'I saw things no one should see'


On September 11th, 2001, 'Irish Times' foreign correspondent CONOR O'CLERYwatched from his downtown Manhattan apartment as thousands of people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. He recounts the hellish day that scarred New York

I SPENT MY CAREER as a foreign correspondent seeking out news and conflicts in different parts of the world. On that hellish day, Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, the story found me. War came to my doorstep in the form of two hijacked passenger airliners, gorged with aviation fuel and used as missiles, that smashed into one of the world’s most important places of business, took the lives of thousands and destroyed my “village”.

It’s natural to think of the World Trade Center as a place only where bankers, traders, commodity brokers, insurance agents and lawyers conducted global business. But to those of us who lived in its shadow (literally) it was much more. Beneath the 110-storey twin towers was a shopping and service concourse that was for us the equivalent of a village square, a place that contained all sorts of outlets, such as a hot-bread shop, a kitchenware store, a chocolatier, several magazine stands, a cobbler’s, a hair salon with a Russian stylist called Irina, and a big coffee bar near the escalators leading down to the New York subway system.

There was a cavernous delicatessen crammed with exotic foods, and a multistorey Borders bookshop with deep armchairs, and a Marriott hotel where our visitors stayed. There was also a cosmetics store where I bought a wooden-handled London Fog umbrella (and keep as a treasured memento), and I recall a pen shop, a tobacconist’s, a Sunglass Hut, a Starbucks and Johnny’s Fish Grill, where it was impossible to get a seat during evening rush hour.

We went to the South Tower to queue for discount Broadway theatre tickets and to the North Tower to pick up airline tickets. We attended free performances of jazz, country, rhythm and blues and classical music in the plaza at the foot of the towers.

On weekdays, the area below the towers teemed with office workers like a Tokyo railway station, but at weekends the complex belonged to us, the Battery Park City residents. On Saturday mornings we would wander over for coffee and pastries in the Amish Market, a tiled deli with hanging hams and health-food buffet staffed by Turkish immigrants, situated next to the tiny St Nicholas Greek Orthodox church. We would stroll along the river promenade to the immense atrium of the Winter Gardens of the adjoining World Financial Center, with its tall palm trees imported from the Mojave Desert, and linger by a compact harbour on the Hudson River surrounded by dockside cafes where the loud hum of conversation in the summer evenings matched that on any Italian piazza.

So, unlike other violent episodes I experienced in the course of my work, the attack on the twin towers was personal. It destroyed that with which I and my fellow residents were familiar, from the World Trade Center and its subterranean village to the 400 or so shops and businesses in the vicinity. It had an impact therefore on my daily life, though of course this was of little significance, an inconvenience, compared with the suffering of the victims and their relatives.

I had seen death and destruction many times before, but on those occasions I chose to be an observer. It had been my job, just like that of the people in emergency services who experience the horrors of death more frequently and with greater immediacy than journalists.

This time, when the hijacked planes were flown into the towers, I found myself an involuntary witness to the greatest act of mass murder in peacetime.

FOR NEARLY TWO HOURSI saw many things no one should ever see. People doomed to violent death appeared at upper-storey windows of the towers, crying helplessly for assistance. When I left my apartment briefly and went over to the burning towers some minutes before they collapsed, I saw in awestricken horror office workers falling from a great height with results that shouldn’t be described. Some plummeted down with arms extended, as if for a crucifixion. Others tumbled like rag dolls.

More than 100 people fell to their deaths on 9/11, some landing on the pavement, others on the roofs of street-level extensions. The sight of multiple deaths scarred the psyches of everyone in the vicinity, especially of the office workers who escaped from the towers and of the children whom I saw weeping in terror as their schools were evacuated.

Many first responders were deeply traumatised by the sight of the falling victims. I find that people who were in downtown Manhattan for any reason that morning, including myself, find that it is hard to cope with the memories, and get very upset and agitated at seeing footage of 9/11 on television.

All that awful morning I found myself focusing my emotions on one person. I don’t know who he was. I first saw him shortly after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower, at 8.46am. He appeared at a window ledge of what I reckoned was the 92nd or 93rd floor, hanging out precariously above Vesey Street, 300m below. Black smoke poured from the narrow, vestry-like windows beside and above him. He was waving a white cloth, perhaps a shirt. Peering up at him from my apartment window through an old pair of Russian binoculars, I could see he was in his 30s and a little overweight, and probably Hispanic. He most likely worked for Marsh McLennan, the insurance brokerage that had offices on eight floors.

As I watched his despairing signals for help, United Airlines Flight 175 skimmed over the Hudson River and smashed into the South Tower, behind him, creating a huge orange-and-black fireball and showering Broadway with flaming debris.

Shortly afterwards I trained my binoculars again on the North Tower. The man was still waving. I felt an urge to shout at a distant police helicopter to come and rescue him by lowering a rope or landing on the roof. I didn’t know then that the doors to the roof were locked and the pilots could not approach because of the heat.

Just before 10am the South Tower fell. The top seemed to tilt over towards the river, then crushed the building beneath it. A monstrous cloud of dust and ash rose from the impact. As it cleared, I again scanned the windows of the North Tower. Incredibly, the man was there, still clinging desperately to a dividing strut in the narrow window, as smoke and flames poured out above and below him, occasionally waving his white cloth. He clung on for another 20 minutes. Then I saw two bodies fall past him from higher floors, followed by two more, and the tower shuddered violently. At 10.28am the building imploded downwards floor by floor, spewing out clouds of debris that enveloped our neighbourhood.

The man dropped into the roaring blackness, still standing, as if in an elevator.

I felt a connection with him. I somehow imagined that he had been looking at me as if pleading for help. It left me with a feeling of guilt in the pit of my stomach, an awful sense of inadequacy at not being able to do anything for him. Counting those on the planes, 2,753 people perished in downtown Manhattan on 9/11. That’s a statistic, but this man was a fellow human being. I think of him to this day.

I learned afterwards that everyone in Marsh McLennan’s offices there died: 295 employees and 63 contractors. In the five floors above, all 658 workers in the bond-trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald perished. Of the first responders, 343 firefighters and 60 police officers died that day.

OUR VILLAGE WASdestroyed that day, along with the near-idyllic life of the privileged people like ourselves who resided in Battery Park City. My mind often goes back to the Sunday before the attack, also a warm, calm sunny day. We rollerbladed that morning along the West Side and then went for a drive through upstate New York, where we picnicked and watched a performance of Romeo and Julietunder canvas at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

I remarked as we drove back to Manhattan how wonderful it was to live where we did. I wondered what I would find to write about in the coming week. Ten years later I am still writing about it.

Our 44-storey apartment block, Tribeca Pointe, at the Hudson River end of Chambers Street, was evacuated after the towers fell, but I stayed working in my office until late afternoon, thanks to my friend Rosie Rosenstein, the building manager, who didn’t tell the police I was still present. Local phone lines and mobiles were not functioning, but international lines remained open, and I could communicate all day with Dublin. In late afternoon a third tower, 50 stories high, collapsed and cut off power, and there was no option but to leave.

Emerging from the building, I saw that a five-centimetre coating of grey and black dust covered shop canopies and parked cars, many of which had burned out, on West Side Highway. Millions of paper scraps swirled around in a warm breeze. In the smoke-darkened streets, exhausted and grimy firemen stood stupefied, gazing tearfully at the massive pile of metal and concrete that now entombed hundreds of their comrades.

I made my way north to Greenwich Village with my wife, Zhanna, who had arrived from her office uptown, and our house guest Aoife Keane, a 19-year-old Dublin psychology student who had witnessed everything from our apartment in Tribeca Pointe: she had arrived the day before, on her first visit to Manhattan, and planned to go to the top of the World Trade Center that morning.

At a tiny restaurant called the Place we linked up with the Irish Timescontributor Elaine Lafferty. I remember Helen Hunt the actor was there. Then something really surreal happened. A brief but vicious fight broke out between a customer and a waiter in which chairs were thrown and tables overturned as we cringed in the corner and Hunt ran off up the street.

That night we got rooms at the W hotel in midtown. I hooked my laptop to the telephone and after a few days was asked to pay an enormous phone bill. When I explained that the charges could bankrupt The Irish Times the manager agreed to cut it in half. Many such acts of kindness took place in New York then.

It was nearly two weeks before we were allowed to return to Tribeca Pointe. When we did we found ourselves on the periphery of an immense roped-off crime scene. For weeks armed soldiers and police manned checkpoints at the junction of Chambers Street and West Side Highway. They let cars and taxis through only on proving residency.

Once a Pakistani taxi driver adamantly refused to drive me up to the barrier, saying the police would not let him past. I began to remonstrate with him, as I had a heavy case, then realised that he was probably undocumented and badly frightened. In the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Muslim men were being rounded up and their papers checked. More than 1,000 people from the Middle East, many of them long-term residents, were detained and eventually deported, some after spending years in the Brooklyn immigration detention centre. That was the dark side of the 9/11 aftermath for them.

FOR THREE MONTHSthe fire burned, and the rubble of the twin towers belched forth acrid black smoke containing particles of asbestos, dioxin, benzene and other pollutants. There was an evil, unusual smell when the wind blew in our direction. During our enforced absence we had been reassured by the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Christine Todd Whitman, on September 18th, that the air was “safe to breathe”, as monitoring showed no excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances.

Despite the official assurances, in the street we wore face masks and at home we stopped going out on to our little balcony. We were fortunate in that Tribeca Pointe escaped significant contamination. The dust cloud came so close we could almost touch it, but it did not envelop the building, whereas an apartment block down the street was rendered uninhabitable for months.

Sometimes it became terribly depressing to live where a society had been wrenched out of joint. At night dazzling stadium lights silhouetted the skeleton of the towers and sparks cascaded from oxyacetylene torches, making the scene outside our apartment window like something from Dante’s Inferno.

Bucket brigades worked around the clock at the Pile, as recovery teams preferred to call Ground Zero, sifting through minute particles of debris to find body parts or the property of victims. We kept the blinds closed, but sometimes, late at night, during the winter and into the spring of 2002, I would pull them back and see human remains draped in an American flag being carried up a ramp to an ambulance, past lines of saluting fireman and police. No more than 176 intact bodies were ever found. After the first week, only parts of bodies, sometimes as little as a finger joint or a jawbone, were delivered to the families. Most victims, including probably the man I had watched, were atomised, wiped from the face of the earth.

Fleets of flatbed trucks were brought to take away the detritus, including the remains of 2,000 cars that had been in the twin towers’ garage. Diggers with clamshell grabbers dumped loads of twisted mesh, crushed glass and concrete on to these trucks, which then brought them to a pontoon harbour that had been put in place beside our building. Day and night we endured the squealing and banging of cranes as they transferred the wreckage on to giant barges for transport to Staten Island.

Years later I learned that the Bush administration had deceived us about air safety and that we were right to take precautions. In 2006 an EPA scientist named Cate Jenkins said that agency officials had lied about air quality and that they knew the dust contained asbestos and disturbingly high levels of metal toxins. Christine Todd Whitman admitted “we didn’t want to scare people” working in the financial district.

A year after that again, in 2008, New York City Department of Health estimated that up to 70,000 people, including first responders and residents, might develop long-term health problems because of the dust. It said that 360 of the responders and volunteers who dealt with the aftermath had died, 154 from cancer, and that it was examining whether the number of deaths had been “elevated” as a result of 9/11.

Gradually downtown Manhattan came back to life. The local multiplex cinema reopened after a year of decontamination. We got hugs from the staff of Lili’s Noodle Shop when we appeared on the first day they resumed business. The holes in the roof of the World Financial Center were repaired, and it was reopened with new palm trees. Yachts from the Cayman Islands reappeared in the harbour. We could rollerblade the length of the lower West Side again.

But where the towers had stood nothing remained. Gone were the shops and delicatessens and ticket counters and cafes, and the Marriott hotel and the Greek Orthodox church and the bookstore and the scores of outlets destroyed in the apocalypse. For all of our remaining four years in New York there was only an enormous pit, surrounded by hoarding, where the towers had been.

Construction of a memorial and museum began only in March 2006. Since then it has become a place of pilgrimage for international tourists and camera-wielding Americans, drawn by a mixture of curiosity, reverence and patriotism. Ground Zero now belongs not to the residents but to them.