Just before ten o’clock, I saw office workers who had been milling around the lawns of Battery Park suddenly turn and run as fast as they could. The south tower had started to fall. The top seemed to tilt over towards the river, and then crush the whole building beneath it. Jagged pieces of the tower the size of suburban houses crashed onto two fire engines, and engulfed rescue workers on the roadway. A huge cloud of dust and ash rose from the impact, enveloping the Embassy Suites Hotel below and the fifty-storey buildings of the World Financial Center.
I was by now completely numb, working on my reflexes, typing and making calls at high speed. The story was so enormous, I just had to keep my emotions in check, because my responsibilities to my newspaper were so great.
As the dust cleared, I scanned the windows of the still-standing north tower for the man who had been waving an hour before. Incredibly, he was still there, holding desperately on to a pillar between two of the narrow windows, as smoke poured out past him.
He most likely worked for the Marsh & McLennan insurance company, which had offices on several floors at that level. I will never know. As I watched, two bodies fell past him from the higher floors, then two more, and I saw that the tower was shuddering violently.
Much has been written about people “jumping”. I believe that many were clinging desperately to life, but at that moment were simply unable to hold on. Intense smoke and heat and the shaking gave people little choice. They could not breathe and had to crowd onto the window ledges. About 200 people fell to their death that morning, most from the north tower. None were ever classified as “jumpers”, i.e. people who deliberately commit suicide.
The north tower was now in its death throes. The end came at 10.28 a.m. The 110-storey tower imploded floor by floor, spewing out clouds of debris and atomised flesh. The man I was watching descended into the roaring blackness as if on a down elevator. I felt a connection with him. I had been watching him, on and off, and somehow felt he had been looking back at me. It left me with a feeling of guilt in the pit of my stomach, an awful sense of inadequacy and helplessness at not being able to do anything for him. My feelings about that day often come down to that one person and how he suffered.
As the yellow-brown cloud billowed out, rescue workers fled towards the river. Some jumped in and were pulled on board ferry boats. The dense mass of dust approached our apartment until we could almost reach out and touch it. Then it stopped, and retreated slowly, pushed back by a steady breeze from the Hudson. It left a thick layer of ash and dust coating the streets and parks below. It covered the broken bodies on Vesey Street like a shroud.
The grey of the landscape was broken by orange-red flames licking up from cars at Vesey and West Side Highway which had been set on fire by the burning debris. More cars were alight on Greenwich Street. The wide walkway across West Side Highway from the Winter Gardens lay broken on the highway. Beyond it, the Greek Orthodox Church had been crushed out of existence. Thousands of scraps of paper floated in the air like giant snowflakes. Some firemen stood in Greenwich Street, stunned, coated from head to foot in dust.
The local telephone lines were cut when the towers collapsed, and the mobile telephone network was overwhelmed, so I could not contact anyone in New York after that. But the long-distance service and broadband still worked. I was able to call my family, keep up contact with my office in Dublin, send digital photographs, and do more radio interviews throughout the afternoon. People who have forgotten anything I ever wrote tell me they recall these broadcasts. I always avoided emotion in radio interviews, but that day, when describing events on RTÉ, I remember involuntarily saying “Oh my God, this is terrible” as I saw more bodies falling to the pavement below.
All afternoon I struggled to match the drama and awfulness of the occasion in my reports. Aoife had a shower around three o’clock. For months afterwards it bothered her, irrationally, that she had done that, while so many people had died outside the windows.
Throughout this time a fire raged through No. 7 World Trade Center, a forty-seven-storey building that housed the diesel fuel tanks of the city’s emergency command centre, inexplicably located in this likely terrorist target by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani against the advice of his officials, though he would deny that later. At 5.20 p.m. it collapsed, falling straight down onto Greenwich Street. On its own, such an event would have made world headlines. In falling it smashed an electricity sub-station and cut off the electricity to our building. It was time to leave.
Carrying computer and overnight bags, we stumbled down forty-one flights of concrete emergency stairs in the dark. I kept thinking what it must have been like for those fleeing down the stairwells in the World Trade Center. I found Zhanna at a police barrier outside; I hadn’t been able to get through to her all afternoon and she had managed to make her way downtown past several roadblocks.