I remember as a child, standing on the observation deck of the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, pressing my forehead right up against the window. From the 107th floor, the people below looked the size of ants, the taxis the size of thimbles. It’s hard to believe that the World Trade Centre now only exists in my mind.
Few people can’t recall where they were when two hijacked airplanes were intentionally flown into New York’s iconic World Trade Centre, when those towers, that rose out of the financial district like man-made mountains, folded like a house of cards, blanketing the city and its people white with dust. When office workers ran desperately from the runaway train of debris that followed them down the street.
On that fateful morning, I was at John F. Kennedy airport in New York waiting to check in for my flight. My husband Bill and I were nearing the end of our round-the-world trip, a string of reunions with friends and family that I had so missed since moving to Australia. The trip peaked when I set foot in my hometown of New York.
I soaked it all up – the US Open, the Staten Island ferry, old haunts in my neighbourhood of Astoria, trendy Manhattan bars. My trip was destined to end all too quickly, and I said my tearful goodbyes to my mother when she dropped us off at the airport.
It was a beautiful sunny morning with crystal clear skies. A perfect day for flying.
The pace of the airport was frenetic, thousands of passengers running like rats in a maze, each of us absorbed in our own world.
And suddenly there was a charge in the air, as if something had interrupted the city’s frequency. I looked around. Everything appeared exactly the same, but the energy felt very different.
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An airline employee spoke on her mobile phone, her face turning to anguish as tears began streaming down her cheeks, her coworkers rushing to her side.
Numerous phones went off at once – like a command centre in a scene out of The Bourne Ultimatum. The woman in front of us, by chance a CNN correspondent, repeated incredulously what was said to her over her mobile phone, “…did you say that a passenger plane has flown into the World Trade Centre?… It has hit the North Tower?”
Some travellers were obviously distressed, others blissfully unaware. Everything around us proceeded with a fake normality. Now at the front of the queue, we blindly handed over our passports and were issued with boarding passes.
JFK to Las Vegas. September 11, 2001. Boarding time 925 AM.
And then it all quickly unravelled. Over the PA system came an unusual announcement: “JFK international airport will be closed for the next 4 hours. We are sorry for the inconvenience.” The penny dropped: JFK never closes, not for anyone or anything.
We overheard someone quietly whisper “a second plane has hit the second tower”.
By now the airport was in chaos. In a moment of clarity, Bill dove unexpectedly behind the counter and retrieved our bags before they had a chance to disappear down the conveyor belt.
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The cabs were all full, so we ran to departures and jumped into a cab just as its passengers were disembarking. A panicked person knocked on our window and asked where we were headed. New Yorkers don’t share cabs, but normality was now far away. He jumped in and we drove towards Astoria, all relieved that we were leaving the airport.
We clung to the sketchy details reported on the radio. The reporter repeated the same information three times over, then chillingly cried “Oh no… oh no… oh my God! The South Tower is falling! The entire building from top to bottom is sinking into the ground.” She went quiet. And so did all of us.
The hustle and bustle that is New York suddenly went quiet.
We looked across the river to see a mushroom cloud bloom over Manhattan island, shrouding most of the buildings on the lower half.
By the time we arrived in Astoria, the second tower had also submitted.
The tallest buildings in New York were no longer.
It was incomprehensible: an image of the apocalypse. People stood on overpasses above the freeway, silently, staring across the river at the unfolding scene.
The bridges had been closed and all Manhattan-bound traffic had been diverted. The streets of Astoria were in chaos. Cars were being driven on footpaths, others the wrong way down one-way streets.
When we arrived at my childhood home, my mother was standing in the doorway. And only there, while being held in my mother’s arms did I finally start to sob.
I cried for the thousands of lost souls, for the symbol that once represented our strength and prosperity, for fear that had so suddenly replaced optimism.
My mother was stoic, “You’re ok now, you’re safe.” She had already received dozens of international phone calls. It was a sign of how global the world had become – that people in other countries knew more than those in the thick of it.
The scenes of that day were constantly repeated on television. Information emerged of the estimated number killed, wounded and missing, the firefighters who answered the call and never came back.
To escape the weight of the day’s events, we walked to my local park, looking up at the sky more than usual. The roads were quiet, shops were empty.
Astoria Park borders the East River, and at the park’s edge were hundreds of people looking towards Manhattan. There were hushed voices and an uncharacteristic politeness.
For those waiting to hear from loved ones, this calamity was anything but over. Without phones, public transport or bridges to cross, this fast-paced city had now been immobilised. One woman nervously cradled her mobile, while she spoke of her missing daughter, who attended high school near Ground Zero. A man was waiting for his wife to come home, but he knew she was alright, “I just know it”. Another told me of his best friend who worked in the towers, “I’m just hoping he was out at a meeting or something.”
After everyone’s story came the same question: “Do you have anyone who is missing?’
Although I didn’t know for sure (many of my NYU classmates worked for financial firms), I answered a sympathetic ‘no’.
There were also miracles. My 70-year-old neighbour worked in the towers, but hadn’t quite arrived when the planes hit. Her children were convinced that she had died until she knocked on their door late that night after crossing the bridge on foot to finally get home.
My sister’s friend called in sick that day to nurse his hangover. He worked in the South Tower.
In the subsequent days, my employer, Ansett Airlines, filed for bankruptcy. I had no job and my return tickets wouldn’t be honoured. I didn’t quite know how we would get back to Melbourne.
After days in limbo, we drove to Canada to escape the sadness. Our border crossing was a reminder that everyone was living in fear. A family of Middle Eastern appearance stood watching border patrollers rip through the car’s upholstery with knives. I doubt the patrollers even knew what they were searching for.
At the top of Toronto’s CN Tower, once the world’s tallest building, we were all on edge when a plane looked like it was flying towards us.
We waited two weeks to find seats on a plane – the clumsy route took 42 hours to get us back to Melbourne.
I wasn’t the same person who had left Melbourne six weeks before. The stoic efforts of New York’s police officers and firefighters, the anonymous heroes who helped strangers to safety, the volunteers in the horrific clean-up – it renewed my faith in the city and its residents. New Yorkers might have a reputation for being brash, but when push comes to shove, they put their lives on the line for their fellow citizens.
I don’t for one minute believe that I experienced anything like the grief of those who lost loved ones on that tragic day. My perspective, however, is that of a native New Yorker, sharing in the pain that was forced upon our city that day. It was fate that brought me to New York on September 11 2001.
Above my desk hangs a framed aerial photograph of New York, taken in the year 2000. In it, the World Trade Centre stands as mightily as ever. That’s the New York that I left.
And that’s how I choose to remember it.
- New Yorker Despina meris’ first-hand account was first printed in Neos Kosmos on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, native New Yorker Despina Meris shared her first-hand account of a day that will never be forgotten.