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Brentwood teacher shares her story about working in NYC on 9/11

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Katy Phillips, a Brentwood High School math teacher, worked in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 and shares her story with Brentwood students each year.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Katy Phillips, a Brentwood High School math teacher, worked in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 and shares her story with Brentwood students each year. The students say their teachers story makes what happened that day real for them. See story, additional photo on Page 2.

It sounded like an arrow hitting a target. There was a swoosh, then a thump and the building started to shake.

Katy Phillips had just finished a meeting on her third day of work on the 40th floor of Two World Financial Center in New York City.

“I remember being like, this is really weird,” said Phillips, now a math teacher at Brentwood High School.

Security staffers at the Merrill Lynch offices where Phillips worked said there was a fire in a building nearby, she said.

Phillips stayed at her desk, with no idea what really was going on around her.

That day, Phillips, a newbie in New York City, was working just 200 yards away from the World Trade Center, where two planes hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists crashed into the north and south towers. Two other hijacked planes crashed that day, one into the Pentagon and the other in Shanksville, Pa. More than 3,000 people died.

“I'm lucky,” Phillips said. “All I did was go to work that day. I had a pretty average job and there I find myself in the middle of all of this madness. ... It definitely changes your perspective on things.”

Twelve years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Phillips continues to share her story with students about what she witnessed. For several years, she has discussed the events with sixth-grade social studies classes at Brentwood Middle School.

Phillips' story brings the attacks of 9/11 to life for students, said Principal David Radcliffe.

“You can read about it or hear about it, but they weren't around to see it happen. To them it's a historical event,” he said. “To see someone that teaches in our building that was there makes it real for them.”

Phillips, a 1997 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, received a bachelor's of administration degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001. After graduation, she obtained a job in New York City at Merrill Lynch, on a client associate wealth management team managing portfolios for families and nonprofits.

She moved to New York City on Sept. 1, 2001, and started her job on Sept. 6.

“I knew how to get from home to work and that was about it,” she said. “I was very new.”

That Sept. 11 started for her with a 7:30 a.m. team meeting. By 8:30 a.m., Phillips was answering calls at her desk, on the opposite side of the building from the World Trade Center.

The first plane that struck the World Trade Center caused the building Phillips was in to shake. Once people began to realize that a plane had crashed into a building, phones in the office began to ring with questions about the market, Phillips said.

“Building security came on and said, there's a fire in the other building. It's contained and to stay where we are,” Phillips said.

When the second plane hit, Phillips' building was evacuated. As employees were walking down the 40 flights of stairs, someone shouted that the Pentagon had been struck.

“When we got outside and looked up, it was crazy. The whole sky was full of paper and fire,” Phillips said. “It's so horrible to describe.”

Grown men were sobbing in the streets.

“When you work in the financial district, it's the whole Wall Street deal,” Phillips said. “It's the total package - men that are used to being in control of things, and they were just weeping.”

Some people were waiting outside for friends. Others were running. Chaplains were standing nearby praying.

Phillips waited with coworkers as her boss went back to look for a relative of another coworker in their building.

Then, the first tower imploded. Dust from the first building went the other direction, but when the second building started to fall the dust came in Phillips' direction.

“We had to start to run,” she said. “I just remember looking back and thinking, if it keeps coming this way, there's no way we're going to be able to outrun it and I don't know what's in it.”

The wind shifted and the dust settled in another direction.

Phillips spent the afternoon attempting to get to her apartment — even following the Merrill Lynch CEO at one point, knowing that wherever he went would be safe.

All day, she said, while she was scared, she knew she would be OK. But she was worried about her family.

“Compared to so many others that day, my day really was not that bad,” Phillips said.

The Merrill Lynch office was damaged and Phillips' office was moved to New Jersey for six months. When Phillips and other staffers returned to their office, it was eerie, she said. The notebook left on her desk, with her glasses nearby, still read “Sept. 11.”

After three years, Phillips left her job at Merrill Lynch and became a teacher for the New York City Teaching Fellow program, teaching seventh-grade math.

After one year, she returned to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University and earn a master's degree in secondary education. She student taught at Brentwood Middle School, and it was there that she met her now-husband, Casey Phillips, a middle school social studies teacher.

She began teaching full-time at Brentwood High School in 2008 and has told her story to students ever since. “It really, truly was a national tragedy,” Phillips said. “Lives were ruined in so many ways other than death.”

Students appreciate hearing Phillips' story.

“It's better than watching a video,” said Niya Prelick, 15, a sophomore. “In the video, you don't know the person. She's a teacher at Brentwood.”

Prelick said she remembers her father rushing into her daycare center crying, after left work early to get her.

“I knew something bad happened, but I didn't understand it until I was older,” Prelick said. “I think it made us realize that anything like that can happen at anytime, anywhere.”

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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