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9/11: A personal memoire updated 18 years later

This story is ordinary, compared to many, but I wanted to remember by writing it down which I did in September 2001. I found it again recently: here it is, with additions 18 years on.

Seven Reuter employees and one friend arrived on Manhattan for a meeting on 11 September 2001. We began at 8 o'clock at the top of a Times Square skyscraper. We were Janet Logan from New York, Jamie Hart, Natalie Williams, and Barrie Tynemouth from London, Simon Wakeham from Singapore, Nobu Kuratani from Tokyo, and Trond Harstad and me from Geneva. It was a sunny clear morning and we could see southern Manhattan and the World Trade Center Towers from our 30th floor meeting room.

Natalie arrived days before with her friend Kate to shop. Our meeting was delayed by a doctor's appointment for an eye infection, which saved one person from a fatal seminar at the 106th floor WTC. We went down the elevators for coffee at 8:45 am where a colleague, Tom Kirkup, said his meeting with Lehman Brothers was probably cancelled since a plane had crashed into the WTC. We could see a burning tower on a Times Square news video screen. Many of us were frequent visitors to the WTC complex where we had many customers and offices.

Rushing back to the 30th floor we looked south at a smoke cloud rising fast. To many people it was a sad aviation accident. A huge explosion ballooned out of WTC complex, and it was obvious that something big and dangerous was happening. New Yorkers didn’t think terrorism, instantly. The fireball was just too big. A television commentator said he thought the second impact was a military or police aircraft, and that the S&P Future was down 35 points. Footage from a road traffic helicopter near the scene was hazy.

We departed at speed to Bryant Park nearby, getting away from Times Square. The Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Show boomed music from tents while we waited to gather our group together. We were loitering in a dangerous place with Times Square around the corner, the Empire State Building half a mile away and Grand Central Station even closer.

Cellphone networks were overwhelmed. I managed to call the lady I belong to in Geneva who said the Pentagon, Washington Bridge, Mall and Supreme Court had been hit. She had Bloomberg and Reuter screens at her office, and a seven month baby in her. Leggy fashion models stood aimlessly in high heels and big hats. Confusion reigned. An officer told everyone to go home. Natalie set off to find Kate.

A gas stench in Bryant Park forced another speedy move. Was it a chemical attack? We wanted to keep away from people and likely targets, feeling there were further attacks to come. We could go north to Central Park’s open spaces, or south to Janet's apartment on 14th. We discussed why 14th St has low buildings and how historically it had been a marshy area.

My wife in Geneva was worried about a firestorm as she could see WTC video footage on her screens. Hundreds of aircraft were still in the air.

We split into two, one group with Natalie collecting her friend Kate and Barrie, while the remainder set off towards Janet's at 14th Street, usually a 45 minute walk. During the hurried evacuation of Times Square we’d brought our laptops and papers.

Most of New York gathered in the streets. They watched televisions in delis, tried their cellphones and talked with strangers. There was commendable calm. The traffic died down. My wife kept calling. She said seven other planes were still in the air, presumed hijacked, and that the WTC had collapsed. We estimated casualties at thousands.

At the time we did not link the WTC collapses with comments in the street about the ground moving and earthquakes. Limousine drivers parked with their doors wide open broadcasting radio news into the street. Someone said George Washington Bridge was hit. The FBI sought information about bearded men in a white van.

Many walked purposefully and generally north, which caused us to doubt our decision to travel south. We were out of the skyscrapers. The dust cloud grew and grew. Later we learned that thousands walked off Manhattan across the bridges, but the limousine radios said that Manhattan’s bridges and tunnels were closed.

I feared several million people on Manhattan could run in panic, but they didn’t. A courier driver said “he'd been pulled off the streets”. Walkers stopped to ask passing walkers where they’d come from, where they were going to, and why. Huge amounts of information was exchanged, most of which later proved false.

We walked a huge loop around the Empire State Building to the east, with ideas swimming the narrower East River rather than the Hudson. I was sure there were further attacks coming. But the shock came on reaching an avenue and looking several miles south at nothing except smoke, and no twin towers. Hundreds were rooted to the spot, mostly silent, eating and sipping. Almost the only cellphone which functioned was my Swiss mobile, as it was a roaming European GSM. WTC towers housed multiple networks. A month later I received the hugest roaming bill which was forensically examined by the Reuter expenses department. Many of the calls were made by distraught strangers.

Emergency services kicked into action with roadblocks. Powerful unmarked official looking cars flashed past. Helmeted cyclists zoomed by, pedalling hard.

Janet couldn't contact her husband Ed. Janet's policeman brother Tommy spent many days at WTC and found the 'body parts' duty tough. Many of Janet and Ed's family are in in the fire, ambulance and police services, traditional Irish occupations. Someone mentioned a Disney World attack. An accident and emergency friend of Janet's called to say that everybody had been ordered to work to help with casualties. And the Pentagon was hit.

As we approached Janet's apartment we saw the first coughing people in white clothing, WTC dust, and far more people walking north. We walked the three floors up to her apartment, and turned on the TV. The second group of walkers arrived minutes later. We discussed attacks in on other financial centres. We were remarkably calm. My children were a long way away, but I became anxious and wanted my wife to get the children from school and go home, away from the Swiss financial centre she worked in.

St Joseph's hospital, which you can just see from Janet’s balcony, was the heart of emergency response. Everything south of 14th street was closed but it took hours to clear the area. The roars and booms of military jets broke the noise of sirens as they circled Manhattan, F15s or something like that. They flew slow, low and loud.

The second plane strike on the WTC seemed deliberately a few minutes after the first, to cause maximum disruption (a common tactic in Northern Ireland, Israel, etc.). We expected more. The telephone in Janet's apartment didn't work. An hour later it rang. We gave my wife in Geneva a list of families to call in Singapore, Japan, Spain and England. Her instruction to us was to get off Manhattan, immediately.

Around noon two male friends of Janet's arrived, white and in tears: they'd walked from just south of the WTC. Husband Ed finally called and Janet relaxed a little.

We stayed beside Janet's TV. Somebody went to the liquor store. We had decisions to make. Where to spend the night? Was our hotel at 42nd street safe? Should we go to a friend's house on Long Island, or make for Canada? Were there planes still in the air? A WTC survivor interview claimed bombs went off. The TV played pictures of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. Was this reprisal, speculated the TV presenter? There were television images showing a ‘normal’ day of radar maps with thousands of airborne flights, and the now vacant and eerie airspace.

Some television commentators focused on the death toll, while others discussed whether the New York Stock Exchange would or could be re-open on Wednesday.

St Vincent's Hospital looked very busy. During a cellphone conversation we counted 15 ambulances pass in convoy southwards. Emergency vehicles roared along 14th Street, covered in dust, often damaged or with broken windows. I learned my sister and her family were safe in Washington DC (Peter Millership married to my sister). A third airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania was not shot down by the air force. As the hours passed the news became more controlled and credible. The whereabouts of the President, George Bush Junior, was a running topic as he skipped about military bases on Air Force 1.

We later learned from Janet’s nurse friend that St Vincent’s planned for 3,000 casualties. The nurses and doctors were devastated by the tiny numbers of people presenting for treatment.

Dusk arrived. We'd watched the TV with some awful images. Some of the footage has never, as far as I know, been re-broadcast. The cloud above WTC stayed. Fortunately the wind was from the north. On breakfast TV a famous NYC financier was interviewed and he might have claimed to have rushed into a WTC Tower to save his staff. I never saw the clip again, so it must have been my imagination.

We made sorties for refreshments: the big chains were closed. Family operations knew they were needed and kept serving. A pharmacy refused me an emergency medical prescription.

By nine o'clock in the evening, we were tired. Nobu, our Japanese colleague, winced each time the media compared the strikes to Pearl Harbor. We made three decisions: stay at our hotel tonight; get off Manhattan at the first opportunity; and go to Stamford, Connecticut if possible.

US airspace, navigable waters and the Canadian and Mexican borders were sealed. We had to stay on Manhattan, and the thought of ten people in Janet's compact apartment overnight set us off on the 45 minute walk north to our hotel.

It was probably the least eventful late night walk ever in NYC. An elderly jazz singer sang beautifully, accompanied by a cassette player. A young man, stripped to the waist, shouted he was glad to be alive and hugged passers-by. A ukulele busker outside a liquor store wanted cash. But no traffic, no tooting taxis, just howling emergency service vehicles and streams of huge demolition trucks trundling north south. I think they used the snow storm routes.

Approaching our hotel a doorman said that George Washington Bridge had been bombed, which we'd heard in the morning and ignored until we passed another group of people discussing whether it was dynamite or something else. The bridge wasn’t attacked. We agreed to meet at 8:30 am to plan our escape.

I walked to each emergency exit on my floor of the hotel, wishing I wasn't on the 40th floor, and dressed for a swift departure.

One of us went to the Times Square office in the morning to see if we could help. There was nothing we could do. Colleagues working on the provision of customer emergency facilities were visibly shaken. Returning to the hotel at 9:15 am, the NYC was dead.

A television interview with a child psychologist lingered in my mind. He suggested that children watching the WTC attack footage multiple times might think that the different attacks were happening over and over again, and would find something different about each re-showing.

At about 9:30 am the hotel alarm sounded. We left. A fire on the 21st floor, they said, but we were disbelieving when given the all clear. Stories of the previous day highlighted the poor flow of information. Years later, working in New York, a colleague John Bertucci recounted his escape from one of the smaller buildings at WTC which collapsed. The official drill was to remain at your desk and await instructions from emergency services, but John’s manager ordered his staff to leave their building and they all survived. John was quite badly injured by a stranger who rugby tackled him down steep subway entrance stairs at the moment when the first tower collapsed, probably saving his life.

Some trains were running so we walked ten minutes to Grand Central Station bound for anywhere, or Stamford Connecticut. It was chaos. Finally a train with the oddest selection of passengers trundled slowly over a steel bridge and off Manhattan Island.

Our colleagues met us at Stamford Station and took us to a boxy hotel. At check in a sign read “Due to technical difficulties guests may have problems receiving channels 4, 5 and 7”, which is one way to say that the transmission masts on the WTC towers no longer functioned.

We ate a subdued lunch in the hotel diner, not realising how hungry we were. A table of ten giggling and joking office assistants nearby seemed very distant: what could be funny or amusing today? We realised that our experience, however minor as compared to many, was very personal. Jamie and I had a moment of panic when a ceiling tile crashed from the restaurant roof and smashed on an adjoining table.

US air space remained closed. Rumours of bombs persisted. The President was in the White House.

My hotel room contained the clothes of a previous occupant and the telephone rang hourly with a distraught Middle Eastern voice asking for her husband. I filled in an FBI form on the internet as requested, and never heard anything again.

That evening we ate in an Afghan restaurant with a big glass window facing the street. Rednecks, and some in suits and ties, hammered on the glass shouting abuse and threats. The waiters were frightened.

Thursday morning we listened to a Reuters staff teleconference. The number of missing staff had dropped.

We talked with many. Tom's brother Bob, a United Airlines pilot, said that there is a private web site to help stranded air crews get home. On Thursday morning two United flights were marked 'Secured', and I have no idea what this meant. Patty didn't find her sister for hours. Lisa had rushed to her children in New Jersey. Ed could not contact three colleagues. Emails flowed. Buildings were repeatedly evacuated with bomb scares. Suspects were being rounded up.

Forewarned by the media of additional security measures, we left four hours before departure time for JFK airport. I had plenty of time to look at my passport, issued September 10th the previous year, with eleven US entry stamps.

There was almost no traffic but what of the additional security? There were vehicles parked beside the terminal, as always, which seemed madness as car bombs are so common elsewhere. The red-capped luggage porters were outside the terminals as always, carting unscrutinised luggage into the heart of the terminal. The only visible extra security measure was a person you would not trust to flip a hamburger busy matching airline tickets with passports. Uniformed staff skirted around the security scanning machines unchallenged.

Inside the terminal 2,000 nervous people queued at the El Al, Pakistan Airlines, Swissair, TAP and Sabena check-in counters. It was hot, chaotic and potentially very dangerous.

We boarded. An agent at the aircraft door handed out duty free purchases, again without any security! Might there be guns the bags? And who wanted duty free at this time?

Taking to the air over Manhattan in the early evening, orange light reflected off the WTC smoke plume which drifted south for 25 miles over the ocean. We were served dinner with plastic knives. Simon, refuelling in Frankfurt on his way to Singapore, said he got a metal knife for the second leg. My flight was far from full, and on time!

About a week later I received a telephone call from a stranger in Reuters Human Resources. She asked if I was OK and ended the call quickly with “that’s good then, ‘bye”.

I thought about another lucky escape from Swiss Air SR111 JFK to Geneva, a flight I frequently took, which crashed in 1998 killing all 229 aboard off the Canadian coast. 9/11 didn’t match SR111 in Geneva. 9/11 changed USA.

A month later, eating with American and Israeli friends, an Israeli said “now you know how terrorism feels”. The Americans, staunchly religious from places like Peoria, Illinois and the Dakotas, were outraged at her comment. In retrospect I think 9/11 was the moment when the moms and pops of middle USA ended their faith in their country’s role as liberal global guardians, launching ultra-divisive politics.

Reuters news services entrapped themselves on a hamster wheel with an endless spat about the use of words such as ‘terrorist’, ‘values’ and ‘freedom fighter’.

A third son arrived in November and I haven’t given 9/11 much thought apart from a memory of Irish Janet’s stoicism. She knew many of the dead from the financial markets, police and fire services and her brother and husband were uncontactable for hours. Six from Reuters died, perhaps: I tried to find out, exactly, but failed. It could have been many more. The toll was 2,996 dead (including 19 hijackers) and 6,000 injured.

Writing this in 2001 was cathartic. I gave this document to my 17-year-old and he said he’d no idea we’d been a tiny part of 9/11. I didn’t avoided the subject. I guess I just feel there was so much coverage of 9/11 that everyone would know and the story didn’t need re-telling. ■