"Thank you, Ann, for taking me home."
On Sept. 11, 2001, Helaina Hovitz was a regular 12-year-old girl, starting her morning at middle school.
She was in Mr. H’s class, just three blocks away from the World Trade Center, when the first plane struck the North Tower.
The children were led down to the I.S. 89 cafeteria and listened to the frightening crackle of portable radios tuned to the news reports -- while teachers kept everyone inside, ushering them “away from the windows.”
Soon, the bomb squad arrived, scrambling to get the students and teachers to safety.
Packs of hysterical parents began filing in, but Helaina’s parents weren’t among them.
Her mother worked at Rockefeller Center. Her dad was a teacher on Staten Island. She didn’t know what was happening, but she knew her parents couldn’t be there right then.
“I wanted to go home,” Helaina said. And that’s when she noticed her neighbor, Ann.
“Take me with you, please,” she said to Ann. Ann agreed.
And so Helaina, Ann, and Ann’s son Charles, started the difficult journey back to their apartment building on the other side of lower Manhattan.
Outside, the acrid smoke pierced their nostrils and blurred their vision as the cascade of confetti-like paper from the towers landed on the ash-coated ground.
Helaina remembers the swarms of bloodied people -- screaming, running, scared.
“Cover your faces!” Ann shouted. “Don’t look back, and run!”
Helaina remembers the ankle-length khaki skirt she wore that day, and how it made the trek home that much more treacherous. She also remembers thinking, “If you don’t run, you’re going to die.”
When they finally made it to their building, on the cusp of the Financial District, the lobby was dark, desolate.
Helaina’s grandmother was huddled in the doorway of her apartment, door ajar, on the phone when she spotted Helaina and cried “She’s here, Paul! She’s here! Oh my God!”
Helaina remembers the tears and hearing her grandmother repeat to Ann: “If it wasn’t for you, she’d be dead.”
“That night,” Helaina wrote, “[I was] back with my family and we slept in total darkness, except for the glow from Ground Zero, still on fire.”
Read Helaina's letter to Ann, below:
Helaina just published a memoir this week, "After 9/11" which details the story of her experience on that day and in the aftermath as she struggled to cope while living in a war zone during what became the modern age of terror. Get it here.