The children who attend the Children's Discovery Center at 5 World Trade Center — not 100 yards from the twin towers — spend their days surrounded by blocks and books and finger paint, playing and learning. But on Sept. 11, their innocent world came crashing down.
"Our day care is glass from ceiling to floor, and I remember looking outside," says Karen Caycedo, one of the teachers at the center. "All I see is just debris and just the earth, and it felt like we were about to be swallowed."
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."
'We Just Ran'
The official evacuation plan would have taken them northwest to 7 World Trade Center, toward the danger. That building collapsed later that day.
Instead, they moved on instinct, first eastward and then northward, traveling close to 3 miles with 10 of the children. "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.
"All I was thinking [was], 'We'll take them [the children] in,'" says Caycedo. "That's it, whether we could or not. That's it. Those were our babies. There's no way. They would never ever become orphans."
Parents Face Nightmare of Finding Children
And the other parents, who worked miles away far from harm, were forced into a nightmare of their own. There was no way to know if their children were safe.
Art Chang, whose 18-month-old son Ben was at the day-care center, hopped on the subway to race downtown from his midtown Manhattan office, but his train got stuck in a tunnel for 90 minutes. "The train ground to a halt and it sat there and it sat there and it sat there," he recalls. "And I could do nothing."
Phil Seares, father of 13-month-old Jacob, works on Wall Street and ran nearly a mile to the World Trade Center. "Right when I got to the front, that's when I heard like a rumbling and then you just see that great big black cloud of smoke coming," says Seares. "People were yelling at me, saying, 'Don't go that way, don't go that way!'"
Back at the Head Start school, the teachers put the word out to relatives, to the police, even the media, that the children were there and safe. By 3 p.m., all 10 children were reunited with their parents.
"We sort of burst in here and I think without exception every child was asleep under a fluffy blanket on a little cot in this room and they looked so peaceful, like nothing terrible had happened to them," says Chang's wife, Allison Thrush. "It was the most wonderful moment. It just felt like a miracle."
Not one child was lost; not one parent was lost. Not one child was orphaned, which makes this one story with a very happy ending.
"It was the worst day of my life and in strange way it was the best day," says Thrush. "I believe that in every life there is one gift, and that was my gift and the teachers gave it to me."
To the teachers, she says, "Thank you."