7, 2002—Ground Zero Plus
Barracuda Saves 9.11 "Unsung Hero"
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News
GROUND ZERO, New York City, July 7--Destiny works in mysterious
ways. Sometimes it involves a barracuda that saves a man’s life so he
can help save others lives in the future.
That’s the story of an unsung hero-survivor
of Nine Eleven. He owes his life to a female barracuda.
Stu Lipsky, 48, is a science teacher at Seward Park High School,
in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was at Ground Zero when the
third building collapsed, and used his former ambulance attendant training
to try and help the wounded. He was caught in a blizzard of
ash. Everyone was dead, but for a few cops and stragglers.
Lipsky elected to fight his way through the fog back to his high
school to insure his kids found their way home safely, and to comfort any
who any who needed his calming presence.
Lipsky, one of the many "unsung
heroes" of 9.11, told me the story as we talked in a
Laundromat on 2nd Avenue in the East Village yesterday.
We both had the laundry duty for the day. We met at the coffee shop
next to the Laundromat. I was pounding my computer and he was reading a
magazine. One thing led to another, and we struck up a conversation.
He’s one of those guys who’s not afraid to talk. Neither am I.
We made an interesting combination.
Before becoming a teacher in
one of the most challenging schools in America, Lipsky spent a dozen years spent as a financial planner on Wall Street. “I grew
tired of that business. It was dog-eat-dog. And still is,” he
“I understand,” I said, having been ensnarled in the
“show-me-the-money-game” for far too many years myself. My instincts
told me there was a story hidden somewhere, as there usually is in anyone
at any time. I began to pry. Lipsky opened easily.
Six years ago he decided to change his lifestyle and got his
Masters degree in environmental sciences. Next, he applied for a
substitute teacher’s job. “I had low rent, was divorced, had no
children, and thought teaching part-time would be a refreshing change in
Indeed, Lipsky is a peripatetic personality. He spent four years
in the Caribbean and another two years mining for gold in California, plus
a lot of time in between trying to figure out what life was all about.
Like I, he had found that all that glitters is not gold.
September 11 changed his life in more ways than one. He had a
moment of heroism, a kind of “payback” he said, trying to save lives as
his life had been saved years earlier by a barracuda.
He didn’t offer the story of how the fish saved his life;
I pried it out of him when he gave me his email address. His email
handle is CUDASLIP. My reporter’s nose sniffed. I asked him
what it meant.
“You’re not going to believe me…but…I owe my life to a
barracuda…a female barracuda at that.”
Lipsky launched into a strange-but-true story, one that has
potential for "Ripley's Believe It or Not.”
He was SCUBA diving at Sombrero
Point near Marathon Key, Florida with his soon-to-be wife. Lipsky
had experience under water and was working on his Master Diver
Certification. On this particular dive, he was partnered up with someone
he hadn’t previously dived with.
Suddenly, a storm thrashed the sea, separating him from his diving
Disoriented, Lipsky surfaced to get his bearings. The sea was
so rough he was blinded. No boat was in sight. Giant waves slapped into
his face and clogged his snorkel, threatening to drown him if he didn’t
use the limited air in his SCUBA tanks.
With only a precious few minutes of air left, he dived some
thirty feet to the bottom, hoping the squall would pass so when he
surfaced he could catch sight of the diving boat. He didn’t realize the
other divers had radioed the Coast Guard with a distress signal that he
was lost in the storm.
Then a miracle began to unfold.
As he clung to a piece of coral in the surging current, he
noticed a female barracuda swimming slowly around him. A female, he
said, has a charcoal black edge on the pelvic and anal fins, whereas a
male is edged in yellow or olive. He found it strange one would be
so curious about him. Barracuda are flighty fish, he said. The female began to
move slowly in a direction away from him. It paused, then moved
ahead—“like it was asking me to follow it,” Lipsky commented.
Barracudas are some of the fastest fish in the sea. Their
bodies are built like an arrow, and their mouths are equipped with razor
sharp canine-like teeth for quick attacks on their prey or to ward off
enemies. Lipsky was in a quandary—stay put or follow a fish!
He looked at his air reserves. Not much time to reflect on the
philosophy of communication with fish, he said. His survival instincts
rather than his intellect took hold; he followed the slow swimming
“I can’t tell you how long I swam. I swam until my air ran out,
following the 'cuda. She was my lantern in the night, my compass. I just
felt she was leading me somewhere—where, I had no idea. It was all trust,
Sucking the last gulps of air from the tanks, Lipsky had no choice
but to surface. He bade the barracuda a goodbye, not sure if was his
final goodbye. If he surfaced in a choppy, tumultuous sea, the fish would
be the last living creature he would ever see.
Lipsky surfaced a few yards from the swim deck of the diving
boat. He swam hard and climbed aboard, exhausted but safe while the storm
“I owe my life to that barracuda, Cliff,” he said as the washers
harmonized in the background and the dryers whirred wildly. “So, that’s
why my email starts with ‘cuda.’ I’m an advocate against fishing for
barracuda. I do everything I can to fight for their protection. It’s the
least I can do.”
Lipsky’s cell phone rang. It was his wife telling him to get home
because his parents were on their way to visit. She needed the laundry.
“I gotta run, Cliff. Nice talking with you.”
“Wait, “ I pleaded. “Let me get a picture. I want to do a story
His eyes lit up. “I’ve got a great picture for you—my reward
for being a hero who survived Nine Eleven.”
He dug through his laundry bag and pulled out a baby’s T-Shirt
with the words East Village scrolled on the front.
“This is my real gift,” he declared, “my
first child. She’s going to be the Princess of the East Village when she
grows up. She was conceived on September 11th. She’s
one-month old. Her name is Hannah.
“Just one more question, Stu. How have kids changed your life?”
Lipsky answered in machine-gun fashion, talking as he stuffed the shirt
back in the laundry bag.
I scrawled my notes furiously on the New Yorker I had been
“Before I started teaching, I wasn’t sure about my place in life. I
was looking for something—maybe searching for the meaning of life. My
training for teaching was pretty abysmal. It can be summed up this way:
Go To Room 411. I went to Room 411 and there I was, standing before a
bunch of kids who didn’t want to be in school for the most part. I
learned the hard way. Teaching is a challenge. But I had been a great
salesman, so I figured I just had to sell the kids on learning.”
Lipsky teaches high school science to kids who range from 15 to 20
years of age. “Many aren’t motivated to do much. I do my best to get
them interested in college and learning. I’m proud that one of the things
a number of them want to do is be an optometrist. Don’t ask me why. The
key is they want to go on and learn.”
Six years ago, he was a prime catch for the school system.
Bilingual, Lipsky speaks Spanish as well as English. “It helps me
communicate with the kids from the Lower East Side. A lot of them have
Teaching has changed Lipsky’s
outlook on life. “Before I started teaching I was a wandering generality,
looking everywhere for answers. Now, I’m a meaningful specific,” he
says. “I know I can make an impact on kids’ lives…not all of
them…just enough to let me know I can open doors of opportunity for them
with patience and discipline. I know I will be a better father to Hannah
teaching as the business of “saving lives.”
A teacher, he says, can give a kid a new lease on life. He or
she can rewrite a child’s stock value, give the child a sense of worth.
"I like to think I play in a part in saving a child’s educational life. Maybe
something I said or did sparks a kid’s imagination, unlocks hidden
potential, or turns a dream into a reachable reality. That’s a
powerful feeling. It’s far more important to me than what happened
Ground Zero. My classroom is Ground Zero every day.”
Lipsky had to run. I shook his hand and told him I’d email him
when I ran his story.
To the casual observer, he was just a guy doing laundry. But to
the Sentinels of Vigilance--the spirits of those who sacrificed their
lives on September 11--he is a Citizen of Vigilance, Father of Vigilance,
Teacher of Vigilance.
He fights Terrorism of the mind—battling the Fear, Intimidation and
Complacency in kids’ minds they aren't smart enough, worthy enough, or
deserving enough to achieve beyond their environment.
Lipsky knocks down the doors of Terrorism and opens the Doors of
Vigilance. He replaces Fear with Courage in the kids, installs Conviction
where Intimidation once reigned, and shatters the thick crust of
Complacency with the mallet of Right Action to break self-imposed ceilings
hovering over his kids' heads..
And, ironically, this Teacher of Vigilance, Father of
Vigilance, owes it all to a female barracuda--his Barracuda of
Vigilance--that saved him one frightening stormy day years ago so that he
might stick around and guide children out of the burning buildings of
To July 6--Ted Williams: A Citizen Of Vigilance
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