I was surprised that it wasn’t until two hours after I woke up this morning that I remembered it’s the 16th anniversary of 9/11 today. I am usually prepared for a week or two before the anniversary strikes. Why? Because I was there.
This is the first time I have written about how that felt, and how it has affected me.
On September 11 2001 I was staying in mid-town Manhattan, on my first trip to New York in a decade. I’d recently celebrated the first birthday of my youngest daughter, and this was the first big trip away from her and rest of the family since I had taken a new job on a fashion magazine. The purpose of this trip was to shadow the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, on a publicity trip to New York and Washington.
Early that morning we’d gone to the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center for the duchess to be interviewed on the Today Show. I watched as it was filmed then trailed behind her and her security man back through the labyrinth of sound stages and offices to the green room. There the manager of her charity, Children in Crisis, was standing by the door: “Ma’am,” he said, holding a mobile phone in each hand, “A plane has just flown into the World Trade Center.”
The office in which he worked, alongside half a dozen others, had been loaned to the charity by a good friend of the Duchess, Howard Lutnick. He was the head of Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services business which worked out of the 101st to 105th floors of the north tower. Even at this early stage, watching one corner of the tower smoking on the tiny wall-mounted TV, we could see that their offices were above where the plane had landed.
Working with me was photographer Sylvia Plachy, an old news hand whose usual employers were the New York Times or the Village Voice. She reassured me that it was probably a small plane; something like that had happened before. But then, in real-time, we saw the second plane fly into the second tower.
Ferguson’s security man, armed with an earpiece that had seemed slightly ridiculous before, leapt into action. Half a dozen of us ran through the labyrinthine halls and out of the building into two darkened-windowed SUVs at the curb. Sirens might have wailed, I can’t remember, I was so stunned by what we’d just seen. All I know is that a few minutes later, Sylvia and I were on the kerb outside my hotel, and Ferguson’s group were among the last allowed over the bridge before all routes on and off Manhattan were closed down.
Sylvia and I went to my hotel room and turned on the TV. The horrors continued: the second tower collapsing, people leaping out rather than be burned alive, the crowds covered in dust running away from the area, the rescue services standing and realising there was virtually nothing they could do. Sylvia, a refugee from Hungary in 1958 (and incidentally the mother of actor Adrian Brody), was a great companion, but call after call asking her to get downtown to take photographs meant she couldn’t stay with me for long. She offered to take me with her, but I was simply too terrified to move.
That evening I did leave my room. I walked a couple of blocks, through an almost silent city, to St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. I don’t recall how I knew about it, but there was a mass for the fire fighters and rescue workers who, before the towers’ collapse, had been trying to help survivors to get out alive. They didn’t know it at the time, but 343 died that day or as a result of the attack. The grand, dimly-lit church was filled with sobbing families.
But otherwise I stayed inside. It was hard to get a phone call through, on landline or mobile, but I eventually got to speak to my husband. In the face of such horror, my part was entirely incidental, but that isn’t how it feels when you’re in the middle of it. Also, Ferguson told the press that we were due to visit her charity in the WTC, and only the TV filming running late meant we were not on the 101st floor when the plane hit the north tower. All 658 of Cantor Fitzgerald’s staff who were at their desks that morning - which, incidentally, was a beautiful, clear autumn day — were killed.
Three days later the duchess got in touch. Designer Tommy Hilfiger, who’d put her up in his Connecticut home had lent her his plane, so as soon as the government allowed flights again, we’d be off. The next morning, at dawn, a car drove me through the deserted streets, over the just-opened bridge, past the wastes of the Bronx, then alongside some of the most sumptuous homes and gardens I’d ever seen to Westchester Airport. It was all of this that the hijackers wanted to destroy.
Around the time I was pregnant, working in a more than usually stressful job, I had started to have panic attacks. I’d completely stopped driving on motorways and flying was increasingly difficult, and now involved taking tranquillisers or plenty of panic-preventive alcohol. When I saw the plane, I thought I’d never be able to get on it. It was tiny and we were going to cross the Atlantic. The duchess’s hairdresser took one look at my face and told me to double my dose and neck the Champagne, then ask for more. And so, I finally escaped 9/11 New York, drunk before breakfast and then asleep for most of the flight.
How did it affect me? I continue to be angry at violent, senseless, extremist acts, but I would not say I’m much more exercised in that than most people. I think I have not been badly scarred by the experience, but it is there, in my memory, sometimes ready to be triggered, at other times simply something extraordinary that happened in my life.
I am both fascinated and horrified by the subject. I am drawn to read books about it (The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, for example, tells of the origins of Al Qaeda, but also the events of 9/11 itself) and I have seen films like Hamberg Cell, Falling Man and United 93, about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, with the passengers fully aware of their fate.
As The Guardian reported “Immediately after the attack on the World Trade Centre, psychologists predicted that a wave of trauma would sweep across the country.” That didn’t happen, though some 530,000 New York City residents suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the months following the attack. It’s also been discovered that unborn babies were affected in utero by the stress on their mothers, and have gone on to develop symptoms of PTSD but most will have recovered.
Only last week I thought about the World Trade Center as, not far from my home, we drove down the road beside Grenfell Tower and looked up at that “looming tower”. It’s a constant reminder of the recent deaths of (possibly) hundreds of people, and many are traumatised by it. I am pleased that at welldoing.org we have done the tiniest thing to help, by providing a way for therapists who want to offer to help those affected by the fire that they would happily see such clients without charge.
I am thinking about it again today, but in a more positive way these days. After all, it all happened 16 years ago. Historically, it will always be significant, and we should not forget that 2996 people were killed as a result of that day. But personally, it has become water under my bridge. That baby I mentioned is now in her last year of school. I’ve revisited New York and felt fine. Following some effective hypnotherapy treatment I can drive on motorways and fly on planes, and I don’t live in fear of horrific events. Life goes on.