That Tuesday morning in New York City was a perfect, crisp and sunny day. I was even a bit early to work for once, so was surprised to see the message light flashing on my phone as I entered my office in Midtown. My assistant entered the room, visibly upset. “A plane has gone into the World Trade Centre,” she told me. I suddenly realised that the sirens outside were unrelenting with police cars and fire trucks by the dozens, heading towards the scene.
We weren’t convinced at first that it was a terror attack. We didn’t want to believe it, not even as we watched the second plane crash into the towers. The plane crashing into the Pentagon left us in no doubt. As I looked outside my office window to the Chrysler building and Grand Central Station I had a strong instinct to get myself and my team out of the building. Then we watched the South Tower fall.
I don’t remember a formal decision to evacuate. I remember asking whoever wanted to come with me, to get ready to go. By this time there were people screaming down phones to loved ones downtown who were reporting seeing body parts on the ground. Another colleague was calling her husband over and over, knowing he’d been on a business flight that morning and unable to reach him. I remember a colleague who was usually tough as nails, down on all fours, screaming in terror into the carpet. I became extremely quiet and focused.
Out on the streets all the traffic had stopped. The only way to get anywhere was to walk. We saw people covered head-to-toe in dust and ash. A lot of people were weeping. As my team and I walked north up 3rd Avenue, we heard this immense groaning noise and turned around. Where the North Tower had been a few moments before, there was nothing.
Twenty years ago, mobile phones were not as ubiquitous as now. No one had home internet. We relied on the TV to find out what was happening. One TV channel would advise us to get off Manhattan island while the next channel would inform us that all the bridges and tunnels had been closed. Rumours were spreading that the water supply was tainted. We were told to prepare for a chemical warfare attack. We listened to the jet fighters completing figure eights across the tops of the buildings – all too late. It wasn’t until later that we realised that the loss of life was likely to be in the thousands. From my tiny balcony there was, where the tops of the towers used to be, a dark mushroom cloud suspended in the sky.
When people find out that I was living in New York at the time, most people want to know about that day. Of course, that day was surreal. But for anyone in NYC on that day, that was only day one of many days that proved to be traumatic and challenging.
The day we returned to the office, we’d been there maybe 30 minutes before we were evacuated for a bomb threat to the building. You know those fire drills at work where everyone takes their time and finishes that email and grabs their bag and slowly heads down the stairwell before nicking off for a coffee? When people think it might be real, and their life might be in real danger, they don’t behave like that. Some people panic. That scene in Seinfeld where George pushes an old woman aside to save himself? Yes, just like that. In Seinfeld it was funny. In real life, when you know your co-worker would shoulder charge you in the fire escape to save themselves first, it’s not.
Meanwhile, the recovery work continued at the site of the broken towers and every morning I awoke to 10 centimetres of fine ash covering my balcony. The smell of fire-retardant chemicals permeated the air and the media requests for DNA samples – “a toothbrush, unwashed underwear, a hairbrush…” – were sad reminders.