Where were you on September 11 2001? Northern Ireland personalities share their memories of that terrible day 20 years ago

Former First Minister Peter Robinson, long-time UTV news anchor Paul Clark and ex-Presbyterian Moderator Norman Hamilton are among those who have recounted what they were doing when events that were to change the world happened in New York.

Saturday, 11th September 2021, 8:00 am
Updated Sunday, 12th September 2021, 3:21 pm

The terrorist attacks saw local news cancelled as the eyes of the world turned to the Twin Towers to watch the atrocity that was unfolding.

Few will forget what they were doing on September 11, 2001.

• Former DUP leader Peter Robinson had been due to attend a “dull committee meeting” the deadly strike on the Twin Towers took place.

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Paul Clark was due to broadcast on UTV when local news was cancelled to concentrate on events in New York

He said: “Another routine journey to Stormont saw me climb the stairs to the party’s administration office in Parliament Buildings before I would attend another dull committee meeting. I cannot remember what the meeting was to discuss, against the events that were to unfold 3,000 miles away it was irrelevant, but I will never forget that day.

“As I chatted to staff and prepared myself for the meeting, the television, tuned to a 24 hour news station, cut live to New York and the jaw-dropping events that were unfolding at the Twin Towers.

“Computers were abandoned and conversations muted as we all stood in disbelief and horror as well as fear for the future. The world changed that day, and not for the better. Thousands of lives lost in the minutes and hours that attended the devastation and, though we did not know it then, tens of thousands would be lost during the military campaign in the months and years that followed.”

• Paul Clark was working for UTV at the time and preparing for a broadcast when events in New York meant the local news got cancelled.

Former First Minister Peter Robinson was preparing for another routine day at Stormont when the attacks of September 11 took place

He said: “The weekend before, I had been working on a UTV production about Tory Island, and its links with World War II. It had been an intense filming schedule and had taken the crew and I from Aberdeen to Belfast to Donegal and Mayo, and back.

“I arrived at Havelock House around lunchtime to prepare for my normal UTV Live at 6 presenting shift, and all our screens were focussed on the Twin Towers and what was unfolding.

“I simply could not believe what I was seeing, I was numbed and stunned in equal measure. It was like something from an action movie, but this was real life and real people.

“Our local news got cancelled that night to give way to wall to wall national and international news, but we stayed glued to the screens as the story unfolded.”

Journalist Tara Mills had been working on the dispute at Holy Cross the day before September 11

• Tara Mills was working as a reporter for BBC Newsline.

She said her memory of the September 11 terrorist attack is so clear that it could have happened yesterday.

She said: “For most of the previous days I’d been reporting on Holy Cross but that day I was about to go out on a different story.

“I always remember it was about the renewed investigation into the disappearance of two boys in west Belfast in 1974.

Rev Dr Norman Hamilton had also been focussed on events at Holy Cross

“Just before I left the office the pictures from New York started to come in. Everyone in the newsroom gathered around the screens and stood in shocked silence.

“I left the office with my cameraman and we drove to west Belfast. On the way my brother, who was a news photographer for The Times in London, phoned me and I just remember both of us trying to find out what we knew and then trying to get a sense of the scale of the disaster.

Like most people we initially thought it was a small aircraft that had hit the first tower. I was still talking to him when the second plane hit.

Like most people my memory of that day is so crystal clear, it could have happened yesterday.

• Like Tara, Rev Norman Hamilton, former Presbyterian Moderator, was focused on the Holy Cross dispute on September 11.

He said: “I was on the Ardoyne Road in the quagmire of the Holy Cross dispute when I heard the news. I was simply stunned, almost disbelieving.

Martina Purdy was preparing for a job interview with the BBC

“The magnitude of the horrors of 9/11 certainly changed all of our worlds and brought to the fore the absolute need to build and sustain good relationships both in our own community as well as between nations.

“That is a never ending and still unfinished call.”

• Former BBC political correspondent Martina Purdy was in a job interview for the BBC during the attacks.

She recalled: “I had been a political correspondent for just two years and did not feel ready for the job. But I was advised to apply anyway as it would be good to ‘show willing’. Just do a good interview – that’s all that’s expected.

“I was grilled by four BBC executives, one from London whom I had nicknamed ‘The Terminator’.

“Immediately after, I was unwinding over a coffee with a visiting trainee reporter when a colleague came in and asked if we had heard the news.

“He announced that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre in New York.

“It was hard to take in but we both knew our plans for the day were about to be altered. I went to join colleagues in the newsroom who were gathered around the TV screen. Like everyone else, I was transfixed. I think I stayed up most of the night watching the same thing over and over again. It was so unbelievable.”

• Ray Hayden, was in his role as a Special Advisor to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) on September 11.

He recalled: “I was in a meeting with Sir Reg Empey and the Chief Executive of Tourism Ireland, Paul O’Toole, to discuss the new strategy presented by Tourism Ireland to attract more visitors to the island, particularly Northern Ireland.

“We were listening to Paul’s presentation when a Private Office official came in and advised us to switch on the television. We didn’t see the first aircraft crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre but watched the immediate aftermath.

“Just 20 minutes earlier, we’d been considering how best to attract more tourists to Northern Ireland, particularly from the US.

“That strategy was now in tatters with these terrorist attacks on American soil.

“We felt for those fleeing the WTC and knew the casualty figures would be shocking. As we sipped what was left of our coffee, tourism and optimism gave way to the stark realisation that the world had changed irrevocably.”

• News Letter features editor Helen McGurk was on holidays when she learnt of the attacks, which played on her mind ahead of her flight home.

Helen said: “I was on holiday in La Rochelle, France, with my partner. We were sitting having breakfast in a room with tourists from various parts of the world.

“The footage on the television showed the attack and everyone crowded round to watch.

“There was a palpable change in the mood as previously carefree holidaymakers, stared in horror and absolute disbelief at the unfolding events. Some cried. Some hugged their loved ones.

“It was two days before we were due to fly home and I remember not being able to enjoy the rest of our trip as those dreadful scenes played out over and over again in my mind.

“I was also absolutely consumed with the belief our plane back to Northern Ireland would be attacked. It was very frightening.”

• Neve Wilkinson, who joined the News Letter as a reporter earlier this month, was just 18 months old on September 11.

She said: “I was fast asleep on my parents white leather sofa, in my family home in Essex. My dad was at work, my older siblings were at school, and my mum was tidying the house.

“When she finally sat down to have a cup of tea and turn on the television, every channel had the same devastating story. She tried to watch so quietly so that I wouldn’t wake up and have to witness what was going on.

“18 years later, I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York, and that’s when I first asked my parents, ‘where were we when this disaster struck?’”

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

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News Letter features editor Helen McGurk watched the scenes unfold on TV with other holidaymakers in France
News Letter reporter Neve Wilkinson was just 18-months-old on September 11, 2001
Former SPAD to DETI minister, Ray Hayden