This column was written and originally published in Dubbo Photo News’ “Dubbo Weekender” in 2013. We’ve republished it today to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the US.
It was late Tuesday night, no different to any other really. We were watching ‘The West Wing’ when there was a news bulletin that a small plane was believed to have crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York City.
Was this part of the show, some twist in the script? Our sleepy minds soon tuned into the news announcers having Australian accents. Could this be real? Another plane crashed in the neighbouring building. It was real.
The date was September 11, 2001, and the night was now different to any other in our lifetime.
We stayed up until 3.00am watching the coverage, the feelings of disbelief having washed away the need for sleep.
I can’t pretend to know what it was like to be in New York, on what was for them, a bright, sunny Tuesday morning.
Eleven and half years later, I’m not sure anyone not there can express the right emotion. A visit to the 9/11 Memorial was therefore a must do part of our visit to New York.
By chance, we booked to tour the 9/11 Memorial on February 26, the 20th Anniversary of the World Trade Centre bombing in 1993.
On our tour was Henry, who was in charge of the electrical and plumbing maintenance of the North Tower at the time. Henry is retired now, but had joined our tour group to talk about the events of 1993.
He described how a rented truck containing a bomb was parked in the underground car park of the North Tower and detonated, causing the deaths of 6 people, including 3 of his co-workers.
Henry revealed how he worked with FBI investigators for the next few days to search the building for more explosives. He was also understandably emotional about the ordinary people he knew and worked with daily who had lost their lives that day.
As the tour wound up he said to me he does have a nice retirement, but the memories of those days, and the events of 9/11 do come to haunt him occasionally.
Our tour guide lived in downtown Manhattan, worked in a school and volunteered in a midtown hospital. She had arrived at school early when she heard the news of the planes flying into the WTC. She made her way to the hospital, but there were no survivors brought to them that day. The few were taken to a downtown hospital.
She spent the next few weeks volunteering at the local hospital, giving comfort to injured people, mostly rescuers and those searching for survivors. Many people were affected by the dust.
She described the aftermath as chaotic and chilling. Transport and power were cut off, the streets silent but for the sound of helicopters and military aircraft.
The main emotion was disbelief that a terrorist act could strike so close to her home and kill so many innocent people.
The days following were harrowing and filled with grief and anger as the reality set in and the clean-up began.
She too is retired, but volunteers at the 9/11 Memorial in hope that her story will remind the world of the extent of the tragedy and the efforts that have gone into recovery.
She highlights the resilience of New Yorkers and hopes to communicate that this must never happen again.
Recovery is a word I heard a lot during our tour, along with community, endurance, unity and courage.
Human traits shown by ordinary people whose lives became entangled in something far bigger.
Nothing epitomises courage more than the Fire Department of New York – part of the ‘first responders’.
341 Fireman from 75 Firehouses died performing their jobs that day, many were in the collapsing towers where they were tasked with entering the stairwells and climbing up to help the office workers escape.
Every Firehouse has a memorial to those of their crew that died. Every fire truck has the names of the brigades which lost fire fighters listed down the side. Firemen are ‘supermen’ in the eyes of New Yorkers. They are proud of the dedication and self-sacrifice of those men on 9/11 and hold them up to be true heroes.
This is just one aspect of this tragedy that has brought New Yorkers closer together.
New Yorkers talk of the threat of terrorists, specifically Islamic terrorists and the need to be vigilant.
Television commercials and public service announcements remind people to be alert and report any suspicious behaviour.
There is a noticeable police presence on the streets, not overt, just a presence to give comfort.
There are virtually no Arabic faces on the street. It is a city still on guard over a decade later.
In raw numbers, seven buildings collapsed as a result of the attack on the twin towers.
Nearly 3000 people from 93 nations lost their lives. 2753 people were killed in New York, 184 people were killed at the Pentagon and 40 people were killed on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania.
The task took planning and resolve.
So what result were the terrorists/al Qaeda seeking? Was it the wanton loss of life, to strike at what the USA and the West stands for, to protest at the USA military presence in the Middle East?
Surely they could see the USA would throw all its resources at finding the perpetrators and the Western World would fall in behind them?
Political and economic turmoil around the world was one obvious result.
The tightening of airport security around the world was another. The security was rigorous wherever we went – airports, office buildings, the UN Headquarters, the Rockefeller Centre, the 9/11 Memorial itself.
I have no doubt many New Yorkers have asked themselves these questions. Just as I can’t imagine what it was like to be there that day, innocent New Yorkers must wonder what caused international terrorism to arrive on their doorstep and not be able to find an answer.
In the search for answers, New York continues to rebuild.
The Memorial Plaza is complete, and the 9/11 Museum will shortly move from its temporary premises into a newly constructed building within the Memorial.
When completed, the World Trade 1 skyscraper will match the height of the two buildings lost.
The remaining six buildings are being constructed in sympathy around the Memorial plaza.
The plaza preserves the footprint of the twin towers with fountains cascading into pools that were once the basements of the towers.
Surrounded by a large, treed courtyard the fountains represent the disappearance of the towers into the ground, the disintegration of the victims, and the loss of a nation’s security.
The victim’s names are inscribed into the bronze parapets which surround the fountains. Each name has a story to tell. A story that reflects the day their world fell in.
By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.