Lila Nordstrom, only 17 at the time, was a victim of the horrible events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001--going out and coming back in again.
Going out started in a classroom on the top floor of Stuyvesant High School--the 10th floor, a mere four blocks from the first of the World Trade Center towers struck by terrorists. Nordstrom was in a double-class, and as panic spread throughout the school, her teacher stoically droned on from one period into the next as if the raging fire next door was a minor accident.
This was particularly terrifying to Nordstrom. She was already panicky by nature, spurred by a serious asthmatic condition she'd had since birth.
After repeated attempts to get her teacher's attention, Nordstrom was allowed to go to the nurse's office.
"The nurse's office was on the other (and less dangerous) side of the building and on a much lower level," says Nordstrom. "So I was hoping it would be a good exit strategy. My flight instinct was in full force at that time. I was never one to sit around and think, 'I'll just wait until somebody tells me it's safe to go.' I was ready to go."
Nordstrom was one of the first students out of the school. "As soon as I got outside, the second tower collapsed," she recalls. "So I started running. I ran out of breath relatively quickly because of my asthma. I was looking for somebody familiar. I found one of the school's gym teachers. She said if we needed to, she could swim me across the Hudson River."
But they didn't need to. "On that day," she recollects, "I pretty much managed to stay one step ahead of the dust clouds because I was very conscious of that. The wind was blowing downtown, so I kept walking uptown."
Deeply frightened about what might be happening elsewhere on Manhattan (Nordstrom and fellow students heard reports that the Empire State Building might be under attack), she walked right past the home of her parents on 25th Street, continuing uptown.
"We started to accumulate groups of Stuyvesant people because I was with the teacher," she says. "We had 15 or so people with us by the time we reached the 59th Street Bridge."
From that point, Nordstrom walked across the bridge with a friend into the seemingly safer environs of Astoria in the borough of Queens. She returned home the next day.
But Nordstrom's troubles were not over. Far from it, in fact.
BACK INTO HARM'S WAY
To the growing dismay of Stuyvesant students and their parents, the 3,000 or so students from this famous institution were sent back into the school by the New York Board of Education four months ahead of any other students in Lower Manhattan, just one month after the Sept. 11 attack--and this in the face of the debris pickup point for barges being located literally across the road from Stuyvesant.
"When we first went back, there was a lot of controversy over how well the school needed to be cleaned, and it turned out it hadn't been cleaned very well at all. And on top of that, all of the fires were still burning at the World Trade Center site and all of the debris was being taken to this barge, which was right next to Stuyvesant," says Nordstrom.
"All of the debris trucks drove by Stuyvesant all day and all night," adds Nordstrom. "Stuyvesant is on landfill so it kind of juts out into the river, and where they parked those barges was only a walkway from Stuyvesant."
So Nordstrom's asthma, which had been in remission, started to get worse again after Sept. 11. "Finally, it had been controlled before Sept. 11, but then it began to become a problem again. We went to my doctor who was a pediatric pulmonologist at Mt. Sinai. He lived in Battery Park City (in Lower Manhattan). He said, 'I don't know what to tell you. You shouldn't be down there. It's not safe for you to be down there, but you have to finish high school.' "
Rather, he knew, Lila had to finish high school at Stuyvesant.
"We put so much effort into getting into Stuyvesant, all of us," she says. "By the time you're a senior there, leaving is not even an option."
Nordstrom says people often ask her why she didn't just leave, beyond her great attachment to Stuyvesant.
"I think part of it is we didn't know what the risk was," she says. "We knew it was risky. But we were being told it wasn't. Essentially, we were told to go back for what I think were political reasons. At the time there was such a need for Lower Manhattan to be revitalized and the city was so stressed about how it was going to deal with the fallout from it, that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) said it was safe to go back and the city kind of used that statement as a way of sending a lot of people into Lower Manhattan that really shouldn't have been there."
At the time, Nordstrom recalls with a trace of bitterness, "We were being told, 'Absolutely, it's safe, don't worry about it, everything's fine, we've spent a whole million dollars cleaning the school,' which now, when I think about it, that seems like nothing after a major environmental disaster like that.
"But it was being quoted to us left and right that they'd spent a million dollars cleaning up the school, and how could they go wrong cleaning the school like that," she says.
Once back inside, conditions were grim.
"There were students wearing dust masks to school every day," Nordstrom recalls. "They were saying, 'Don't drink the water out of the water fountain. We're not sure if it's not contaminated.' Or, 'You can't go outside for lunch because it's not safe to breathe the air outside.' "
There were air monitors in the hallways, "little men in biohazard suits coming around testing the air," and National Guardsmen and police outside wearing dust and gas masks.
"In retrospect," Nordstrom concludes, "it's kind of easy to say, 'Well, you know, I could have left.' But it wasn't as clear-cut at the time and it took months for the truth to come out, and by the time the truth came out, the damage had already been done."
A desire on Nordstrom's part to stand up to this political charlatanism by the city and other government agencies directly intersected with a personal post-Sept. 11 need of hers: She needed health insurance coverage in spite of her asthmatic condition.
"I realized that if I didn't get insurance, within a certain period of time, Sept. 11-related illnesses were potentially going to become a pre-existing condition that no one was going to treat," she observes. "And considering respiratory problems are my only health problem, having that be a pre-existing condition makes health insurance not even worth it, because I'm paying for my only health problem."
She adds: "It occurred to me I was going to have to really monitor my health, because there were real implications being associated with Sept. 11 and a lot of them were respiratory conditions, and considering that I was already sensitive to my respiratory, bronchial condition, the fact that that was going to have to become even more of a concern than it already was was almost mind-boggling."
So Nordstrom hit upon a plan. In early 2006, she decided to write a letter to all her elected officials in the New York area decrying the fact that Stuyvesant students involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, area disaster were receiving no financial assistance from any government agency.
She planned to send the letter solo. But then a friend of hers--usually much more conservative than she--said she could use his name, and soon what started as a letter became a petition, with 150 names in all.
"I said Stuyvesant students deserved health insurance because we were minors when we were back at Stuyvesant, so we didn't have any say in how we were treated. We were literally like pawns in the situation."
Did she see any results?
The mail didn't work. "I also e-mailed to as many offices as I could," she says. "And then I would use this to call the offices and see what they were doing about it. I would say, 'Here's a demographic you didn't know was being affected by this.' "
But it was not until a brassy move on Nordstrom's part, at an anti-war rally in May of that year, that she was provided with her big break. She was with her mother at the rally when she decided to go right up to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and tell him she'd sent the letter to his office.
"He was like, 'Come meet with me next week,' and that's how things began happening, how I began to meet Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Congressman Jerry Nadler."
That led to Nordstrom as the leader and chief spokesperson for a loose-knit group of former Stuyvesant students who are available for lobbying purposes and appearances at press conferences and other public events. In March, for example, Nordstrom brought people from the group with her to lobby Congress for health insurance benefits for students--something they would like to make a national cause.
But, as of late April, like so much else associated with post-Sept. 11 compensation for victims, Nordstrom's cause had gone nowhere. "No money has been set aside for students or residents," she says.
As for Nordstrom herself, life after Stuyvesant led directly to college at Vassar. Graduating from Vassar as a political science major, writerly instincts took over, and she will soon be headed for Los Angeles with her sights set on making it as a screenwriter.
Even though Nordstrom will be based in Los Angeles, she plans to stay involved with the Stuyvesant student lobbying group. "I'll continue to be the point person, and I can always come back," she says.
As for health insurance coverage, there's good news and bad news. The good news, she says, is that "my asthma has finally gotten back under control. But I'm in a difficult position. To keep it under control, I have to take medication daily and I don't have prescription drug insurance anymore. I can't afford to have a lapse in coverage because then I'll never be covered for asthma again."
Needless to say, Nordstrom has lived a world of experience post-Sept. 11. Lessons learned? The one that comes most readily to mind: "I don't think it occurred to me at the time that the situation at Stuyvesant was going to be as political a statement as it ended up in my opinion," she says.
"I didn't ever expect my own government would send a bunch of schoolchildren into an environmental disaster area to make a political point, and I really believe that's what happened."
However, she adds, her experience since Sept. 11 has also taught her that politicians, if still unable to find ways to insure students in similar circumstances, are at least willing to listen.
STEVE YAHN lives in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
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October 1, 2007
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