The Sunday Essay: New York, September 11, 2001

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Twenty years ago, Rae Lamb was in Manhattan preparing for a health scholarship. When a plane crashed into one of the towers, she called the newsroom in New Zealand.

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Mention 9/11 and most people respond by telling you where they were that day. It is one of those events that people remember very clearly. And in a lot of details. My whānau and I are no exception.

I was at a meeting in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side near Central Park. I had let my husband and 10 year old sleep in the hotel in Midtown so that I could attend the first day of orientation to a one year Harkness scholarship. We had spent the weekend as tourists in New York, including a visit to Wall Street and the financial district where we contemplated the Twin Towers. On that sunny morning of September 11, 2001, our biggest concern was missing a Yankees / Red Sox baseball game due to torrential rains the night before.

Twenty years later, my memories of the day are still vivid. Our meeting had only just started when we were interrupted and we learned that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. My first thought was that it was a small plane. It seemed beyond comprehension that it could be a commercial jet packed with passengers and purposefully landing in one of New York’s tallest buildings. Turning on the news and seeing the truth on TV, there was a growing awareness that this was something big and horrible and that it was not over yet.

Phone calls quickly followed. First to the family downtown, to see them. Then wake up the family in New Zealand in the middle of the night to say we were safe. Woke up from sleep, they had no idea what had happened. When I called the Radio New Zealand newsroom in Wellington, the deputy editor was surprised to learn that there was a reporter in New York. I told him I would go to town to see what I could find out.

It’s been about 15 years since I quit journalism. The year 2001 was supposed to be one year after the completion of the fellowship as a health researcher. But the news instinct kicked in. This prompted me that day, just after the fall of the second tower, to go downtown with a colleague to testify and report what was happening. For my husband, also a journalist, it was a day spent in Midtown, not so far from it all, supporting our daughter whose request for breakfast waffles has turned into whether Afghanistan and the United States was at war. He had to turn off the television because it distressed him. For a 10-year-old New Zealander, it was unfathomable.

Enduring images of walking in Manhattan include main streets without traffic where it was previously difficult to cross the road. People sitting outside buildings stared at useless cell phones, randomly parked cars with doors open and radios on as everyone searched for information. No one seemed to know what to do or where to go. Some have found comfort in churches by lighting candles.

As we made our way through the city center, the foot traffic increased, more and more disheveled and distressed people heading towards the city. We spoke to a priest who told us that people had jumped from buildings and struggled to find survivors. We started to get a feel for the horror to come.

When the US Air Force flew over we all got scared and hid for safety. No one initially knew if it was another attack.

After bluffing our way through the cordon set up at Canal Street, my colleague and I found a street corner with a working public phone booth, a few blocks from where the towers once stood. There was a lot of debris strewn about, including ashes, papers and shoes.

The rescue teams set up a relay station there. They kept coming, hoping to find fellow police and firefighters who had responded before the towers fell, as well as people from inside the towers. Ambulances and paramedics were waiting for patients who never came, and we heard there were similar scenes in hospitals where people were lining up to donate blood that was not needed. As the day progressed, it quickly became apparent that there was no one to rescue – the few survivors had already escaped.

The power was off and it was hot. Local store owners and residents distributed bottled water and apples. The news of those returning from Ground Zero kept getting worse. A fire chief handed out paper masks but didn’t have enough for everyone, so mostly gave them to women, including my coworker and me. Putting on a mask for the first time during last year’s lockdown reminded me of a day when the invisible enemy was asbestos dust rather than Covid-19.

It was pure journalism – listen to it, see it and report it. No time, nor the tools to write it. No chance to verify and verify information with multiple sources. Cell phones weren’t working, so I took turns in line with rescuers and locals to use the phone. Every time I succeeded, RNZ put me live.

For most of the day, a woman with no shoes, in a dusty suit, kept us company. She said she was fine, having escaped from one of the towers earlier. Knowing more about the trauma now, thanks to my current role, it’s clear that she was in shock. She didn’t seem able to leave and just sat on the sidewalk for hours before disappearing in the afternoon. I would like to know what happened to him.

At one point we heard another explosion and firefighters yelled at us to back up another block. Another building, 7WTC, had collapsed. He had been burning all day

In the evening, heavy machinery had arrived with reinforcements for the exhausted and devastated rescue teams. It was clear that whoever was going to come out had already gone out. Potential rescuers were unable to help as they wanted and many of their colleagues were missing. We decided to leave, knowing we would not be coming back through the drawstring. As we walked through the city in the growing darkness, we were saddened to see the impromptu notice boards that had popped up, covered in photographs and messages as people began to search for missing loved ones. We were appalled to see street vendors already peddling chunks of rock that they claimed had towers and postcards of what was.

In Midtown, the subway worked. Another passenger warned us that we could have been exposed to asbestos. When I got back to the hotel, the first thing I did was put away and seal my clothes and take a shower, before joining the family.

It took us three days to get out of Manhattan and back by train to Boston where we were to spend the year. We thought a lot about returning home to New Zealand. Just as it must be for those taken overseas during today’s pandemic, the home seemed the safest option in an uncertain world.

We chose to stay. In many ways, it has been a strange year. American flags were everywhere immediately after. Our daughter had to swear allegiance to the flag at school. She felt uncomfortable, since she was from somewhere else. In the days that followed, Sikh taxi drivers spoke of their fear, based on their experience, of being targeted and abused. It took me several months to get back on the plane. When I did, flying was much less of a fun, with the security measures we all take for granted now on the rise. I still remember my 10 year old daughter being physically searched in public at an American airport without either parent being allowed to support her, when we traveled to spend Christmas with friends in Memphis.

THEu looking back, after all these years, moments of benevolence and human empathy also emerge. When we got back to Boston, my daughter started school and her teacher, a foreigner, asked how we were doing. I burst into tears. Now I know why it meant so much. The importance of asking people if they are okay and caring about the answer has been so evident as we in New Zealand have navigated through other life-changing events such as the Christchurch earthquakes and the attack on the mosque. More recently, the pandemic. We have all learned something about the kindness of strangers.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of September 11, my family and I will be thinking of those who have passed away, including those rescuers who later died of asbestos-related illness. We hope the years since have been kind to their friends and families.

I have been to New York three times since September 11, but never returned to Ground Zero. A few years ago my daughter visited the memorial where the Twin Towers once stood. She tells me that it is very moving and that it is done with care. I’m glad she went but I will never go back myself. Twenty years later, it still looks like a burial place. This was the last big story I covered as a journalist. People say it must have been the story of a lifetime. It will never feel like this. So many people have died.

Rae Lamb is Managing Director of Te Pou and Blueprint for Learning, and previously was Deputy Commissioner for Health and Disability and Journalist.


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