Ben Lowry: We remember the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York because it was meant to terrorise us, and it did
On these pages you will read of many people’s recollections of where they were on September 11 2001.
Not many people who were adults at the time are unable to remember, so shocking were the attacks.
I was in a restaurant in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast finishing lunch with a friend.
At the time I was a reporter for the Belfast Telegraph, which was then an evening paper so the day started early and then was intense until the final deadline at around 1pm ish.
After that the pressure was off and it was possibly to enjoy leisurely lunch breaks.
I think it was around 2.20pm or 2.30pm, which was 9.20am or 9.30am in America.
I remember as we were leaving the waitress told us about the attack. And I always remember that she said thousands of people were dead, which was not known for sure then, given that the twin towers had not in fact fallen.
By that stage, however, it was clear that many people were likely to have been killed in the upper portions of the skyscrapers, such was the damage — evidently of a catastrophic nature from the TV footage.
At that same time, Louise Traynor from South Armagh, then living in New York, had just escaped the second tower before it was hit, a horrifying experience which she recounts to me on pages 22 and 23 (see link below).
Given that she had been on the 101st floor, Louise was one of the most fortunate of the survivors of that day. More than 10,000 people esaped the towers, but most of them were below the impact zone.
No-one survived above the impact zone in the north tower, the first to be hit, and only those who had been above the impact zone in the south tower prior to it being hit, survived if they moved quickly — as Louise did.
Some 600 people who were in the upper floors of the south tower perished, alongside 1,400 people who were in the upper floors of the north tower, the first tower to be attacked (deaths on the planes, on the ground, and among the emergency services pushed the total fatality tally near to 3,000 people).
After leaving the restaurant in Belfast I went back to the newspaper offices where it was on TV and everyone was crowding round. A special late edition was put out and some of us worked through the night for an early paper on September 12.
I do not in fact recall the exact moments of the towers falling, but was certainly in the office with the TV on when it happened (the first one at 9.59am New York time, 2.59pm local time).
By autumn 2001 I had been aware of the Taliban’s taking of power in Afghanistan for some years, having worked on the news wires in London in the 1990s, when I covered an early shift and much of morning news agenda was made up with developments in the east, where the day was well advanced.
The Bin Laden Al Qaeda attacks of 1998 in Africa stuck in my head, because I recall upsetting images of people emerging bloodied from a tall building in Nairobi. That the people were so poor but seemed, in the footage, so well dressed somehow made it all the more poignant and embedded it deeply in my memory.
From that point I followed closely the progress of that deranged terrorist mastermind, and I felt sure a major attack on the west was coming.
Needless to say I had no idea it would take the form of a dual plane attack on the World Trade Center.
I had been in Donegal with school friends a week or two before and recall we had discussed different global blocs, including an Islamic extremist one.
Then, in a strange coincidence, even closer to 9/11, I was on a flight from Brussels that came over central London and had such a perfect view Buckingham Palace that I remember wondering what they would do if someone flew a plane at it. I think I was thinking more of a small plane and assumed that there must be some way of detecting and preventing such a threat, but I could not think what it would be.
But even so, I still expected any major attack on the west to be a bomb, perhaps the biggest bomb ever used by terrorists.
We remember where we were on 9/11 because most people in 2001 in the western world had lived relatively comfortable lives. You needed by then to be aged 65+ to have a meaningful memory of World War Two.
The theory that history had ended, as one intellectual put it, seemed plausible.
I often think of how the worst terrorism in Northern Ireland really did exactly that: it sought not just to kill, but also to instil a sense of terror (thus to make the targeted community lose confidence and to change in ways wanted by the terrorists).
And instilling terror is what the twin tower attack did. We were all deeply shaken by it.
My own fears were very great indeed. I thought that people would want to live less in cities, because they were too vulnerable to attack, and that skyscrapers would become a thing of the past.
I thought that the future would be cities like Los Angeles, endless suburban sprawls, with no concentrated, vulnerable centre.
This did not happen at all. In fact, skyscraper construction entered its busiest phase, and huge towers have been built in multiple cities all round the world.
I also thought that twin towers showed a clear desire to murder 50,000 people (the number who would have been in them if full) and that anyone who did that would merrily set off a nuclear bomb to kill hundreds of thousands of people if they could.
I continue to be concerned long-term that it will become easier and easier to construct weapons of mass destruction, and that unspeakable calamities lie ahead.
But it is a relief to see that the terrorism threat is no greater than it was 20 years ago.
The death toll in New York was, pro rata to population, like Northern Ireland suffering an attack in which a couple of hundred people died. We never had anything that bad, but did have atrocities in which more than dozen people were killed.
Belfast however suffered a worse per capita toll on the worst night of the Belfast Blitz of 1941 (almost 1,000 people) than New York did 20 years ago.
I do not say that in any way to diminish the horror of 20 years ago. Massacres are always evil. But rather to say that we all ultimately come through the darkest days.
• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor
• Interview with Louise Traynor: ‘I thought this was the end and screamed out my mummy’s name’
• Ex News Letter editor: I was in New York on September 11 2001 to celebrate my 50th
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry Sep 4: Drivers are now well paid ... which reminds me of a job idea
• Ben Lowry Aug 28: Lagan Valley shows the challenges facing both unionism and Alliance
• Ben Lowry Aug 21: Unionists are more vulnerable to the fall of Stormont than republicans
Ben Lowry Aug 21: Bigwigs should realise that there is no holiday before retirement
• Ben Lowry Aug 14: The collapse of Kabul to the Taliban will be seen as a sign of western weakness
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Covid has been a bewildering and humbling pandemic
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Now I understand those older people who want cooler summer weather
• Ben Lowry Aug 2: Three points to keep in mind when arguing against the NI Protocol
• Ben Lowry July 31: The last NI housing boom was disaster, and we need to beware a repeat
• Ben Lowry July 24: Hot weather ought to be welcome in NI but this is extreme
• Ben Lowry July 17: UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite
• Ben Lowry July 15: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty
• Ben Lowry July 10: We will find soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland
• Ben Lowry July 10: I once always wanted England to lose, now I want them to win
• Ben Lowry July 3: The mild DUP response to the protocol will cause Boris little concern
• Ben Lowry June 26: Neither Dublin nor IRA have been put under any pressure on legacy
• Ben Lowry June 26: A slight sense of sadness as the days again begin to shorten
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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