Reflections on an historic event


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.

Outside the World Trade Centre Christmas 1992

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.

The wings of the 9/11 Memorial as new skyscrapers reach for the sky.
The sculpture in 1992.

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.

Inside the 9/11 Memorial

17 thoughts on “Reflections on an historic event

  1. My son was saying on the weekend how shocked he was by people taking selfie’s when he visited the site in Jan 2019. He was in pre-school at the time of the attack & doesn’t particularly remember it. The first I knew of the towers was when we got up in the morning & the cartoons weren’t on ABC TV. I recall spending most of that day at work in the conference room watching TV. My daughter had a substitute teacher for first class who left it on too – perhaps not appropriate! For many years after, my son would occasionally ask if they’d caught “Somnana Bin Laden” as he called him. And a really dumb memory – I put a load of white clothes in the washing machine & threw in the kids gingham yellow checked table cloth because it was light coloured too. Good bye to those white clothes. Mind not on the task – trying to make sense of a senseless situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seemed so disrespectful to be taking selfies and I’m pleased it’s not only the older generation who thinks so. Not suitable tv for little ones for sure. Sorry about the yellow whites.

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  2. This is a great memory post Pauleen. I remember being called from bed and sat up all night watching the confusion of journalists as they tried to make sense of it. I haven’t been to NY since but I’d like to get to the memorial site.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Pauleen,

    Great writing!

    I was home in Sydney watching the late news and hearing about the first plane when the 2nd plane hit. Immediately, it was clear this was no accident. Years earlier, I flew over Manhattan in a small plane as a passenger with a friend learning to fly. We were under the radar and shouldn’t have been. So I kinda thought the first one was odd. I rang a friend in Boston who was home alone and terrified. I used to travel around the US a lot in those days. I was preparing to fly out of a smaller San Fran airport the morning after the terrorist with the fluid in his shoe heel was caught. Bottles of perfume, baby milk bottles, deodorant and everything else liquid or creamy got removed. I managed to move my toiletries to my checked baggage. And then we flew!

    Bev x

    On Mon, Sep 13, 2021 at 7:01 PM Family history across the seas wrote:

    > cassmob posted: ” 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” >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was also mesmerised by the TV reports. Little did I know at that stage that our extended family had been touched by the tragedy. My 3rd cousin Stephen Tompsett who was attending a conference at Windows on the World in the North Tower lost his life that day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A uncertain for all!, I liked your post. Being a Australian, married to a USAF husband, He who left the day before for conference in Las Vegas.. It was a scary week — when could he return, myself with a 2yr old, – stay safe, prepare and made sure to have supplies on hand – just incase… who knew the outcome….married for 11yrs, just bought a home.. moved in the month prior from a overseas location… And all this happens … It was Scary times.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very moving post, Pauline. I worked one block north of the WTC site, but the planes hit before I was due at work — so I was still home, and staff was evacuating when I called the office. After that, we worked remotely for 9 months as our building was officially part of the larger Ground Zero area — returning in early 2002 as they were still removing debris from the site. I spoke to some former co-workers this week and we all avoided the anniversary news coverage — too many painful memories and some folks with lingering health effects — although I agree with you that the memorial site is a tranquil place.

    Liked by 1 person

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