East Orange honors, remembers 9/11 with memorial & student projects

By Joe Refinski, East Orange STEM Academy History teacher

Six years ago, as a project for my students after taking the AP exam, I realized that East Orange did not have a monument to 9/11. Additionally, I had just read an account of how then-Gov. Christie had given several of the Ground Zero artifacts away to friends. So I contacted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey inquiring as to the method to acquire these pieces; my idea was to have the students design a monument to the First Responders of Essex County, research the scientific explanation of the building collapse, create a website to highlight all of the research, dedicate the monument to the Essex County First Responders, whether they actually went in to NYC or were on call, and any who might have perished doing that. 

After several confusing emails, Pat Foye himself called me and asked if I still wanted the pieces and I, of course, said absolutely. He put me in touch with the curator (who has since moved on), and she selected a section of aluminum cladding. There was paper work to complete, most notably the requirement that I have a $1 million insurance policy to cover any injuries that might be had while loading the pieces to be transported out of the old Pan Am Hanger at Kennedy airport. 

Since that was not a possibility, I hand-loaded, with the help of the curator, the pieces into my van and drove it to school.  I have been using it to instruct students about the events of 9/11 ever since, but never got the chance with that original group of students to assemble the memorial as we envisioned it.

Over the last six years, the research the students did has been collected in computer folders that needed to be recovered. Realizing that this year was the 20th anniversary, I contacted three students from that class about the sculpture to help with the assembly, research, and if possible, identifying the names of anyone who might have died.

Finding an adequate place to store the pieces proved difficult, so I yearly transported the pieces from my home to school and back again. I finally got the sculpture plan from a former student of the class and over Labor Day Weekend, assembled it.

Together with the other loose pieces, my plan is to have a design competition for the base of the monument which will be built at the front of the building. This will serve as STEM’s and East Orange’s 9/11 Memorial. At the time I acquired the pieces, I researched how many high schools throughout the nation had 9/11 memorials and there were quite a few. However, when I researched if any had actual pieces from the Twin Towers, there were only two, both in Florida. East Orange STEM Academy would be only one of three high schools in the nation, and the only school in New Jersey, to have a 9/11 memorial with actual materials from the towers. Students and staff are justifiably proud of this memorial. When my colleague in the history department, Theresa Maughan, was named the NJ Teacher of the Year, she and Kimberly Scott-Hayden, an inventory control clerk in East Orange, and the NJEA ESP of the Year and the National ESP of the Year, insisted on being photographed with the memorial.  

Kimberly Scott-Hayden, National ESP of the Year and East Orange inventory control clerk, with NJSTOY Maughan by the 9/11 memorial at the STEM Academy.

First-person account

I was teaching at Costley Middle School here in East Orange on Sept. 11, 2001. I was told by a colleague that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Towers. I presumed it was a small plane-single engine Cessna. Years ago, I recall seeing a photo in the New York Daily News of a similar plane that had hit one of the buildings. The wind drafts between the towers was always problematic to small planes. My colleague remarked that it was an airliner. I believe I then went to the second building in the complex (the Hart Complex had three middle schools) with the TV studio and saw the second plane hit. I was stunned. But what really touched me was watching the building collapse – something I never thought would occur, let alone watch happen. 

When I left to go home, I could see the smoke from the buildings for most of the ride, and I saw it every morning on my way to school, until the Ground Zero heat/fire was put out. 

About a week or so later, I went into NYC to photograph as much as I could. I had been a freelancer years before, so I got my freelance press card, my Kodak ProPassport Network card, and my passport and got to within two blocks of Ground Zero when an armed Army officer stopped me and instructed me to leave a crime scene. I use these photos in my lessons with students to this day.

I have also brought classes to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum as well as done workshops there. I was part of a post-doctoral study on how to use museum spaces, namely the 9/11 Museum.