9/11 has impinged on our memories forever. The horror of the attack that was one of the first rolling news 24 hour a day stories is part of our lives now. Julie Hamill – the writer and host of the rock n roll book club in London lived in New York at the time and was in the middle of the terror…here is her eyewitness account.
We lived not far from the World Trade Centre. We loved the towers. Every day going to work we’d crane our necks to see the top. A wonderful sight, and reminder that we were living the dream in New York, New York. There was a gorgeous restaurant at the top, Windows on The World. We took all of our visitors there on the last night of their holidays. I always got the veggie burger. I loved it, after dinner, there was a female DJ and they opened the dance floor and we danced with the best views in the world. The DJ was blonde and brilliant, I often think of her.
This is our apartment, 22 River Terrace, New York, where we lived 2000-2005. The account of what I saw is written in the present tense.
September 11th, 2001
The radio is on.
‘This is Ten Ten wins radio, all news, all the time. It’s Tuesday September the eleventh and the weather is fine on Primary Day folks, so get ready to vote.’
I shouldn’t be home, I should be at work at Ogilvy in midtown, but I didn’t get in from Chicago until 2 am (our plane had a faulty engine). My boss is great, I message him on my pager and he tells me to rest at home for a bit. Now I can hang out with my boyfriend Gerard, and our visitors, Mick and Lorraine, here on holiday, a last holiday before Lorraine has the baby. They’re due to go back to London today.
I hear a very loud noise outside. It’s a short deliberate smack! like when a finger flicks paper. I have no idea what it is, I’ve never heard this kind of noise before. I switch off the radio and stand still. I hear a faint scream – not a child’s I think? I look out and see the river. I go into the living room and see Mick is up and dressed. He heard the noise too, so I suggest we go down and investigate. In the lift, Mick says something about cabs to the airport for him and Lorraine. I just want to know what that sound was first.
We go outside and look around. Can’t see anything. We join a small crowd. I follow their eyes up to the top of the scaffolding on the new building next door. They’re always building something round here these days. Maybe someone has fallen.
‘Look higher.’ A workman motions up with his head. I crane my neck. Mick gasps. I feel sick. ‘A plane just hit the north tower,’ says the workman. ‘I saw it. Came right over my head.’
There’s a hole in a Twin Tower with fire all around the edges. A long straight line of black smoke trails into the sky. It looks like a giant cigarette. I think of the plane, did it come out the other side? Scaffolding will never reach up there. Are the people okay? We hurry back upstairs to tell the others.
‘Very funny.’ Gerard dismisses our wild tales.
‘It’s not a joke.’ I say. ‘Come up to the sundeck and look.’ My legs are pumped. The lift opens at our floor. Our neighbour emerges, he’s stiff and his face is chalk white.
‘There’s another one. Hit the other tower. I’m calling my wife and heading uptown – I suggest you do the same. I think it’s some kind of attack.’ He rushes to his apartment.
We head to the sundeck and see both towers on fire. The South tower has been hit more violently than the North, with another hole on the left side, more towards the middle. I know now that people are experiencing horrible deaths. I feel slow and heavy. It’s incredible – none of us can look away.
‘It’s got to be terrorists,’ says Gerard.
‘We have to go,’ I say. I don’t even hear myself. I don’t know where my voice comes from. We take the stairs back down to our apartment to collect ID and money. The TV is on. A reporter is just outside the back door of our building.
‘America is under attack,’ the reporter says. ‘Mayor Giuliani is on his way to this terrible scene. We are waiting for President Bush to address the
nation. I’m standing here at Chambers Street and as you can see behind me the Twin Towers… Oh… Oh God. Oh my God.’ The TV screen goes black, but the sound is still working, the reporter screams. ‘It’s coming down! Oh my God it’s coming down!’ There’s a massive rumble. I look outside. People are running, heads on backwards, dark shadows in their eyes.
‘Let’s go, now.’ I blurt out. We make for the door. Phones are ringing and pagers going off. I know it’s my mum and dad but there’s no time to answer. They must be so worried; they were just here on holiday staying with us last week.
We take the stairs down, two and three at a time. I jump seven steps with one lunge. We’re flying but it’s not fast enough. We get outside and I blink; the green grass is coated in grey flour. I’m surrounded by dust, white ash and debris. We see a wheel from a plane in the middle of the street. It is the most enormous thing, this wheel. In front of us hoards of people are squeezing onto a riverboat to get to New Jersey. Police are yelling,
‘Get the hell out of here, move!’
Firemen and emergency vehicles are here. The National Guard is
here. They’ve got guns. Loud walkie-talkies are yelling directions at the air. They’re all shouting instructions.
There’s another noise I don’t recognise, just one or two at first. It’s growing louder. Lots of it. We are running and this noise is everywhere, high-pitched, loud, piercing, like the trill of a grasshopper. I don’t like it. I squeeze my eyes shut and block my ears. Gerard tells me later it’s an alarm that sounds if a fireman is still.
We run to the West Side Highway, the main road that stretches from the World Trade Center up the west side of Manhattan. We reach the first pier. We stand near a bench to give Lorraine a rest; she pants and shields her five-month pregnant belly. We turn and look back. We don’t talk. The four of us, two residents and two visitors are together, numb and silent… and we have no plan.
I can’t see the South tower for dust. I try to figure out if it any of it is standing. I don’t want to believe it’s all gone. I look across to see if it has hit the North in any way. I look left and right to see the tower but no, it’s dust cloud. I think of a story my parents told me; just a few months after my nana died, my granddad died of a broken heart. I wonder how the city will look with just one tower. Can it stand alone? There’s a remaining chunk of blue sky to the left of the tower, and thick, leaden sky to the right. I stare. It’s standing. I will it to be tall and strong. The antenna tilts gently to the side. Is it the wind?
‘Boom, boom, boom,’ thunders in my ears. Manhattan island shakes as each floor of the tower is gulped up by the next. It is swallowing itself. A black cloud forms like two arms reaching out from the ground. The tower slithers down deeply into the clutches of the smoke and, just… disappears.
Everyone is screaming again, louder this time, hands to mouths. My heart;
my heart is beating right out of my chest, like a cartoon heart when it falls in love. My throat is tight and dry, without thought of a drink. My legs like big stones in water. This can’t be happening. I can’t be seeing this, can
I? My head isn’t moving, but inside it’s shaking, no, no. They’re gone. They’re down. More people are dead. And the cloud is coming.
I force my eyes away to look at Lorraine. She’s in a trance. I have the image of a movie, where people are frozen and cinemagoers are shouting ‘RUN!’ But they stand still.
‘We need to go, right now,’ I say, shaking Gerard and Mick.
‘I can’t move’, says Lorraine, in a small voice. We lift her and we run. We are always just ahead of the cloud, terrified to look back.
‘Has anyone seen my son, combat trousers and a blue top?’ A woman pleads as she passes us. ‘He’s four years old, please!’
I stop to help a man; he is grey, like the statue of liberty in a shirt and
tie. His eyelashes are thick and clogged, eyes red. I give him my water and a tissue and we wipe circles for him to see.
A police officer in a mask is putting little leather shoes on his chocolate Labrador. He ties on the last shoe. They are heading downtown. He looks ahead to his mission, focused.
We run then walk then run then walk and eventually arrive at Chelsea Piers, a big, wide-open space for sports. A triage has been set up. Doctors and nurses are waiting; masks on, beds all ready and clean. People are giving blood.
‘Put your name down here if you want to help’ says a male nurse with a clipboard.
I want to help. We all want to help. Volunteers line up to aid survivors.
We wait for survivors. We watch the replays over and over again on the giant TVs. People moan at the point of impact. Someone says there’s another plane coming for the Empire State building. Where to go that’s safe? Stay here? A plane hits the Pentagon. A bit of it collapses. Phone signals come and go. Gerard reaches his sister in London and she calls everybody else. We tell each other:
‘Drink something, you should eat.’
There’s no sign of any ambulances coming. The planes hit again and again on the TV and we keep watching it. The others want to go somewhere else, to safety. I want to stay and help. A doctor tells me we should go – there’s no one coming. He looks at the floor. We go to an apartment in midtown.
I wake up the next morning in the same clothes and go outside. In the distance, the towers are still blazing into the bluest of skies. The streets are totally silent; no people, no traffic, no yellow cabs, nothing. Missing person fliers have been posted through the night. I look at the thousands of posters, on shop windows, apartments, brick walls… to see the faces of
the people we waited for at the Triage Centre. I cradle their smiles on the paper. I realise they are all dead. The rise of grief is insurmountable.
A few days later we were allowed back into our apartment to collect some things, just for ten minutes, under police supervision. ‘only take what you need’ they said. I see some images that I know I’ll never forget: a coating of white ash on every building, Giuliani flying in on his helicopter, landing on our front lawn as we stand there, our hair blowing. The distant sound of the firemen’s personal alarms. The contents of our back garden: sheets and sheets of metal, debris, chunks of tower, shards of steel. Cards from a Rollerdex with details of people and phone numbers. A dismissal form, somebody was getting sacked. Lots of internal memos, ‘To: / From:’. Split wires. File folders. A phone. Records. Plugs. A filing cabinet, drawers blown out and apart. Signs of everyday life, blitzed.
In the aftermath, the people of New York City rose with such compassion and fight that it makes me proud we stayed. Standing on the West Side Highway, clapping hands as Fire Engines, Police and Ambulances went up and down; they never stopped working. People had made signs: ‘Heroes’, ‘We love you’, ‘New York’s finest’. It changed the City. Out of one of the worst atrocities in history, such kindness and buoyancy emerged. Strangers asked ‘how are you?’ And they meant it, with all of their hearts.
Today, years on, it is still too much to think of the people on the plane as they were taken to their deaths in what must be the worst, most terrifying way to die. Too much to think of the office workers – just sending their memos, or getting their coffee – to see the nose of a gigantic 737 blasting through the sky towards the ‘safety’ of their desks. It’s too much to think of the desperate ones who jumped, falling to the ground.
God bless the 2,976.