New York: Birthdays have never been the same for Susan Eisenberg since the towers came crashing down 20 years ago.
On September 11, 2001 Eisenberg was working as a nurse in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the World Trade Centre. It was her 57th birthday, and a gorgeous day in New York. The sky was so spotless that pilots have a name for it: “severe clear”. Then, at 8.46am, hijackers smashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower. At first, Eisenberg thought there had been an explosion.
Then she watched in horror as a plane hit the South Tower. “We saw the second plane go in, we saw people jumping,” she says. “I watched the buildings fall, but I have no memory of it.” Trauma, she has found, has a way of heightening some memories and erasing others.
Eisenberg was safe, but her 32-year-old second cousin Eric died while working in the South Tower. He was one of the 2977 victims of the worst foreign terrorist attack in American history.
When Eisenberg’s building was evacuated, she and the other medical staff stayed behind to treat any survivors who needed care. “We waited and waited but no one ever came,” she says. She still lives with guilt that she couldn’t do anything to help anyone.
For the past four years, Eisenberg has worked weekly as a volunteer at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, at the site of the former Twin Towers. On Sunday (Australian time) a memorial service for family members of the victims will be held there to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks. At sunset a “tribute of light” will illuminate the sky over Manhattan.
September 11 is seared into their memories of New Yorkers like Eisenberg who lived through the attacks. It’s a different story for those who weren’t born or were too young to understand what was happening. “It feels like yesterday for me, but now a lot of young people don’t know much about it,” she says. By volunteering at the memorial she hopes she can do her part to ensure that those who died that day are not forgotten.
Electrician Patrick Kleeman also saw people jumping from the towers and plumes of ash billowing into the sky. He saw dead bodies on the pavement. On September 11, Kleeman was working in the lobby of the Marriott World Trade Centre (also known as World Trade Centre Three). An estimated 40 people died when the hotel was destroyed in the attacks. “It was a traumatic experience,” he says. “But I’m one of the lucky ones.” His eyes begin to tear up as he talks about it.