The phone by the bed rang that Tuesday night around 10:25pm, just as we were going to sleep. “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre” said our Brisbane daughter’s voice. “What??” “Just go and turn the TV on”.
As we scurried downstairs to turn on CNN, we tried to process her statement. It just wouldn’t compute…what had happened? It seemed the news anchors were as bewildered as we were, as we looked at the aircraft impaled into the side of the north tower. It was mere minutes before our confusion gave way to stunned shock. Aircraft #2 smashed into the south tower at 9:03am in New York (10:30pm NT time). At that time, it became obvious this wasn’t “just” an aircraft accident we were watching. We’d called our Darwin daughters to come watch cable with us, but I can’t remember if they got to our place ahead of the second crash. I think everyone watching the events unfold just couldn’t process what they were seeing. Hard bitten and experienced journalists were shocked to the core as they tried to commentate on what they were seeing.
Smoke and fire poured from both buildings and to our horror people were jumping from the high floors of the tower, where they’d been cut off without any egress. What a hideous decision to have to make: to burn or to jump.
And then the towers seemed to melt as they collapsed on themselves. A truly sobering image, wondering how many were still trapped inside including the first responders. Their courage going into such extreme danger was astounding.
Vision of people who managed to get out of the building, or from the near neighbourhood, showed them running to escape injury and covered in dust and grit from the collapse of the towers and the debris from the fires.
My thoughts turned to a couple of our final year medical students who were doing placements in New York hospitals. I worried how they’d cope with the death and injury they’d see in Emergency. It eventually became clear that the scale of destruction meant there were far fewer survivors than I’d imagined.
We watched the news screening for hours, overwhelmed by all that we’d seen. As shocking as the Pentagon crash was, it didn’t have the same visual effect for us. I guess we were already shocked to the core by what we’d watched. Also, we’d visited the World Trade Centre in December 1992, seen the amazing views from the observation deck, and the foyer bedecked with Christmas decorations. Somehow that gave it a personal recognition factor.
The bravery of the passengers who resisted the hijackers’ attempts to crash the fourth plane was amazing. They knew what was at stake as phone messages came through to them. Their farewell calls to their families were heart-breaking.
We must have gone to work that next morning after hours of watching the TV, but I have no recollection of anything about the day. I feel sure I’d have spoken to the American students in that year’s cohort to extend sympathy and any support, but my memory is blank.
Flying changed irrevocably after these events and now extensive security measures are part of travelling anywhere.
It wasn’t until 2017 that we re-visited New York City and made a pilgrimage to the 9/11 museum and the Reflection Pool. I was shocked to see people taking selfies at what was a sacred site. The museum was beyond sobering – so many evocative displays and images. It was amazing to me just how quiet the whole place was, everyone seemed lost in the depth of the memories, and occasionally you would hear quiet sobs.
A terrible time for the United States and one shared to a lesser extent by so many around the world who witnessed it from afar. I’ve never written about my own experience, feeling I’d be appropriating an event that belonged to others. However, the twentieth anniversary seemed the right time to record my own distant experience of that shocking event.