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The immediate area 

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 

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 

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 
The second plane going in

21 September 2001

© Jon Storm 2001

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