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Life Lessons From Ground Zero

9/11: Teens hear about World Trade Center tragedy from firefighter who helped that day.


The teenagers listened intently as New York firefighter/paramedic Steve Ceraulo described wading through 8 inches of debris from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 last year, while ash rained down "like gray snow."

They heard him tell of setting up a triage center near ground zero to treat the hundreds of injured who were expected to stumble out of the rubble.

And they heard his voice catch when he spoke of the heartbreak of having only one person come out alive.

When Ceraulo finished relating his account of the terrorist attacks to students at Adolfo Camarillo High School, the nearly 800 students gave him a standing ovation.

Ceraulo was in Southern California this week to speak at two community forums and to students from a dozen area schools. The event was organized by Cops N Jocks, a community policing program that aims to improve relations between police officers and high school students.

Several local teens worked with Cops N Jocks to bring Ceraulo to Ventura County, with the goal of helping fellow students get a better understanding of the Sept. 11 events.

"We've done a lot of Sept. 11 stuff--we've watched it on [television], read the articles," said Jonathan Reed, a senior at Santa Clara High School in Oxnard. "But it's completely different to have someone here who has trod the streets and walked through the dust from the World Trade Center."

Though he was running late Thursday morning, Ceraulo was loath to leave Camarillo High for his next appearance without answering questions from the handful of students who lingered after the assembly.

Among them was Geoffrey Feinberg, a seventh-grader at Colina Middle School in Thousand Oaks, who watched wide-eyed as Ceraulo explained the pins and insignias on his uniform and answered questions about how the attacks had affected him.

"It was great to talk with someone who had a firsthand look. Now I know what really happened," said Geoffrey, who attended the speech with his leadership class. "It moved me a lot."

Ceraulo was on his way to a meeting near ground zero when one of the towers collapsed. He told students about running up West Broadway and diving behind a car to escape the cloud of debris, of not being able to breathe, of the light disappearing as the cloud overtook him and of the sounds of people screaming. He said he feared he was dying and regretted that he had not told his wife he loved her the last time they spoke.

Those details struck a chord.

"Hearing him talk made me realize how it affected so many people's lives," said Santa Clara High student Yolie Vasquez, 15. "And it makes me think about my life today, and that I need to ... appreciate everything I have."

Some students were stunned to hear Ceraulo tell of the extent of the devastation. He reminded them of the size of the World Trade Center complex and the sheer amount of steel used in the towers' construction. Then he told them about sifting through mountains of debris.

"There was nothing bigger than the palm of my hand," he said.

During his many stops, Ceraulo collected tokens of gratitude. At Camarillo High, he was given a cap bearing the school's insignia, as well as an embroidered jacket from the city's disaster response team. At Santa Clara High, he was greeted with posters heralding his arrival and presented with a collage made by the students.

"I walk in and it's like I'm a rock star," he said. "It's absolutely unreal, and very humbling. I'm getting all this applause and attention for basically doing my job."

Ceraulo said speaking with students has been cathartic, and he hopes the teens come away with a better sense of unity and tolerance and the realization that everyone can make a difference.

School administrators agreed.

"Sometimes teenagers don't make the best choices," said Carmen Lusk, an assistant principal at Santa Clara High. "They don't think anything bad is going to happen to them. I hope this will make them cherish each day."

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