Seems like all my fellow New Yorker friends and acquaintances are once again busy posting their 9/11 memories on social media today. Lots of “Never Forget” comments and photos of the Monument of Light that every year seems to pierce the stratosphere from lower Manhattan, representing the two absent towers at the World Trade Center. It’s all completely understandable. It’s our generation’s JFK assassination moment; “Where were you when..?” Some of my friends were down there on the day, some lost colleagues, friends, relatives. Some just lived in this city at a time when, suddenly, the world seemed to make no sense whatsoever. In a scenario familiar to people growing up in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s, some didn’t even know anything was happening until they got home and turned on the evening news. No smartphones or social media in 2001. Other friends walked home across the Brooklyn or Manhattan bridges in a downpour of ashes and singed office paperwork.
Twenty years on (and not for one second discounting the resultant global chaos, financial mayhem, and bloody wars that have taken place in the years since those planes full of people smashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania) it seems it’s getting harder to recall the absolute horror and terror people underwent here in NYC and elsewhere in the world, experiencing those events in real-time, in person, listening on the radio, or watching on TV. It was as if they’d live-streamed the sinking of the Titanic in another era.
As one would expect, the news media over here have been saturated with 9/11 reportage today because it’s the 20th anniversary, and anniversaries are particularly poignant to us as human beings. You can go online and watch, again, the terrible events of the day as they unfolded, you can listen to interviews with first responders and survivors, and read reports of the hundreds of people who have died in the intervening years from cancer and respiratory illnesses as a result of the toxic dust and smoke unleashed on the megalopolis in the aftermath of the atrocity.
At any other time of the year, if you happened to stroll past the 9/11 memorial waterfall pools (theme: “Absence Made Visible”) where the north and south towers once stood, you’d see hoards of tourists with selfie sticks beaming and smiling in front of the bronze inscriptions of the 2,983 names of those identified to have died on that day as though they’re grabbing a selfie outside the Stock Exchange on Wall Street or some gaudy neon sign on Times Square. This time of year, it’s different. Families and friends drift in from near and far away and leave flowers by the names of those they lost. Random strangers burst into tears on the street while other random strangers come up and embrace them. For a few days, the mood is sombre and reflective and dignified.
I could write a tome full of 9/11 anecdotes and stories I have heard from the friends and colleagues I have known over my almost two decades living in Gotham. Some heartbreaking, some inspiring, some hilarious. Some downright unbelievable. Graveyard humour is healing. Case in point: “Knock Knock… Who’s There?… 9/11… 9/11 who? I thought you said you’d never forget?”
I had a friend from Wimbledon who was here on vacation, early morning shopping in the old Century 21 store (the now-defunct discount fashion retailer much beloved of Irish and British tourists) right below the towers when the first plane hit. An English woman found her on the street and brought her home to her nearby apartment building for her safety. In a bizarre, or some might say miraculous, coincidence they later found out my friend’s mother and this random woman had worked together in London years before! My soon-to-be new boss emerged from the subway beneath the towers and stepped into the street-level carnage after plane #1 had just hit and turned right around and got the hell out of there while other people stood and gawked upwards. She was originally from Ireland, so I guess that sixth sense kicked in and she knew to run away from danger. As my mum always said, if you see a bomb, run the other way…
But where was this Brooklynite as this dystopian hell unfolded? I was not yet living in Gotham. I was sequestered in my basement office at a firm of South County Dublin solicitors in a converted Georgian house in Dun Laoghaire…
April 2000. In a random Celtic Tiger era unlimited-credit cheap flight spontaneous gesture, I’d surprised my partner with a (very, very) long weekend trip to New York City. Suffice to say we partied like it was the year after 1999. By day we “did” the Empire State Building, Central Park, and took the iconic World Trade Center photograph where someone lay on the ground with the camera and you both leaned over with one tower each looming over your head. By night we hit the Roxy, The Monster, Twilo, and by Sunday afternoon kept going at Body & Soul. And god only knows where else we ended up in between. That was NYC in 2000. Upon our return to rainy Dublin, the unspoken agreement had been signed that we were moving to New York, and soon. The job search began. And then history intervened.
As a freshly minted solicitor, barely a year out of Blackhall, I was toiling away at a photocopier preparing a brief for some judicial review or other when my partner, an associate in a swanky advertising firm in the former art deco Kodak building in Rathmines called me on my state of the art Nokia 6110 and said, “Turn on the TV, now!”. Being a solicitors’ office in 2001, we did not have a TV but we did have one computer connected to the internet so I dialled up the embryonic BBC News website and to my disbelief saw a still photograph of an apparent tragic accident where a plane had gone off course and hit the north tower. Still, on the phone, my partner said, “Oh, they’re showing some kind of action replay…” and then I heard the collective groan-scream emanating from his office as they realised they’d just witnessed the second plane careen through the south tower. He hung up.
June 2002, barely 9 months after the September 11th attacks, my partner was happily ensconced in his new advertising role in a skyscraper in Hell’s Kitchen only a block away from Times Square. In those days the US government didn’t recognise any non-traditional partnership or common-law relationship outside of a marriage of the kind that would meet DUP approval in 2021, so we each had to find our own separate jobs and visas, and it was later in September 2002 that I flew out to meet my new boss. In my recollection and telling of the story, I flew out on September 11th 2002, but the boarding pass with Continental Airlines has been lost to time, so it may have been a day before or after, but what I do recall was my colleagues in the Four Courts telling me I was “bleeding mental” to fly on that date. A barrister reassured me I’d be fine because almost all the aviation fuel would be spent by the time I got over there so there’d be no point in flying my plane into another skyscraper. Indeed, when we were on our final approach to Newark Liberty Airport, I could see some type of US fighter aircraft calmly escorting us as we descended into Jersey with Manhattan spectacularly visible on the port side. The captain nonchalantly assured us it was just a precaution due to the anniversary “that was in it”, (must have had Irish parents) so please put your tray tables away and put your seats in the upright position and cabin crew prepare for landing.
Two months later, I was fully documented and working in a law firm in downtown Manhattan. The office was on Broadway! Broadway!! Except, this stretch of Broadway was a mere stone’s throw from “The Pile” at the former WTC where day and daily trucks – sorry, lorries – were still hauling away heaps of mangled metal and concrete from the site of the old WTC. The air was still acrid and metallic. The streets, especially from ground level to a few floors up, were still boarded up and derelict. The fences were still bedecked with the photos of the missing persons and phone numbers to call. There was barely anyone around during the day. Apart from cops, fire crews, and construction workers, the place was almost devoid of life.
Except it wasn’t. It was actually crazy. Especially after dark.
There was an almost knee-jerk reaction to the disaster that had recently befallen the city. My partner and I were in our New York honeymoon phase and still bewildered by, but regularly availed of, the 4 am closing times in the bars. There was an unspoken atmosphere, something mischievous afoot. Outside of the financial district, the bar scene was alive and kicking. We frequented bars in the East Village and the Lower East Side. We didn’t gravitate towards the traditional neon-shamrock-in-the-window Irish bar scene but there were a few newer Irish bars with DJs where you could arrive on Friday night and fall out the door at daybreak Sunday morning. Rules didn’t seem to matter, because… 9/11. I remember sitting in a bar, blootered on a school night, in a hotel on Times Square with half a dozen 20 or 30-something Irish lawyer friends, all absolutely hammered at 2 am, and the one with the “dead serious” corporate law job saying in all seriousness, “Lads, I can do a 4am last round, but I’m not going anywhere else after, cos I have a disposition at 9 am…”.
Twenty years have passed. WTC & Tribeca are unrecognisable from those days. I think the iron-district building where my first job was is now a luxurious development of million-dollar condos. Many of the financial towers hastily vacated by BigMoneyOmniCorps Inc. in the aftermath of 9/11 have been repurposed as residential properties. Schools, parks, and communal spaces abound in a district that was notorious for tumbleweed and tragic hookers after 5 pm before 9/11. It’s awash with bars and restaurants and (pandemic considerations aside) residents and visitors alike. The new World Trade Center is surprisingly impressive and considerate at the same time.
I do have one honest-to-goodness-this-happened-to-me tale to tell. When they were building the 9/11 memorial waterfalls some years later, in the dead of winter, late at night, in the pitch dark, and a fit of cabin fever, my partner and I went for a walk down there in subzero temperatures. The memorial wasn’t open to the public, but there was not a sinner in sight, so we wandered in (“easier to say sorry than ask for permission”). My partner stayed at the south tower pool and I wandered over to the north tower pool. If you’ve been there, you’ll know the names aren’t listed alphabetically. They’re grouped people together based on where people worked or who they were close to. I noticed a cluster of Irish surnames. Lots of O’ and Mac and Mc last names, which piqued my interest. A cop stepped out of the shadows behind me and almost scared the life out of me. I thought I was gonna get done for trespassing. He asked me why I was interested in those particular names. Did I know someone? Pathetically, I said no but I was an O’ and that’s why they’d caught my attention. He said they were all his colleagues who died on 9/11. We stood there for a moment in silence and then he said goodnight. I walked back over to my partner and told him what had happened and he said he’d been watching me the entire time and there was nobody there but me.
Belfastman and Brooklynite