9/11 still vivid for New Yorker Ribeiro

By Meghan Montemurro

Seven years ago, 12-year-old Daniel Ribeiro sat in a classroom as a seventh-grader at Cavallini Middle School in Upper Saddle River, N.J., about a 15-minute drive from Manhattan.

It was a typical Tuesday, that tragic Sept. 11, 2001, though that is often said of generation-changing events.

The Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., native first sensed something was happening when all the teachers left the classrooms.

“We were like, ‘What’s going on?'” the current Illini gymnast said. “We had no idea what was going on.”

As the teachers convened outside, the middle school students looked on in confusion. Soon after, Ribeiro and his fellow classmates were given an early recess, at which point the now-Illinois sophomore saw smoke in the sky.

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“We could see the smoke. We didn’t know what was going on. We had no idea,” Ribeiro said.

As the school day progressed, kids were pulled from school, though Ribeiro was not.

“There were 500 people in my school, about, and I think there were only around 100 at the end of the day,” said Ribeiro. “In my last class there were only, I think, three kids and we were just looking out the window watching the other kids leave one by one.”

Still out of the loop on the day’s events, Ribeiro was greeted by his then eight-year-old sister, Alexandra, as she ran up to him and told him the devastating news; the World Trade Center fell, which his father, John, confirmed as he got into the car.

Ribeiro couldn’t believe it.

After arriving home, Ribeiro watched the television coverage of the attacks and came to realize the smoke he saw during recess came from the World Trade Center.

The attacks on the Twin Towers hit close to home and not just in proximity. The father of Ribeiro’s best friend, Bryan Teaton, was a police officer in New York. Officer Mike Teaton had a meeting on floor 107 in the North Tower. Running late, Teaton grabbed a quick breakfast with fellow police officer Moira Smith. Approximately two minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. Thinking it was a bomb, Teaton went down to check the basement and subway to gather and assist people while Smith headed up into the World Trade Center. When the building collapsed at 10:28 a.m., Teaton was in the subway system, which ultimately saved his life, and escaped by walking through to the next street stop.

Unfortunately, Smith did not survive the tower’s fall. She was the only female police officer to die on Sept. 11.

“Although it was great that he survived and helped save people’s lives, for the next two weeks he was devastated, digging through the remains looking for her,” Ribeiro said of Teaton.

“You realize how easy it is to lose somebody, how something like this – just like that,” Ribeiro said with a snap of his fingers. “One of my friends, boom, lost his father. Anybody can be gone at any moment.”

The day’s devastating events impacted Ribeiro’s personal relationships as well as his gymnastics life.

The final words spoken by Flight 93 passenger Jeremy Glick reverberated across the country on that fateful day: “We’re going to rush the hijackers.”

Glick’s daughter Emerson was only three months old when the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed just outside Shanksville, Pa., en route to Washington, D.C. Glick’s nephew, who was only six or seven at the time, was “extremely upset” when he arrived at U.S. Gymnastics Development Center II, which is both owned and run by Ribeiro’s parents, John and Michelle. Emerson is now a gymnast training at the center in New Jersey.

For an event which many people can pinpoint when and where they first heard of the attacks, things were put in perspective for Ribeiro, even at a relatively young age.

“Because I was so young, it took me a while to understand it, but just being that I was so close and so many stories, friends losing people, friends just going to the city begging people if they’ve seen their dad or their brother, in the sense it hit a little harder, hit at home,” Ribeiro said.

When asked if it seemed like the attacks and fall of the World Trade Center had happened seven years ago, Ribeiro replied, “Not at all. I feel like it was two, three years ago.

“It’s still something that I feel like nobody should ever forget and everyone should look at it as a day to really look at your friends and family and can’t take them for granted, because this can happen at any time.”

Sept. 11, 2001 brought the nation and American families together. It was no different for Ribeiro, who bonded with Illinois freshman Austin Phillips. Phillips is from Mahwah, N.J., and worked out at the Ribeiro family’s gym as well.

“This was a time we needed to come together, to work together because there were people that were hurting, families that were devastated and everyone needed to help those people.”

Ribeiro said he grew up a lot that year and realized what was most important to him.

“That was a time period that, for me, I really found my close friends and who I cared about and who I needed to spend time with,” Ribeiro said. “You can’t take it for granted. Spending time with your friends and your family is that much more important.”

Daniel Johnson contributed to this report