There was a “calmness” on Sept. 11, 2001, the retired Columbia High School teacher, Carol Petrallia, recalled late last month sitting in the high school courtyard.
It was an ordinary day in weather, activity and sound, she remembers, as the South Orange-Maplewood district was in full swing, opening its doors a couple days before.
Petrallia said she concluded a Student Council meeting that morning, and noticed that the day’s routine began to shift. Something had happened: planes crashed? A fire in The City? Details were hazy and uncertain.
Later, it would turn out that planes had crashed into both World Trade Center towers — later collapsing and killing more than 2,500 people — and into the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa.
Then, Petrallia bumped into her friend and an instructional aide at CHS, Stephanie Rose, in the ladies restroom a little after home room began.
Emotionless, Rose gazed outside, through a window and muttered to Petrallia, “My sister is in the South Tower and my husband is in the North Tower.”
“Being with her at that moment that she didn’t know if her sister or husband had died, that was very, very disturbing,” Petrallia noted, taking a moment to recollect her thoughts. “There was nothing I could do for her.”
But, Petrallia did what she knew was best and took Rose to the guidance office at the high school, where counselors were prepared to help students and staff who may have been impacted by the terrorist attacks that day.
It wouldn’t take long for Petrallia to feel the need to help out again — this time assisting students and staff of CHS and community members with a memorial project.
Dedicated in 2007, a stone monument inscribed with the four CHS alumni — Christopher Colasanti, Howard Kestenbaum, Donald Peterson and Donald Robertson — who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks stands in the renovated courtyard, which is currently being cleaned up and rejuvenated for the 10-year anniversary on Sept. 11.
“This is here as a memory and their lives are honored,” said Petrallia, sitting on a bench across from the monument.
As of last week, school officials had not released details on how the district plans on commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
According to the district office, each of the principals in their respective school will decide how their staff will incorporate the lessons of 9/11 into the curriculum or throughout the school day.
Starting in 2002, Petrallia said students, staff and community members contributed financially or physically to the 9/11 memorial project, which included the restoration of the courtyard and installation of a bronze plaque and monument.
She said she especially credits the Student Council and its Sept. 11 Memorial Committee and the Achieve Foundation, known as the South Orange-Maplewood Education Foundation at the time, for making the project come to fruition.
Petrallia, along with teacher Hannah Edelman, was an adviser to the Student Council during the planning of the memorial project.
In addition, members of the Student Council also organized two display cases in the first-floor hallway, near a courtyard entrance, to honor CHS alumni, community members and friends and family members of the local community who have died in the 9/11 attacks.
The tall, dark-wooden cases feature yearbooks, newspaper articles, photographs, poetry and more. Having the memorial in the CHS courtyard brings people back home, Petrallia said.
“Don Robertson’s mother was grateful that the monument was here,” she noted. “Peterson’s daughter was also grateful, she said her father loved Columbia.”
During the dedication ceremony of the memorial project, Petrallia said not all the families were comfortable in attending because “it was very, very hard.”
However, Petrallia said some family members have visited the memorial site independently, which is one of the reasons why it is important to have a place where people can remember 9/11.
“I think it is important to highlight an event and explain it with relevance,” Petrallia said, with a slight smile. “It is important for us to honor our grads.”