'Run! He Has a Gun!' Impact of Terror on Two Battery Park City Schools

Following the terror attack of Oct. 31, a P.S. 89 parent created a sign of appreciation and hung it on the fence outside the schoolyard. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Posted
Nov. 13, 2017

There are three schools at the corners of West and Chambers streets, where a terrorist’s deadly truck rampage on Oct. 31 ended in a collision with a school bus. It was around dismissal time and many of the students and staff at the schools—Stuyvesant High School, PS 89 and IS 289 which share the same building—were nearby as the terrorist ran wildly with two apparent guns, and was shot by police.

What did that mean for the children, their parents, principals and teachers? Following are accounts of that horrific day, from interviews with some of those at PS 89 and IS 289 who lived through it.

Steve Laduzinski’s plan, like so many of the other parents that afternoon, was to pick up his children—one at PS 89, the other at IS 289—and take them trick-or-treating. He had met his 4th grader and was walking with her and their dog, near the bike path, to the Chambers Street side of the building where the IS 289 students exit. Then he heard the scream. Someone had a gun. There was a rush toward the school. But Laduzinski still had to find his middle school daughter, so he continued on to Chambers Street.

“And then we saw, me and my younger daughter unfortunately, saw the guy running, disoriented a little bit because he was going in different directions, and then we heard gunshots.”

“He was shot very close to where I was standing on the bike path, 20 seconds earlier.”

Laduzinski’s 6th grader had already gone out onto Chambers Street and saw the aftermath of the crash of the bus and truck, before she and many other middle schoolers were ushered back into the building. The dad first went to the cafeteria where the PS 89 children had assembled, many of them crying, then to the gym, the gathering spot for the middle schoolers—including his daughter, now safe. The children, he recalled, were “somewhere in shock. One kid I saw was not moving. Covering his ears, sitting up on the bleachers. There was definitely a lot of fear there.”

“Run! He has a gun!” Carolyn Levinbook shouted.

Levinbook had been waiting for her 5th grader in the schoolyard when she witnessed the crash and, less than half a minute later, saw a man emerge with the two apparent guns, staggering close to the school fence.

“Here’s what makes it so hard,” Levinbook said. “If those guns were real, my son and I would be dead because we were right in front of him. I’ve never felt so much fear.”

Surveillance video inside the Icon parking garage office on Warren Street recorded Carolyn Levinbook and those with her as they took shelter after fleeing the PS 89 schoolyard. Video courtesy of Carolyn Levinbook

As teachers herded parents and children into the building, Levinbook chose to avoid the crush at the doors and instead run out the schoolyard gate and onto Warren Street, a second child and baby sitter also in tow. As they ran, they heard the shots. “We thought the gunshots were for us. I’m like, am I shot? Because you’re running and you have that out-of-body experience.” The two adults and two children bolted into the Icon parking garage across the street, and hid beneath a desk. The door closed behind them.

After about 15 minutes they ran home. What if there are explosives in that truck and it blows? she remembered thinking.

PS 89 Principal Ronnie Najjar was in her second-floor office when she heard screaming in the schoolyard. Halloween excitement, she first thought, until a teacher ran to her to say “something” was going on below. Running downstairs she passed parents and children crying hysterically. She first gave the directive for a lockdown, the protocol that school staff take when there could be a danger inside the building. That changed to a shelter in place, in which the doors are locked and no one, other than the principal and first responders, are allowed in and out of the building.

“I was the liaison between the first responders outside and the parents and kids inside,” Najjar said. “I communicated when I had some news or when I realized it had been a long time between communication. I would say, ‘They’re taking care of it outside.’ My main message was, we need to stay as calm as we can. I was really speaking to the parents because children mirror your feelings. So if you’re feeling worried and upset they’re going to feel worried and upset. And that wasn’t going to help.”

Najjar let parents know that all decisions were coming from the police. “It’s not my decision any more. It’s all about them.”

As the founding principal of PS 89, this is her 20th year with the school. She had led the horrifying evacuation of her school on 9/11. That morning, standing in the same schoolyard, she had watched American Airlines Flight 11 crash into the World Trade Center’s north tower. “What remains the same is that my job is to stay level-headed and calm. I knew it then, I really know it now.”

Chloe Ching had picked up her 2nd and 4th graders when she heard the crash and saw children “flying” inside the bus as it continued up the street for a short distance. Ching called the driver a hero. “He was focused on driving that bus,” she recalled. “We were all so glad that he was able to keep the bus on the road because all those middle school students had just come out on the Chambers Street side.”

Ching ran inside the school and up the stairs with her two children and a friend’s child who had been separated in the schoolyard from her parent.

“The kids were a bit frightened when we were going upstairs,” she said. They were asking, ‘Are we going to die?’”

Five of her students were still with her when third grade teacher Carmen Romero heard the crash and began walking to the other end of the schoolyard.

“Then that walking became running towards the door and we had some incredible teachers holding the doors as a few other teachers and adults are ushering everyone inside,” she recalled. Some kids were crouched beneath the benches that are lined along the schoolyard. At first, Romero said, the teachers weren’t sure whether to hit the ground or to go inside, “but it’s amazing how adults can communicate with one another without saying too many words and coordinate our actions.”

“We were terrified, but we also knew that we had to put on a face of composure and calmness as best as we could for our parents and our children,” she continued. “Children look at our faces and our expressions to know should I be scared or not.”

Frightened and crying, the children could see the massive convergence of emergency workers outside the school window as they proceeded into the first floor cafeteria. Teachers reassured them that everyone, inside and out, was doing all they could to keep them safe. “I think that many of them took comfort and they were able to calm themselves down. The adults in the room did an incredible job of ensuring that.”

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Because middle schoolers exit on the Chambers Street side of the building, many walked into the scene of terror, chaos and destruction. IS 289 Principal Zeynep Ozkan described it as a “pivotal moment of crisis when nothing was known.

In that moment my [Assistant Principal Andolyn Brown] was the only IS 289 person downstairs. She secured the safety of the children. The custodians secured the safety of the building [by locking the doors] and the only other person to assist Andi was the Manhattan Youth staff in the cafeteria.

Any middle schoolers who could be found outside were herded back into the building, where Brown first pushed them to an area of safety, away from windows. Then, as emergency protocol dictated, they assembled in the gym and split up in classes. The plan is to have two adults with each class, and some Manhattan Youth after-school staff paired off with some teachers, who went through their rosters to see who was missing. Dozens of children were not accounted for. “At that point we only knew that people were dead and we knew that it happened during my dismissal,” Ozkan said. “The chances of them being one of ours was totally reasonable.

In the meantime, IS 289 secretary Laura Caccavale, parent coordinator Sandy Leung and Shumekia Conley, a school mental health consultant from the citys Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who was working in the school that day, manned the phones in the office where panicked parent were calling.

“I felt like [Shumekia Conley] was my good luck charm,” said Caccavale, “because whenever we touched arms when contacting a parent after lockdown, to see if the student was home, the student was alway at home and safe.

A Department of Education telephone interpreter service as well as Cora Fung, in Councilwoman Margaret Chins office, communicated with the many Mandarin and Cantonese speaking parents who otherwise could not get word of their children in the blocked-off school.

The school psychologist for both schools, Dr. Soye Zaid-Muhammad, went between the cafeteria and the gym, doing emotional first aid. IS 289 guidance counselor Emily Kustal stayed in the gym, doing the same.

Teachers called the parents of the missing middle schoolers to make sure that their children were accounted for. It would be nearly three-and-a half hours before Caccavale got word that the last child was safe.

“Those hours of knowing that there were deaths and injuries and not knowing if any of them were ours, that was probably the worst of it for me,” Ozkan said.

As she dismissed her third grade class from the south end of the school yard, Sarah Cohen saw a fourth-grade parent herding people back inside. Someone was driving erratically, people were saying. Then came the crash. Cohen didn’t see it because she was rounding up children and getting them safely indoors. Just as she connected one of her worried students with her nanny, shots rang out. Avoiding the crush to get into the building she ran with children into the Warren Street service entrance of Liberty Green, a residential building at 300 North End Ave. While holed up in the building, a parent told her that a child was outside, alone. Cohen ran onto Warren Street to find the boy.

She found him in the buildings lobby and stayed with him for more than two hours while his mother was locked down in the school building with other siblings, at first not knowing his whereabouts. But Cohen managed to call a teacher and get word to the anguished mother. “I wanted her to know that he was ok,” she said, “and he was worried, so I wanted him to know that she was ok.”

Asked if she worried for her own safety as she looked for the child, Cohen said: “Because there were so many kids in the school, I think just automatically you’re thinking about them being ok, and not so much about yourself.”  

As it happens, Carolyn Levinbook, the mother who had hid with three others in the parking garage, saw the teacher on Warren Street as she looked for the child.

“Miss Sarah was running down the street alone,” she recalled. “I could cry thinking about it because she has a child of her own at home, and here she is on the street, looking for a child.”

“My teachers were amazing,” Najjar, the PS 89 principal, said. “I cannot stress that enough. I was not down there to give them any direction and they knew what to do. And this is what happens when you practice [emergency] protocols year after year.”

“We’ve practiced lockdowns,” said Carmen Romero, the 3rd grade teacher.  “These kids knew exactly what to do. That’s why that panic at first became fear but controlled fear, and it just kind of settled us down.”

There was praise all around, for the teachers, the custodians, and the Manhattan Youth staff, who were in charge of the after-school students. And Najjar called the NYPD “outstanding.“They were communicative with me and they were kind. I can’t say enough.

“You always want to believe in an emergency that everybody is going to do the right thing,” said Sarah Cohen, the 3rd grade teacher. “And to actually witness it happen is extremely comforting.”

The emotional “aftershocks,” as one teacher put it, were still to come. Teachers and parents have been on the alert for signs of distress in their children, with trauma experts from Caring Hand and the Child Mind Institute in the school to help with the psychic recovery for staff and parents and other caregivers as well as the kids.

Roe Wrubel doesn’t talk about the incident with her 2nd graders, but allows them to express their feelings as she looks for signs of the aftereffects of trauma. “We don’t know how it’s going to affect them,” said Wrubel, who had been at PS 89 on 9/11. “They now know terror and thats a really awful thing.”

Middle schoolers were later asked to write about what they experienced that afternoon, and from those narratives guidance counselors could identify which children had witnessed the events and who may be expressing fears or other types of distress.

“There’s so much work to be done,” said Ozkan, the IS 289 principal, who noted that she remained concerned about some 30 students, many of whom could have seen the attacker, the police officers draw their guns, the shooting. “We have to build systems and structures to ensure that no kid slips through the cracks.”

Most of the kids are doing well and ready to move on, Ozkan said. They’re resilient and there are plenty of people in the school to help make that happen. Still, she noted, “the children who are most impacted are going to be reliving and rethinking this for a while.”

So for now, she added, “there’s nothing more important in our school than that Tuesday.”