a receptionist, so she could go to auditions. “Recently, she talked to friends about producing and starring in a one-woman play she had written, called ‘The Vision,’ about how the gift of prophecy changed several generations of a family. At 51, she also wanted the comfort of a permanent job, so she became a customer service representative for General Telecom in the World Trade Center. ‘Every employer she ever worked for always loved her voice,’ recalled her sister, Jean Neal, 56. ‘It was so soothing and gentle and soft.’”
And so Classroom has revolved full circle taking me back to another classroom and a treasured student.