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.

Saturday, 11th September 2021, 10:38 pm
Updated Sunday, 12th September 2021, 3:54 pm
The north tower of the World Trade Center ablaze and engulfed in smoke on Septemer 11, 2001. The worst terrorism seeks not just to kill, but literally to instil a sense of terror (AP Photo)

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.

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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

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor