BAY RIDGE — Over the past nine months, the third floor of the William McKinley middle school in Bay Ridge has been transformed into an elaborate mural memorializing the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
A collage of portraits and scenes, hand-painted poetry and 9/11 artifacts, the mural, was created by McKinley students and alumni.
"It's really a reflection of what happened," said NYPD Capt. Charles Girven who saw the mural for the first time on Wednesay. "This is a big part of our country's history." Girven noticed the name of a fallen friend, a victim of the 9/11 attacks, incorporated in the painting.
Girven was there to attend a ceremony at McKinley on Wednesday morning that marked the unveiling of the memorial project. Guests included officials from the FDNY, NYPD and U.S. armed forces, as well as students, parents and school officials. The audience, seated under a white tent in the school courtyard, was flanked by students holding American flags.
McKinley's principal, Janice Geary, welcomed the crowd and explained the inspiration for the mural project.
"It is up to us as educators to keep the memory of that frightful day alive,” said McKinley.
A series of speakers and performances followed, including addresses by NYPD Assistant Chief Thomas Chan, Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano and councilman Vincent Gentile, an alum of McKinley. Toward the end of the hour-long presentation, singer Michelle Cleary and retired FDNY firefighter Dave Rath performed an emotional rendition of "Not Forgotten," a song that they co-wrote to memorialize 9/11.
Following the ceremony, audience members were invited to tour the mural. McKinley students, identified by blue and gold sashes worn across their chests, acted as guides for police officers, firefighters and other guests.
The mural spans 270 feet of hallway on the third floor of the school. It incorporates elaborate, hand-painted scenes and portraits, poems written by students about the attacks and artifacts from the World Trade Center — such as pieces of steel and an American flag. One section of the mural bears the name of each victim of the attacks, more than 3,000 in total, carefully hand-painted in gold.
The inspiration for the mural came after some teachers at the school overheard a student saying that the Sept. 11 attacks were an accident, said Tom Buxton, one of two teachers who spearheaded the mural project. They realized, Buxton said, that the students, who were just toddlers at the time of the attacks, needed a better education about what happened that day.
Buxton and visual arts teacher Roma Karas reached out to the Tribute WTC 9/11 organization for help. The organization arranged a series of visitors to the school — including 9/11 first responders and family members of victims — which inspired students to create the writing and artwork now displayed on McKinley’s walls. “They made everything so vivid,” said Buxton of the visitors.
President of the Tribute Center, Lee Ielpi, also spoke at the ceremony. He briefly choked up while acknowledging his son, an FDNY firefighter who was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Ielpi was pleased to be part of the mural project and expressed his pride in the students' work.
“It reflects what our young people are capable of doing,” said Ielpi. “Through remembering we can make tomorrow better.”
Students began painting on Sept. 12 of last year and worked up until Tuesday to complete the elaborate display. Many of the middle schoolers regularly arrived as early as 7 a.m. to work on the memorial. Lunch breaks, weekends and after school hours were also dedicated to painting and writing.
“Before, I didn’t know that much about 9/11,” said eighth-grader Maham Mabbas. “I feel very excited and amazed by what we created and are passing down.”
Mabbas was one of the student volunteers who led their honored guests from the FDNY and NYPD through the hallway after the ceremony.
“It’s great that this generation, they’re aware of what happened,” said FDNY Chief Michael Marrone. “They’ll pass that on because it is not something that any of us should forget.”