Disaster in New York
With immaculate timing, Jon Storm and Jenny were in New York on business, staying in the Millenium Hilton right opposite the World Trade Center, on 11 September 2001. This is Jon's account of what happened.
We were sitting having breakfast in the third-floor restaurant of the Millenium Hilton, looking right at the World Trade Center when the first plane went in. There was a loud bang, the window rattled, and one of the waiters started screaming "Oh my God, a bomb, get out, get out!" and ran away. More used to such things (at least in principle) as Londoners, we stayed calm and looked out of the window, and way, way up at the North Tower. There was a gaping hole near the top, shaped rather like a small plane, with smoke coming out of it. At first we thought it was an accident. We had seen small planes and helicopters flying around below the level of the top of the WTC now and then and thought perhaps some fool had totalled himself, and most of a couple of floors too. Or maybe it was a small-to-medium size bomb. There was some ash and paper raining down out of the sky and it didn't look too good, but it didn't look as desperately bad as it later turned out, not then. We didn't find out until later that the hole we were looking at wasn't in fact the entry wound, the impact was actually 90 degrees round from there and the plane-like shape of the hole was a fluke. The hotel tannoy, quickly on the ball, said the safest thing for the moment was to stay in the hotel, and there wasn't anything we could do anyway, so we sat down to finish our breakfast - as did another British couple, maybe there is something to the legend of the stiff upper lip! Others moved closer to the windows and peered up for a better view. CNN, which was on in the restaurant, were very quick to react, and within a couple of minutes confirmed it was a plane. We didn't realise at that point that it was an airliner. People were already streaming out of both towers - just as well, or the death toll would have been far worse. Fifty thousand people worked in the towers. As the minutes passed more and more smoke was coming from the wound, and more debris was raining down, sheets of paper and whitish grey ash mainly. After a few minutes some of the people at the window shouted "Oh my God, people are jumping out of the building!" Just awful. Choosing to jump rather than burn. We didn't look, and I'm glad we didn't. Then a German guy shouted (in German) "Another plane!" and there was another huge bang, and a big hole in the other tower, lower down. This one looked worse - we learned later that people under the flight path heard the plane rev its turbines up to maximum as it approached the South Tower, presumably to increase the impact. A lot more debris started falling, and bigger pieces. Right after this the hotel tannoy ordered everyone to evacuate, using the stairs not the lifts. A few people were panicking and pushing past to get out quicker, but the staff, though shocked, mostly stayed calm - twelve out of ten to the guy on the tannoy - and the hotel was evacuated rapidly and in a fairly orderly fashion, out of the side doors as the entrance is directly opposite the WTC. (Everyone in the hotel, all 55 floors, got out safely). We looked up at the now pretty huge plumes of smoke coming from the twin towers, checked their direction, and started walking the opposite way, east and south, towards Jen's company's office. Some people were running towards the towers rather than away, with cameras - some of them are probably under the rubble. As we walked along the side of the hotel we saw a woman sitting on the steps, crying, semi-hysterical and apparently having trouble breathing. We stopped to check that she was OK, and she told us that she had run down the stairs from the 59th floor of the WTC immediately after the first impact. No wonder she was out of breath. She was OK though, apart from being understandably upset. She didn't know what had happened, and hadn't stayed to find out. I think panic saved a lot of people from the towers that day. Americans feel - felt - safe in their country in a way that is hard for Europeans to understand, and to most of them a terrorist bomb is more something out of a movie than an everyday possibility (however remote). Stuff like that just doesn't happen in America, even post-Oklahoma. Terrorism is something that happens "overseas". So when they were struck by a bolt from the blue a lot ran just away as fast as they could, without waiting to find out exactly what was going on - the best thing they could have done, as it turned out. No-one had any idea that the towers might collapse. Tragically, many of the ones who stayed calm and tried to help get other people out, including a lot of brave firefighters and cops, are the ones who were still in there when the buildings collapsed. It still makes me weep. And the people on the top floors. They never had a chance. As well as the fools with cameras, firefighters and police were coming in fast and in numbers. We felt that the best thing we could do was get the hell out of the way and let them do their jobs, so that's what we did. We walked a couple of blocks to the Equitable building on Broadway, where Jen's firm's office is located, intending to take refuge there, but they were evacuating the building as a precaution, so we stopped to rest in a small square nearby, Chase Manhattan Plaza. People were rushing out into the streets, asking each other what was happening, making cellphone calls, milling about all over the place. It was snowing ash and sheets of slightly charred paper even there, but it wasn't making breathing difficult or anything like that - the smoke was high up and going in the opposite direction. We didn't know what to do next, so we asked a grizzled cop and he directed us to a subway station inside the Chase building. It wasn't marked from the outside in any obvious way, and we wouldn't have seen it without his help. We went in and tried to buy tickets, but the guy on the barrier waved us urgently through when it became obvious we didn't understand the ticketing system - he'd heard over an intercom or something that there had been a disaster. There weren't many people in the station. We got on the first train that came along, which was less than half full. There were only a couple more trains out of there, just a few minutes later, and they were so crammed with people fleeing the collapse of the first tower that the doors wouldn't close, so they left with them still open, but we got seats on ours. At least one station was already closed and we went straight through. At the next station, almost right under the World Trade Center as it happens, we stopped and some people started to get off, when the driver suddenly shouted "Don't open the doors, don't open the doors! - Get back on the train, get back on the train!" We saw that the station was rapidly filling up with what appeared to be smoke. A nasty moment. Some people got back on the train, but at least one woman ignored him and started up the steps, and after a couple more pleas he closed the doors and got us out of there. I hope she made it. Actually it probably wasn't smoke, it was almost certainly massive amounts of dust from the first tower collapsing, but either way it didn't look all that breathable. The train headed north, and there were no more smoke- filled stations. It was almost eerily calm on board. We all knew there had been a disaster, though we didn't know just how bad it was. Jen and I didn't know where we were going, but by God's grace we were together - a few minutes later and she would have left for work, and we would have been separated, and frantic - and we had our passports and credit cards. We got out at Times Square, on the grounds that we had heard of it, we knew there were hotels there, and that it was well away from the disaster area. We went into the first bar we saw to sit down and try to get our breath back, metaphorically speaking, where we learned that one of the towers had collapsed and Lower Manhattan looked like a war zone, and then we went looking for a hotel and went into the first one we saw. Hotel Casablanca (seriously - http://www.casablancahotel.com/ ) was fully booked, but they took us in anyway, said they'd find us a room if they possibly could (explaining that a lot of other refugees from Lower Manhattan had made conditional reservations by phone in case they couldn't get home), put us in the lounge and invited us to help ourselves from the permanent coffee, tea and cakes they have there, and generally looked after us - they even brought us lunch. From there we watched it all getting worse and worse on the lounge's giant TV, more buildings collapsing, our hotel reportedly on fire, the Pentagon hit too, another plane down near Pittsburgh. We were so stunned and exhausted that we had the firm idea it was the middle of the night in Britain, despite the fact that both of us have been routinely calculating time zones all our professional lives, and we had been in New York for several days - we actually worked it out backwards, both of us. It was quite some time before we realised our mistake, and that we had to let people at home know we were OK. We tried to phone quite a few times but only got a line once, and left a message on Jen's Mum's answering service. The hotel lounge has a PC with high speed internet access, and after a while it occurred to us that we could get in touch via email : after all, the internet was originally designed to be able to route messages round holes in the network. I was too dazed to think of creating a Hotmail account (I didn't have the login details for my usual accounts), but a kind guest at the hotel lent us hers and we managed to get off some messages. Shock is a funny thing. Although we knew that thousands were almost certainly dead, perhaps tens of thousands, it takes a while to take that in emotionally. At the time, I couldn't stop thinking about how beautiful the World Trade Center had been. Our room in the Hilton, on the 33rd floor, had a magnificent view of the WTC and the Hudson River behind it, and we had already spent hours just looking out at the panorama, especially stunning by night. I had grown fond of the WTC, absurdly tall, towering over us despite our fabulous vantage point. You couldn't see the top unless you went close to the window and peered upwards. Sometimes it was genuinely taller than the clouds, a true skyscraper. When it collapsed it was almost like losing a friend. Manhattan was a sombre place the rest of that week. There was only one topic of conversation, wherever you went, whoever you met. Overnight home-made Missing posters began to appear everywhere : colour photos, the person's name, a few personal details, where they worked. Often on the top floors. You know they are dead, and it's just heartbreaking. That day and for days after the tragedy, every TV channel was carrying a constant news program, no commercials at all, just disastervision. Even MTV and the cartoon channels. All sports events cancelled, every Broadway theatre dark. Manhattan was oddly deserted, most businesses open but rather half- heartedly, lots of people leaving but almost no-one coming in. September is normally the peak month for tourists but by the time we left most hotels were almost deserted, though Manhattan life was beginning to return to something like normal. People deal with it in different ways : some try and pretend it didn't happen. One client even rang up Jen's company's London office from New York, demanding to know why he hadn't had any software updates, though a moment's thought would have told him that the New York office was in the part of Manhattan that was closed. Some, regrettably, have been taking it out on anyone that looks Arabic or Muslim. Most, however, are determined not to let the terrorists win and are full of patriotic fervour, displaying US flags wherever they can and cheering the firefighters. We were very very fortunate - we feel that God was very kind to us and led us to safety. If things had turned out just slightly differently in all sorts of ways we might not have made it, or at least not unscathed. We got out without a scratch, together, and though we lost all our luggage we had our 21st century magic wands, the credit cards, so we knew we would have no problem surviving. By pure chance we walked into an excellent hotel - I'd recommend it to anyone - and they adopted and looked after us. And considering how many people worked in the WTC, awful as it was, the casualty list could have been much worse - well over 80% of the people in the WTC escaped. 21 September 2001
© Jon Storm 2001