I wasn’t at home that day. My mom was obviously working late and had been unable to fetch us from school. My dad was about five hours away at a conference. We had been picked up by a family friend. Going to her house was always fun! There was a lovely garden to play outside. Hot dogs for lunch, yoghurt and tinned peaches were the standard. We often did crafts at her kitchen nook. Or played dress up or with two cute plush monkeys she had in the guest room. She had an impressive collection of CD’s and DVD’s to enjoy. And she had DSTV with Cartoon Network.
On this particular afternoon, it was sunny. I remember the front door being open. In all likelihood, we had done our homework and we were running between the garden and inside. Just before my mom arrived to fetch us, I remember her standing in the lounge watching the screen while on the phone. She had been told by the next door neighbour to turn the TV on. My mom arrived soon after and both of them stood aghast at what was happening. My mom soon picked up the phone in the hallway to call my dad. I remember her telling him not to get on the plane to come home at the end of the week.
I think you all know the day I’m talking about. September, 11th 2001. I walked into the lounge and saw two tall skyscrapers billowing with thick smoke.
Photo Credit: Sean Adair
And then we watched as they crumbled in the heat and crashed into a heap of ash and debris, sending a menacing cloud of remains and smoke down the streets of New York.
Photo Credit: Det Greg Semendinger
We listened to eye witness covered in ash give their accounts. We saw people being helped away from the scene distraught. We watched businessmen in suits, every part of their body coloured grey. And we heard sirens eerily screeching getting louder and then fading away until the next one took its place. The air was littered with papers floating onto the streets.
The carnage smouldered for 3 months! Rescue workers dug amongst the mountain of debris trying to recover survivors. The buckled skeletons of the buildings were pulled apart by cranes and diggers dwarfed by the sheer size of the wreckage. Sirens became a permanent drone in the distance, fading in and out.
Photo Credit: Jason Scott
We began to hear personal stories of people affected. It came close to home at one stage. My mom’s friend’s dad was a taxi driver in New York. He had dropped someone at the World Trade Centre about half an hour before the plane smashed into the side of it.
Yet, I couldn’t understand the gravity of the tragedy at the age of 11. It was two buildings that had collapsed because someone flew planes into them. Sure, it was pretty horrific. It was awful to watch even though we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the TV. But that was the only news there was for weeks afterwards. The footage ran over and over again. Eventually I got sick of it. I was tired of seeing Osama Bin Laden’s face in the corner of every news broadcast.
I remember some of the memorials in the years following. Families gave tributes in front of a crowd in a special memorial service. A moving tribute were two spotlights that lit up the New York skyline in the places where the towers once stood.
Photo Credit: Drew Angerer
The two gaping holes of the foundations were turned into a memorial at Ground Zero – the grave of the Twin Towers. And, slowly, the rest of the world started to forget about 9/11.
3 months after we got married, we went to the USA for a friend’s wedding. We stopped in New York for 6 days. I wanted to go to Ground Zero. Before we went to Lower Manhattan, we came across a small preview site.
Some of the footage I’d forgotten was running on screens. Images of the disaster were blown up and displayed all around.
And if my memory serves me correctly, the whole building was very quiet. It had been close on 11 years since I had seen the recordings. I was no longer a naïve child but an adult who was beginning to understand the tragedy of living in a fallen world.
And then, I suddenly start to get it. It started to become real. Because, encased in glass were personal items. Things that real people who once were alive wore like boots, helmets and jackets. I think there were wallets and photos as well.
And what made my throat grow tight was that the ash of the two towers still covered them. The remains of that awful disaster still coated them.
All around New York, we started to see tributes. Painted tiles on a fence.
A plaque outside a fire station that responded and had lost 15 firefighters.
Most days in New York, we walked. Sometimes up to 80 blocks a day! But Lower Manhattan was just too far from Harlem where we were staying. So we climbed on a Hop On/Hop Off bus to get there. When we jumped off, we planned to do Wall Street, the Staten Island Ferry and possible see the Statue of Liberty. But our first stop was Ground Zero. We walked for a good while before we came in the vicinity of Ground Zero. At first, we couldn’t find it. And then, behind lots of material signage draped over huge boards blocking off what looked to be a construction site, we realised that it was right there. We followed our way around the construction site to the entry point.
NYPD were on site with volunteers all over – most family members who had lost loved ones – wearing blue shirts with the slogan 9/11 Never Forget boldly printed on the back. We got in the queue and were quite shocked at the level of security. It was as good as being in an airport. We had to take off belts and shoes and put them in a bin to be scanned. We were frisked and had to walk through a metal detector. Once inside, it looked a bit like a park. There were trees lining walkways. Nothing too impressive. But what was so strange was the silence. No one was talking loudly, running around, laughing – it was deathly quiet.
As we made our way to the main “attraction” – the water features created in memory of the disaster, I felt my body grow cold. Two massive, massive, square water features (if you can even call them water features!!) were sunken into the ground. All the water ran into a central square and then into a small square hole in the middle where it disappeared. The water features were named – Reflecting Absence. It couldn’t be more apt as we watched the water cascade into a black hole.
On the surrounding wall were the names of every single person who lost their life on that awful day. And they wrapped around the perimeter. When we saw how many names there were and how they ran the sides, suddenly the losses were quantifiable.
I shuddered as I realised just how big those towers were when I saw the footprint of the fountain – it was created in the graves of the towers. And I looked up, imagining the sheer scale of them dwarfing the skyscrapers still standing all around us. I couldn’t even begin to grasp the unfathomable terror people must have felt trying to flee the crumbling buildings.
It suddenly all made sense. And I understood as much as I could as a tourist about how terrifying and tragic this was for the world never mind the US!
We wandered around the extensive site and came across and strange glass building that was to be the 9/11 museum, opening just weeks after we planned to leave the States. Peering through the glass, we were able to see one of the steel tridents of the building. It was more telling evidence to show the sheer magnitude of the building. When we saw how massive pieces of steel had buckled in the heat, I was speechless.
Walking out and back around Lower Manhattan, we walked for a long while and then came across several buildings far, far away from the site and I recognised them from pictures. They had been enveloped in the grey cloud of debris. And it hit me then how far the reach was just in terms of the thick, thick layer of debris and ash.
Photo Credit: Shawn Baldwin
The plume of smoke could be seen from outer space. It was just astronomical.
Photo Credit: NASA
Last year, I read Christina Stanton’s account of 9/11 in her book Out of the Shadow of 9/11. She had a clear view of the towers from her balcony. The impact threw them back into their apartment and knocked their shoes off of their feet.
Photo Credit: Christina Stanton
Walking in her husband’s shoes a few days later, she couldn’t understand why an awful stench was following her until she turned the shoes over and realised that, mixed in the debris on the shoes, were human remains. She threw them away in the closest bin and walked barefoot.
While I remember where I was when it happened, I didn’t understand the tragedy. Now, the reality of it is chilling. Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary. It’s mind boggling that the most of the people in university weren’t even born when it happened. Yet for us, it was a day we will never forget.
Photo Credit: Mark Lennihan
Main Photo Credit: My husband or ITags: 2001, 9/11, America, firefighters, Manhattan, memorial, New York, plane, police, policemen, reflecting absence, September 11, smoke, terrorist attack, twin towers, USA, World Trade Centre