Tuesday September 11 started much like any other day. It was my day off work and I walked my pregnant wife Tara 20 blocks to her office. It was a beautiful clear, sunny day. When I got back to our apartment I put the TV on (sound down) and started pottering around.
My wife called me around 9.30. She was very shaken and her first words were ‘don’t panic’. I immediately thought it was something to do with our baby. She asked me if I had the TV on and I replied that I had, and some film about the Twin Towers was on. Then she told me the terrible news – it wasn’t a film. It was real. She was watching it from her office window and saw the second plane go in (although she still thought it may be a bomb as she was watching from further up the island so didn’t see the plane, just the explosion). She told me that her bosses had said that they couldn’t guarantee any one’s safety and so she had been told that she must go to a place she felt safe. She wanted me to come and get her straight away.
I ran all the way. The subways were all running but I didn’t know how long that would last as everyone suspected a terrorist attack.
When I got to her, things had advanced. A plane had hit the Pentagon and news had reached us that there was another plane but we didn’t know where. Rumours spread round her office that it was coming back to New York. She didn’t want to go back to our apartment as it was right by the United Nations, which she thought might be a possible target. So we decided to go to her sister Sam’s apartment which was near her office.
As we walked there, we passed St Vincent’s hospital, the nearest hospital to the Twin Towers. Doctors and nurses were out in the street with gurnies, ready to receive the casualties that never came.
We all sat in Sam’s apartment round a television watching it unfold, Sam, Tara, me and Jennifer: a friend who lived in Brooklyn but who couldn’t get home as they closed all routes on and off Manhattan. After a while we felt we needed to get out – we all just felt we wanted to be with people.
We went to buy water as we had been told that the water supply to Manhattan may have been contaminated, and then to our local diner. It was absolutely packed, but very subdued. Everyone was just stunned and shocked. It is hard to articulate how unusual that was for New York. Much later when we walked home to our apartment, there wasn’t a single person in the streets. There are always people out on the street in Manhattan – the ‘city that never sleeps’ – but that night we didn’t see another soul, despite the fact all the commuters had to find places to stay, and some people estimate that figure to be 2 million people. And there wasn’t a single homeless person on the streets either.
The next morning posters had started to appear ‘Have you seen this person?’ with a picture and a name, and contact details. Thousands of them. Everywhere. People still thought then that there were survivors wondering around dazed, or perhaps in hospital with memory loss because of the trauma. We didn’t really know that there had been so few survivors – yet. Shrines with flowers and candles had sprung up overnight outside the many fire stations that had lost men. The FDNY funerals started very quickly after that. Many went along to pay respects to the brave men who had done their best to rescue people from what they must have known was an impossible situation.
Me, Tara and Sam volunteered to help – together with everyone we knew – the rescue crews that were down at the Twin Towers. But there were too many volunteers. We went to the Park Avenue Armoury and people were queuing around the block to register as volunteers. Great crowds of people started to gather alongside the West Side Highway to cheer the crews as they went back and forth. Over the following weeks and months the crowds dwindled, but never completely disappeared.
In the following days, people started to arrive from all over America to visit the site, to be in New York and show their support. But they were just as powerless to help – or to change anything – as we ourselves were.
I worked at the UK Mission to the UN at the time, and I was called in the next day. I took the calls from hotels all over New York who had British citizens staying that had not returned. The Mission had to coordinate collecting their belongings and contacting relatives to return them. I am not articulate enough to explain what that felt like.
By then the stories about the victims calling their loved ones on their mobile phones started to filter out too. It seemed at the time like tragedy was being heaped on tragedy. It hung heavy on all of us.
When people ask what it was like to be there, I can only say it was like being in a surreal film. It didn’t seem real – we just couldn’t believe what we were witnessing with our own eyes. It was too terrible. It was too big. I feel emotional writing about it 11 years later. It has taught me an important life lesson though – I never leave my wife or troopers without telling them how much I love them.