HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Anyone old enough to remember 9/11 can’t forget where they were. That includes Sheila Heapes, who retired from teaching in 2008, and Caitlin Hunt, who on Sept. 11, 2001, was in Heapes’s fifth-grade class at Holy Name of Jesus School — and is now a teacher in Philadelphia.
abc27 News interviewed Hunt and Heapes separately and compiled one timeline from their recollections: a student struggling to understand what was happening and a teacher trying to explain to the kids what was — for adults, too — inexplicable.
Caitlin Hunt: “We all kind of remember where we were.”
Sheila Heapes: “Yeah, you don’t forget this.”
C.H.: “I remember waking up, feeling super excited. It was my birthday. I was turning 11 that year.”
S.H.: “I remember Caitlin Hunt, who was just 11. And it was her birthday. And I always thought afterwards, ‘Oh I’m so sorry for Caitlin, having to have her birthday on such a sad day.'”
C.H.: “I believe I had gym.”
S.H. “I took my class to their special, which was gym…. So then I walked over to the office to get my mail, and I saw the secretaries all looking at the television.”
That’s when Heapes and her fellow fifth-grade teachers learned what was happening. Soon they returned to the gym and told the gym teacher — that’s how she learned.
S.H.: “We took the children, and we put them in one classroom.”
C.H.: “And I remember coming back to her class, and her TV was on.”
S.H.: “And we were all very emotional.”
C.H.: “She was, like, crying. So immediately we all walk in and are like: Okay, obviously something is wrong here.”
S.H.: “We tried to calm them. We tried to explain to them in terms that they could understand what had gone on: Bad people attacked us…. And a lot of them, obviously they didn’t understand what was going on. What a terrorist attack was all about.”
C.H.: “I very vividly remember being confused because she kept saying the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘hijack.'”
S.H.: “Of course we’re a Catholic school, so we were praying.”
C.H.: “I think they might have sent us home early that day.”
S.H.: “We may have even dismissed early that day.”
C.H.: “I remember normally, the bus ride home, everybody’s talking, having fun. But it was definitely silent, very sullen.”
On Caitlin’s birthday, because of something she still didn’t grasp. But that would change in the following weeks, as her parents took the family to visit the sites of the attacks — to Shanksville, near Hunt’s parents’ hometown of Johnstown (where her extended family still lives) and to Washington, where she saw the damaged Pentagon and a memorial for victims.
“Visiting it and seeing it made it a lot more real for me,” Hunt recalled.
More recently, Hunt has visited the permanent Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, which began opening in phases on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“And there were just different things there that almost made me physically ill,” Hunt said.
Now as an adult — and a teacher — she reflects not only on the hate that led to the attacks, but other hate that followed them too.
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“To be a Muslim in America in 2001, I can’t fathom the things they had to deal with and the things they went through following those attacks,” Hunt said.
“Christianity, Judaism, Islam. We all sort of believe the same stuff,” she said.