Wednesday 25 April 2018

'I always took visitors to the Twin Towers - before 9/11 changed New York forever'

Over 2,600 people died in Manhattan on 9/11. I knew four of them, and it was four too many

Before the fall: Smoke billows from the Twin Towers Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Before the fall: Smoke billows from the Twin Towers Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Anne Marie Scanlon

On Monday, September 10, 2001, I arrived back in New York after a couple of weeks in Ireland. I'd been home to celebrate the wedding of my good friend Fiona McHugh (now one of the proprietors of Fallon & Byrne).

The following morning, with a combination of jetlag and anxiety about the amount of work that would be awaiting me, I was up at 5am and at my desk in the Emerald Isle Immigration Centre (EIIC) in Woodside, Queens (where I was Deputy Executive Director), by 7am.

My first floor office in the EIIC overlooked the junction of two major roads and was level with the elevated tracks of the subway, which was so close to my window that passengers on the Number 7 train could see what I was wearing. Woodside is right at the centre of New York and our office was relatively close to two airports - JFK and La Guardia. We appeared to be under several flight paths as low-flying craft regularly passed above us. I called it 'Trains, Planes and Automobiles' after the film because sometimes the noise from the various forms of transport was so intense I'd have to suspend phone conversations.

When the first news came in about the events at the World Trade Centre (WTC), we thought it was a small plane. And an accident.

It quickly became apparent it was no accident. Our Employment Consultant Eileen had a radio in her office and we all huddled around it desperate for information.

When the first tower fell, just before 10am, we quite simply could not believe it. That something so large, so part of the physical and cultural landscape could simply disappear. It was just beyond comprehension.

I loved the Twin Towers, they were a place I always took visitors. The first time I set foot in them, I was 12 years old. For a little girl who had grown up in Dublin, where the tallest structure was Liberty Hall, they were breathtaking.

My mum and I were sightseeing and went to Windows On The World restaurant where she ordered a Tom Collins. The drink came in a glass that was like the tower, tall and slim. It was also packed with ice and Mum had to wait an age for the waiter to be distracted so she could dig out some of the cubes. We giggled about it that day and several times in the years since.

During that trip, my first to the States, we stayed with my mother's cousin in Long Island. Her husband was an electrician and told me about working on the buildings and looking over the side to see clouds beneath him.

When I first moved to New York in 1994, my best friend from primary school, Paula Rice, worked in finance in the WTC and we spent many hours and far too many dollars in the underground shopping mall that linked the Towers and Century 21 facing them.

I was also in finance, and although my firm had offices in the WTC, I worked in Midtown. I'd started at the same time as Tai, a young college graduate, who was consistently upbeat and insisted on calling me Annie. We both had to sit exams to get our licences to trade commodities and futures. I got better marks but when the coveted job with the biggest broker opened up, Tai got it and I was mightily pissed off. The (perceived) snub, and the fact that while I was good at the work, I actually hated it, prompted me to move on. I left the financial sector, something I have never regretted.

The Midtown office closed and everyone relocated to the WTC, where Taimour 'Tai' Khan died on September 11, 2001, aged 29.

When the first tower fell, I left the office and went straight to the nearest bar - not for a drink, but to find a television. The barmaid and I were the only people there. While I stood transfixed, staring at the screen, she polished and repolished the bar. Watching the images that have since become ingrained in our collective consciousness, my brain still refused to believe the evidence of my eyes. At that point, I'd seen several 'disaster movies' where some iconic New York building is blown to bits, but that sort of thing just didn't happen in real life.

There was no real fear that day, we were far too baffled and confused and in such a state of disbelief. Woodside, usually noisy and busy, was silent. The trains were all stopped at the station, the planes weren't flying and there were few people on the street - most were probably glued to the TV, unable to make sense of what they were seeing.

I didn't know it then but Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar and chaplain to the New York Fire Department was the first casualty. The Pieta-like image of his body being carried by two firefighters has become one of the iconic symbols of that terrible day.

I'd met Fr Judge the previous year when we'd marched side by side in the first 'St Pats For All' parade (aka the Gay Parade). The route was lined with protesters and when one of them shouted in a thick Queens' accent, "You're a disgrace to your uniform, Fadder", I bristled. "What kind of Catholic is he if he doesn't know it's called a habit?" I demanded of the poor priest. "You should tell him it's a habit." He just smiled. He was such a calm and serene person. It was a bitterly cold day, and I asked him if his feet were frozen in sandals - he smiled and said, "you get used to it".

For a long time, I thought Fr Judge and Tai were the only two people I knew who died in the Twin Towers. On the fifth anniversary, I was six months pregnant with my son and opened a newspaper to read the deeply upsetting report about the seven-months-pregnant woman who had died along with her husband. Suddenly their names jumped out at me - John and Sylvia Resta; we had all worked for the same company, Sylvia in my office, and John downtown in the WTC. I'd been in the bar the night they got together for the first time.

It might seem odd that it took me so long to find out, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I imposed a news blackout. It was just too upsetting and too much to take in.

The fear set in the next day and, to be honest, has never really left me. I refused to get on a subway for six months and I'm still not comfortable in any sort of confined space.

The thing that I remember most about 9/11 isn't the planes or the towers - it is the sky outside my office, clear, blue and empty, and the strange unfamiliar silence as life stopped.

Sunday Independent

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