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Eyewitness to 9/11 attacks - when hell came calling

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Listen to Niall O'Dowd speak about "Threats of attacks on 9/11 anniversary" on RTE's "Morning Ireland"

The evening of 10 September was warm and still. Aoife Keane, a twenty-year-old Dublin  psychology student, the daughter of my friend Michael Keane, former editor of the Sunday Press newspaper in Ireland, arrived to stay with us for a few days. It was her first time in New York. We went out onto our little balcony and she gazed up in wonder at the lights of the twin towers high above us. The building was constructed without light switches and the lights were never extinguished, day or night. She said, “I am going to go to the top tomorrow morning.”

Aoife was still asleep the next day in the guest room, and Zhanna, my wife had gone to her office uptown, where she worked as director of development for the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower at 8.46 a.m., laden with 10,000 gallons of fuel. The plane had flown past my apartment block, but downtown Manhattan is a very noisy place and I don’t remember hearing it as I worked on an article on how the economic downturn was affecting New York’s restaurants. When the bang shook our building, I thought, from years of monitoring the sound of explosions, that it was a bomb.

I jumped up and saw a gaping hole near the top of the north tower, the nearest of the two towers, with flames and black smoke pouring out. I made several quick telephone calls, to my news desk, to my Irish Times colleague Paddy Smyth in Washington DC, and to Zhanna. I also called RTÉ, to which I often gave interviews, to alert them to what had happened. It was almost two o’clock in the afternoon in Ireland. They asked me to go on air immediately. Just before the broadcast I heard the RTÉ announcer report a newsflash about an aircraft hitting the World Trade Center. Only then did I realise what it was.

I woke Aoife after the interview. “Get up, something terrible has happened,” I said. At this stage I didn’t know if it was an accident or an attack. From the living room window I trained my old pair of Russian military binoculars on a man at a window of the north tower. He was standing on a window ledge of the ninety-second or ninety-third floor, hanging out above Vesey Street 300 metres below. There was black smoke pouring from the row of narrow, vestry-like windows beside and above him. He was waving a white cloth. It looked like his shirt. He was in his thirties, I would say, and a little overweight.

Then Aoife said with a gasp, “There’s another plane!” United Flight 175 skimmed over the Hudson River to our right and smashed into the south tower between the seventy-eighth and eighty-fourth floors, creating a huge orange and black fireball and showering Broadway with flaming debris. There was no doubt now that this was an act of war and I recall thinking that there would be terrible retribution. We watched helplessly as dozens of heart-wrenching individual tragedies were enacted within our gaze. More people appeared at upper-storey windows crying soundlessly for assistance. We saw five fall to their deaths in a short space of time. Flames began to leap from the side of the nearby Marriott hotel, drenched with burning fuel. About two dozen fire engines came wailing down West Side Highway and screeched to a halt outside the north tower. Scores of firemen ran into the buildings laden down with gear.

After a few minutes I decided to go to the twin towers myself, and took the lift to the ground floor forty-two storeys below. As I passed through the lobby of my building, a woman was in hysterics; her husband worked in the World Trade Center (he survived). I went to the corner of Vesey Street and West Side Highway. People were running in panic away from the burning towers. Others stood in shock, hands over open mouths, heads craning upwards. A security man pushed me back. Someone screamed, “Oh my God, people are jumping!” More bodies were falling onto Vesey Street and onto the plaza between the towers.

Some fell with arms extended, as if for a crucifixion, taking what seemed like ten seconds to reach the ground. I thought I had better get back to my office. Frankly I was scared that the towers would collapse on top of me or that I would be hit by falling debris.

Also, police officers were closing off the streets and evacuating apartment buildings. I was worried that I would not be allowed back to my office and I felt responsible for Aoife, who, on her own, was witnessing scenes of unimaginable horror on her first morning in New York. I made it back minutes before police ordered all  residents of the building to leave.

I only found out later that the building manager, Rosie Rosenstein, a friend with whom I would occasionally sit on a bench outside and marvel at our good fortune to live in such a wonderful neighbourhood, decided not to mention my presence to the police, because he knew how important it was for me to continue reporting.

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