Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 11: One New Yorker's Perspective

I’m sure almost everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Downtown Manhatten
I was in my university dorm room watching the late news. I can’t remember the exact time but it was probably around 11pm in Australia. I watched the TV screen in disbelief as the live pictures rolled in, the second plane flying into the second tower. It was, as so many people have described since, like a scene from a movie. Surreal, unimaginable and unbelievable.

It’s a perspective that so many people who saw the footage of that day share, but what about the people who saw this disturbing chain of events unfold right in front of them, in real-time? They were the ones there at Ground Zero, tasting the rubble dust and smelling the smoke.

In 2001, I didn’t know anyone who lived in New York. I didn’t hear anyone’s story first hand. Sure, I read a lot of stories, and there were so many compelling, horrifying stories of loss and grief.

I met my American friend Judy in 2003, while travelling in the United States. She had lived in New York City for many years – both loving and disliking the city equally at times.

I saw Judy again in June this year when I visited her in NYC. I had known her for seven years and had never heard her firsthand account of that day. Over a few red wines, in a New York City bar on the Upper West Side, Judy told me her experience. It is a story I will never forget…

It started like any other work day. I arrived at my Downtown office building, just a few blocks away from what is now Ground Zero.

As I walked towards the main entrance to the building I saw a few of my colleagues and one of them said “A plane has just crashed into one of the World Trade Centre Towers”.

I immediately realised something was wrong, but a couple of workers outside the building didn’t even blink. They continued to walk into our building, unphased.

I raced inside and grabbed a phone. I called my mum in Florida and told her “I don’t know what’s going on but a plane has just flown into one of World Trade Centre Towers. No matter what you hear, I’m ok” and I hung up. Just minutes after that all phone communication in Downtown Manhattan was cut off. I stood with the small group which had gathered outside the entrance to our office, and as we stood I watched the second plane fly into the second tower. Words will never describe how surreal that sight was. The minutes which followed are ones I’ve thought about many times since, but it still seems a blur.

We watched as the towers burned and billows of smoke poured from the gaping holes in both buildings. It was then we all noticed what no one wanted to say. People had started to jump from the buildings. The strangest thing happened…I started to talk. I talked through what was happening to the people around me, like a running commentary. I still don’t really know why I did it. It was as if it was a memorial to each person falling from the building; some one at a time, some in pairs. Any maybe it was also a way to make what was completely incomprehensible, somewhat real.

I later found out that some of our colleagues who worked in one of the towers had escaped in time, before the buildings fell. A manager had made the split second decision to tell the workers to leave, despite everyone being told to stay where they were.

It wasn’t long after that the first tower came down. And then the second. By that stage we all knew something incredible was unfolding and no one knew what that meant for the city. Pretty soon after that we were evacuated from the area.

Judy’s story is just one person’s experience of that day. It probably isn’t that dissimilar to other firsthand stories we’ve heard many times over in the media, through TV news, books and movies. It is dissimilar to some of those stories, in that Judy is still here to tell her experience. If she had caught her normal train and headed to work at her regular time, she would have been in the subway station when the planes hit. On that particular day, Judy had a meeting she was unprepared for and went in early to work.

Nine years later, New York is still an incredible city. The whole world witnessed the guts, glory and steely determination of New Yorkers in the days, weeks and months after September 11, during the slow recovery process.

9/11 changed many people’s lives – especially those living in New York City. Judy, like many others living in Manhattan, gave up her successful corporate career and set off around the world, backpacking to countries as far flung as Australia and New Zealand.

She told me she knows a lot of people who made similar decisions about the direction of their lives in the aftermath of that day. She still gets an annual call from her friend she experienced the evacuation with.

The thing that really hits home the reality of that day in 2001 is Judy’s view of what she lost that day. When I asked her how many people she knew, colleagues or friends, she lost that day; she said to me ‘only a few’.

That response will stay with me forever. It truly shows the magnitude of that day - that someone will consider themselves fortunate to have only lost a few people from their lives. Many people were not so fortunate. And may they always be remembered.

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