Ex News Letter editor: I was in New York on September 11 2001 to celebrate my 50th birthday

The former editor of the News Letter RANKIN ARMSTRONG was in Manhattan with his family when terrorists struck on 9/11. This reflection of his was first published on Saturday, the 20th anniversary, in the weekend print edition:

Sunday, 12th September 2021, 1:47 pm
Updated Sunday, 12th September 2021, 4:05 pm
Rankin Armstrong, who later became editor of the News Letter, in New York in March 2000, pictured with the skyline including the World Trade Center twin towers in the background. He so enjoyed that trip with his wife that he returned with his family in September 2001 for his 50th birthday in the city and was staying with them in Manhattan during the attacks

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a family holiday in New York to celebrate a significant birthday.

Hard to believe that was 20 years ago, and to think the timing of that holiday would coincide with a terrorist atrocity of world-shaking magnitude, a day that would go down in history as New York’s darkest day.

My wife Janet and I had taken a bite out of the Big Apple once before — in March 2000. Along with friends, we had attended the St Patrick’s Day parade and taken the boat trip out to Ellis Island, to see the Statue of Liberty close up, her torch beckoning those “huddled masses”.

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The aftermath of the World Trade Center complex when both twin towers collapsed on Tuesday 11 September, 2001 in New York. Rankin Armstrong had been with his family around the complex including the mall at the weekend, days before

This time, we brought along sons Christopher, then 22, Peter, 14, and daughter Katherine, 19, arriving on September 7 and celebrating my 50th birthday in a Thai restaurant on Times Square on the 9th.

Our hotel was on West 47th Street, in the heart of the theatre district, and only a short distance from Broadway and many of the main tourist attractions.

Peter had already planned out what sights he wanted to see: the 102-storey Empire State Building, the 110-storey Twin Towers and Strawberry Fields at Central Park.

The others had shopping lists for shoes and clothes, with Century 21 and Macy’s among the stores in mind.

The young ones had gone shopping to a designer outlet in the afternoon of the Monday 10th and their bus hadn’t returned at the expected time.

Janet and I were worried but there was no need; their bus had been delayed but they’d had a great time, arriving back with bags of cut-price ‘designer’ wear.

Little did we know that was the least of our worries ... and what was to come the next day.

That evening, a thunderstorm had rolled over New York, but next morning, the rain clouds had gone, replaced by a clear blue sky.

Turning on the TV for a weather forecast, the breaking news was that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. A terrible accident, perhaps?

Shock gave way to a sense of amazement when, only minutes later, a second aircraft slammed into the other tower, bursting into flames and creating a huge gash in the building.

As coverage continued, there was harrowing footage (by now so familiar) of the towers ablaze, with many trapped and desperate workers leaping from office windows to escape the burning fuel.

This was only too real, too shocking, but at the same time it seemed unbelievable.

By this time, Peter, Chris and Katherine had joined us from their separate rooms on another floor, all now aware of the unfolding disaster.

Our thoughts were interrupted by a phone call to our room from Janet’s sister in Toronto. Gillian (who has a September 11 birthday) and her husband Stephen had spent the weekend with us in New York and had driven back home to Canada two days before.

“We’ve just seen New York on the news,” said Gillian. “We’re horrified. Is everything all right with you?”

Assured we were safe, she confirmed she would pass the word on to family members back in Northern Ireland.

Gillian’s call came at just the right time: shortly afterwards, phone networks became so overwhelmed by the exceptional numbers trying to make calls that the service crashed. Other lines were out of action due to damage caused by the attack and many TV and radio channels went off the air.

I wanted to contact the News Letter, but long queues had formed in the hotel lobby for public phones and computers, which thankfully became active later in the day, in time for me to put together a quick report and send it through to the office (five hours ahead).

By that time we had taken a walk into the surrounding neighbourhood to get a sense of the mood and atmosphere; obviously, there was no clear view at that stage of the numbers of dead or injured.

Rudy Giuliani, then New York City mayor, was quoted as saying: “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately, and I don’t think we want to speculate on the number...”

Reports were emerging that at least four commercial aircraft had been hijacked in a coordinated terrorist operation, and effectively turned into fuel-laden missiles, two targeting the World Trade Center, another the Pentagon, and a fourth crashing into a field in Pennsylvania.

Three days before, we had spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Twin Towers; shopping at the Century 21 department store and in the shops housed beneath the trade centre, before enjoying lunch at the plaza at the base of the towers, between them.

As typical tourists, just another family among the many thousands who thronged New York’s attractions in a pre-Covid world, we had felt relaxed and perfectly safe.

On 9/11, as the catastrophe unfolded, we thought of those people we had seen at the complex: the young assistants at the coffee shop where we had eaten; the smartly-dressed office workers out for lunch; the security staff. Innocents earning their living at the Twin Towers.

That afternoon, walking the streets of Manhattan was a sombre and sad experience.

At St Patrick’s Cathedral, scores of people were weeping on the steps as others filed in to find comfort in prayer.

Near the Rockefeller Center, where the previous day we had watched the soul band Kool & the Gang playing their hit ‘Celebration’, crowds stood anxiously watching TV screens for the latest headlines, with reports carrying the strapline ‘America Under Attack’.

Screens replayed footage of the planes slamming into the towers... the buildings collapsing… ash-covered survivors making their way through debris-laden streets... firefighters and other emergency service crews risking their lives to save people from the wreckage.

The sound of an approaching plane could be heard and people became apprehensive. Was there reason to be afraid? Anxious eyes were raised to the sky, only to be reassured when it was identified as a US military jet deployed to keep watch over a fearful city.

The worry was that other NY landmarks such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, or the Rockefeller Centre could be targeted, so these buildings were quickly evacuated and cordoned off.

A plume of black smoke rose in the distance and particles of ash were in the air.

One commentator aptly described the area around Ground Zero as resembling “a nuclear winter”.

Previously, the roads had been buzzing with the distinctive Yellow Cabs zipping in and out, their horns sounding, the streets thronged with shoppers and sightseers and a general air of excitement.

Now, many of the normally pulsating neon lights were out and streets practically empty of traffic, except for emergency vehicles.

The frenetic pace in the heart of Times Square and Broadway was replaced by a surreal atmosphere. ‘Closed’ signs went up on the big shows, such as 42nd Street, Chicago The Musical and the Producers. Tourist attractions all quickly shut their doors. Quite appropriately, too — nobody was in the mood to entertain or be entertained.

We felt guilty as though we were intruders, looking in on a city’s grief.

We had to eat but it felt wrong going to one of the limited number of midtown restaurants that were open, when so many were experiencing such tragedy.

On 9/11 and in the following days, anguished families made heartrending media appeals for missing loved ones and placed photos on hoardings and lamp-posts.

Queues, estimated at up to 2,500 people, lined up at the Armory on Lexington Avenue waiting to complete missing-person reports.

Others stood on the street, asking journalists to print or broadcast the names and photos of relatives they couldn’t trace. At Central Park, candles were lit for those who were lost.

One story I filed concerned the number of bomb scares in the days after 9/11.

Some were caused by unclaimed bags set down carelessly, but others were more ominous, the work of hoaxers out to create more fear in an already tense situation. Up to 90 alerts were checked out in the 72 hours after the attacks. Mayor Giuliani said people were nervous and vulnerable, warning the hoaxers: “We will try very hard to put you in jail.”

One poignant scene was at the fire station on 8th Avenue, where flowers, candles, cards and photos were displayed in tribute to the 15 firefighters from that base who were killed at the towers.

Of the first responders who perished, official figures record that 343 were NY City firefighters, 23 were NY City police officers and 37 were Port Authority officers.

On September 14, the day of prayers and remembrance, the rain fell steadily but did not dampen the tremendous show of patriotism, with people carrying small US flags, flying them on car aerials, wearing them as bandanas and emblems on T-shirts.

Street vendors were selling small US flags for $5, glossy photos of the Twin Towers for $10, and T-shirts priced at $15 depicting Osama bin Laden, and bearing the slogan ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’.

This was met with a mixed reaction; some branding it tasteless profiteering, while others regarded it as a form of free enterprise.

We had been due to fly home on September 13, but US airspace had been closed to all commercial aircraft. Daily phone calls to the airline brought the eventual news that the earliest date we could get was September 21: JFK to Atlanta and on to Dublin.

The inconvenience of not getting home as planned, and the added cost of staying in NY for those extra days, all paled into insignificance when viewed against the magnitude of 9/11.

Still, routine things had to be done: workplaces and a school to be contacted; our dog was in kennels; the car was racking up charges at Dublin airport.

Yet all so mundane, so inconsequential, against the backdrop of such carnage.

Today, new buildings at the World Trade Center incorporate the 9/11 Memorial & Museum set up in honour of the 2,977 people killed at the Twin Towers; in the plane crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, as well as the six who died in the WTC bombing in February 1993.

Other statistics highlight a grim health legacy affecting thousands of people, particularly first responders, who became severely ill as a result of the toxic dust released by the collapsing towers.

As of 2018, nearly 10,000 people had been diagnosed with a 9/11-related cancer and more than 43,000 diagnosed with a 9/11-related health condition, according to the World Trade Center Health Registry.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, people all over the world will be reflecting on that infamous day in America’s history, and sharing an emotional connection with the families who lost loved ones in the most horrific circumstances.

Fortitude, in the midst of an enduring grief, has been displayed by those families and survivors, many suffering psychological or physical damage.

They are in our thoughts today: September 11, 2021.

More September 11 stories:

• NI survivor who escaped the 101st floor: ‘I thought this was the end and screamed out my mummy’s name’

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