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Chicago schools chief watched 9/11 chaos from Brooklyn rooftop

Twenty-four “areoffices” have been consolidated in18 offices under CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Twenty-four “area offices” have been consolidated into 18 offices under CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:47AM

Today, Jean-Claude Brizard is CEO of Chicago Public Schools. But on Sep. 11, 2001, he was principal of George Westinghouse High School, located 2.5 miles from and across the Brooklyn Bridge from the World Trade Center.

That morning, concerned about reports that a plane had hit the WTC, Brizard headed to the rooftop of a building adjacant to his Brooklyn school with a teacher who lived there.

Also a licensed pilot, Brizard said he realized it was “kind of weird a plane would hit a building on a clear, crisp day that didn’t seem to be on the pattern for LaGuardia [Airport]. But, you know, accidents happen.”

From his rooftop perch, Brizard suddenly saw a second plane “on a slight angle” ram into the second World Trade tower.

“That’s when all of us knew something was afoot,” Brizard said. “This was no accident.”

Within minutes, blue-shirted federal agents with rifles “were everywhere,” covering the street outside Westinghouse, which was wedged between New York City’s 911 communications center and the city’s Fire Department headquarters.

Sirens whined “out of every place possible.” Sharp shooters appeared on nearby rooftops.

“There was a sense — not of panic, but of surrealness, to the whole thing,” Brizard recalled.

Brizard and staff soon fanned out, classroom by classroom, telling students what had happened, cautioning them to stay calm, assuring them their parents were being called.

They were greeted with “silence and shock,” Brizard said. “Kids were terrified, so whatever we told them to do, they did. No one misbehaved — and this was a school that was, like, 70 percent boys. I have to tell you, the biggest, recaltricant, hardcore kid became a child that day.”

Brizard’s secretary hysterically battled inoperable phone lines, trying to find her sister, who worked at the World Trade Center. She finally did. The sister walked into Westinghouse “covered in white dust,” Brizard said.

“And when she walked in, she said she needed a drink. We actually went out and got whiskey for her to drink. She was completely frazzled and shaking.”

By three o’clock, with all subways shut down, “We stood in the parking lot, watching thousands upon thousands of people covered in white dust, walking both [the Brooklyn and Manhattan] bridges, making their way home, almost in complete silence,” Brizard said. “That was probably the most surreal moment of the day.”

By 7 or 8 pm, the whiskey bottle again made an appearance.

“When we got the last kid home, we sat down,” Brizard said.

“We got food and yes, we got even whiskey, and we just sat there. Some people cried.

“We sat and stared at each other because we knew the whole world had changed. And New York had changed.”

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