Boonville High School history teacher Rhyder Timmins was only 7 years old when terrorists crashed commercial jets into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in central Pennsylvania on Sep. 11, 2001.
Even at seven, he remembers where he was when the towers fell, immediately killing over 2,600 people. He was sitting in his elementary school class as his teacher turned on the television to watch the news coverage. He was living on Ft. Drum at the time, an Army base in far upstate New York, about five hours north of Manhattan.
The students in Timmins’ freshman U.S. history class don’t remember. They wouldn’t be born for three or four more years, so the post-9/11 world is all they’ve ever known.
Most of his students know the general facts, Timmins said: there were four planes, al-Quaeda was behind the attack, and we’ve had soldiers in Afghanistan for longer than they’ve been alive because of it. What his students are missing are the personal connections that keep people old enough to remember from ever forgetting those who died that day, Timmins said.
“I think it’s become more of something to study versus a personal connection to the people who passed away and the effects it’s caused,” he said.
His class covers U.S. history from Reconstruction through the present day, and he typically goes over 9/11 three times during the year. When they’re covering Pearl Harbor, he does a comparative lesson where students look at speeches by the presidents at the time: George W. Bush and Franklin Roosevelt. When they get to the 2000s, he covers 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He saves the standard history lessons for those sections. On Wednesday, he wanted his students to try to feel what that day was like, and make some connection to the people who died.
Taking a day off from their unit on industrialization, Timmins gave his students a set of five photos to look at — an idea he says he got from another teacher at a conference. One photo was a list of 11 names etched into metal — the men of the New York City Fire Department’s Ladder 3, who died when the North Tower collapsed with them inside.
The other four were pictures of the Ladder 3 truck, which now sits in the 9/11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center. He started with a close-up of one if its rear wheels and moved out until the students could see how the front cab had been crushed and mangled when the tower collapsed on it. For each photo, Timmins asked his students to answer two questions: What do you see, and what do you wonder?
From the first few photos showing the rear of the truck, the students could tell they were looking at a fire truck that had been near the towers. They pointed out dust, dents, burn marks and doors blown off their hinges as Timmins moved through the photos. The last photo was far enough out to show the mangled steel that used to be the cab, drawing a collective “woah” from the class.
“Look at the difference between the front and back of this fire truck,” Timmins said. “When we were looking at the back, we were talking about how doors are missing, there’s a dent — then, literally 30 feet away, you have the complete shredding of this fire truck.”
Timmins asked the students to imagine they were standing near the back of the truck when it happened: what would they see, hear and feel, knowing people just a few feet away had been crushed?
It would be hard to see at all with all the dust and debris, one student said. They would smell burning and hear sirens and screaming, or they might not hear anything if their ears are ringing, others chimed in. They would feel overwhelmed, scared, confused — wondering what was going on, where other people were, and how to get away, they said.
Timmins then told the students what happened to Ladder 3. They were changing shifts when the first plane struck. The men from the night shift stayed. They went to the World Trade Center with the new shift and their Captain Patrick John Brown. They all went into the burning North Tower. Just over an hour later, the tower collapsed with all 11 men still inside.
Timmins had his students research the 11 men: Brown, Kevin W. Donnelly, John Kevin McAvoy, Joseph E. Maloney, James Raymond Coyle, Timothy Patrick McSweeney, Gerard P. Dewan, Joseph J. Ogren, Steven John Olson, Michael T. Carroll and Jeffery John Giordano.
He wanted them to find personal stories about the men so the students could see them as real people: Brown had served two tours in Vietnam, a second-degree black belt who taught Tae-Kwon Do to children and was training for his seventh marathon. Giordano had run 14 marathons. Coyle wanted to be Luke Skywalker and settled on firefighting as the next best thing. Timmins favorite story is that Carroll used to snap off the handles of coffee mugs at the fire station for fun, which Timmins considers a humanizing story.
“That’s a real person thing to do that,” Timmins said. “They’re having fun at work when work gets boring. That makes that connection to the reality of the situation and the effect it has on individuals.”