Experiencing Terror in the Heart of New York: 9/11

Palitha Kohona, courtesy of Ceylon Today

It was another sunny September morning. The sky was a brilliant blue. As I gazed out of my kitchen window while having breakfast, in Midtown Manhattan, the Twin Towers were glistening in the morning sun. I noted, as I often had, that they were still there, a familiar reassuring sight. The cute young blonde in the apartment across the street was drying her wet hair, as usual, by her plate glass window. The walk to the United Nations (UN) and my office on the 32nd floor of the Secretariat was uneventful.

Kent Kobersteen, former Director of Photography of National Geographic

“The pictures are by Robert Clark, and were shot from the window of his studio in Brooklyn. Others shot the second plane hitting the tower, but I think there are elements in Clark’s photographs that make them special. To me the wider shots not only give context to the tragedy, but also portray the normalcy of the day in every respect except at the Towers. I generally prefer tighter shots, but in this case I think the overall context of Manhattan makes a stronger image. And, the fact that Clark shot the pictures from his studio indicates how the events of 9/11 literally hit home. I find these images very compellingÑin fact, whenever I see them they force me to study them in great detail.”

Not that I expected anything untoward to happen. A pre-scheduled closed door management meeting began on time. Just then, there was a knock on the door, and Tony M put his head in and nonchalantly informed us that some black smoke was rising from one of the towers. None of the participants paid much attention to this intrusion and the meeting continued. A few minutes later, there was more insistent knocking. It was Tony again; who blurted out the tower may actually be on fire. Both Under-Secretary-General (USG) Corell and I went round the corner to a window, more to keep Tony happy, because we thought something was amiss. What we saw sent a shiver down my spine. Black smoke was billowing out of the top of one of the towers. We both looked at each other and Corell said, “Let us suspend the meeting and find out what is going on.”


I walked down to the 32nd floor and decided to ask my staff to leave the building although I had no instructions to that effect from anyone, but I felt that their safety was my responsibility. I went from room to room. Some staff were just beginning to settle in. Some were having breakfast at their desks, some were writing personal emails, and my deputy was actually playing cards on his computer. I insisted that all assemble in the courtyard below and return when instructed. By the time I had locked up my office, the lift had been stopped and I had to walk down 32 flights of stairs to the bottom.

On the way down, I passed the UN Media Centre and found a few people assembled in front of a TV screen. Then, as we watched, an aeroplane came streaking across the screen and slammed into the other tower. A massive ball of fire and smoke gushed out of the other side of the building. Someone behind me commented that it looked like a Cessna. I said no. That was a big passenger plane.

By the time I reached ground level, most people working in the Secretariat Building were milling around, uncertain and fearful. My secretary, who was there, asked what she should do. I told her that I was going back to my apartment, just five minutes away, and that she should call me when the security services permitted us to go back into the building. (I did not know then that the building would remain closed for the next two days).

After reaching home, I went onto my balcony and ominous clouds of black smoke were billowing from the top of the two towers. As an amateur photographer, I could not resist the temptation to take a few shots with my long lens of the burning buildings. I turned on the TV and sat down, when to my utter disbelief, the first tower started crumbling down, in slow motion and then gathering speed in a cloud of cascading dust and smoke.

It took a while to grasp what had happened. Then, I grabbed the camera and went onto the rooftop and took a series of photos. Unknown to me at the time, I was taking pictures with the clock on the Woolworth Tower in between me and the towering inferno that was the Twin Towers, now reduced to one. The exact time was recorded in each photo. (Sadly, the camera was left behind in a New York taxi and the photos were lost, but some have appeared in various publications from time to time. A few minutes later, the second tower crumbled in a giant swirling cloud of smoke and dust. The enormity of what had just happened was difficult to grasp at first. Thirty thousand people worked in the two towers and it was possible that thirty thousand lives had been snuffed out in those awful minutes, but it later transpired that for various reasons only about 3000 had died, including 800 first responders.


Chaos in New York

The tragedy immediately reduced this previously well ordered humming city, New York, into utter chaos. The phones stopped working and it took hours to get through to Sri Lanka and Australia to reassure those close to me that I was okay. At least one person in Australia who switched on the TV following my call thought that a cheap Hollywood movie was playing, but the same horror flick was on all the channels!

A Chinese friend’s wife who was working in the Xinhua Office on the 30th floor of Tower one had been on the phone with her husband who was in Kingston, Jamaica, at the time. She had felt the thud of the plane hitting the building, but thinking that it was a malfunctioning lift had kept on talking. She understood the gravity of the thud only when her husband screamed for her to leave the building. He was watching TV. Ling Ling ran down the stairs past firemen climbing up with their equipment. When she reached ground level and saw the terror and chaos, including people leaping out of top floor windows, she had joined hundreds of others and run blindly over the Brooklyn Bridge until she reached the other side. In the process, she lost her shoes. Then she realised that her young daughter was at school in Manhattan. Her efforts to get back were prevented by the Police who had blocked all the bridges by then. It took her several hours to get back to Manhattan to recover her daughter.

Lockdown Mode

The city went into lockdown mode. All the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan were closed. All ferries, trains, and subways were stopped and US airspace was cleared of all aircraft. This situation lasted for days. Fighter jets began roaring above the city. Civilian aircraft due to land in the US were diverted to Canada and other neighbouring countries. Travellers were stranded for days. We did not know at the time, but another aeroplane had been flown into the Pentagon and a fourth, possibly heading for the White House, had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, either because the passengers tried to retake control of the aircraft or because it was shot down.

The streets of Manhattan were soon jammed with cars trying to leave the island and food stores, including supermarkets were emptied pretty quickly by people wanting to ensure supplies in their homes. Thousands of people who relied on public transport to get to work, were fleeing on foot. One of my staff members took seven hours to reach her home in Queens on foot. The phones remained dead for hours. Heavily armed soldiers appeared threateningly at all strategic locations.

As we watched from our rooftop, seven high rise buildings collapsed in the area of the Twin Towers during the course of the day as a result of the vibrations caused by the collapsing World Trade Centre, the last, in the evening at around 7:00 p.m. Many were seriously damaged. Others were covered in inches of dust. A friend, a night owl, remained asleep through the noise and vibrations in the Marriott Hotel until forced to leave late in the morning.

A giant pall of smoke and dust covered Lower Manhattan for almost three months and fires burned while the twisted steel of the once magnificent Twin Towers remained, stoking deep and complex emotions in everyone who visited the area. The smoke and the smell spread towards Queens and spared the rest of Manhattan. Large parts of Lower Manhattan had to be evacuated. My friends, Denise and Espen, had to leave their loft with their pet African Grey Parrot, Nelson, Alsatian dog, Mickey, and a cage full of birds. Battalions of firemen and paramedics searched the rubble for months for body parts and personal items which were later stored in Queens and meticulously identified and returned to the claimants.

Total Confusion

Total confusion and uncertainty prevailed in the city for days before the authorities were able to restore confidence in the population.
The city which touts itself as the capital of the world, certainly of the financial world, and the cutting edge of everything modern and dynamic, was gripped by fear and uncertainty. Mayor Giuliani played a critical role in providing leadership and portraying a defiant image of a beleaguered New York. Some men thrive in adversity. He was one of them.

As confidence returned to a shaken New York, people started to search for missing friends, relatives, and lovers in large numbers.

Walls were covered with notices asking for information about missing persons. Visiting a wall covered with these notices near Ground Zero, I watched a pretty young woman in red clutching a bunch of roses so tightly that her fingers had turned a ghostly white and tears were welling in her eyes as she stared blankly at the notices.

The cute blonde across the street never appeared by the window again to brush her wet hair, but someone placed two candles on that windowsill two days later.

President Bush

President Bush, whose presidency was sinking into oblivion, was given a massive opportunity to boost his standing that morning and he and his advisors grabbed it with gusto. President Bush’s address to the Congress was inspiring and provided firm leadership to a nation whose confidence was shaken. The United States will henceforth be uncompromising and defiant in confronting terrorism. Global politics would also be seriously impacted by the US crusade against terror. The US under George Bush successfully mobilized the world, including the UN, into adopting an uncompromising stance against terrorism. The UN General Assembly expressed its sympathy with the US and the 9/11 victims. The Security Council adopted Res 1368 on 12 September condemning the attacks on the US and recognizing the right of self defence against acts of terrorism. On 28 September, the Security Council adopted Res 1373, an unprecedented act of international legislation, obliging Member States to take a range of detailed measures proactively against terrorism. Crucially, Res 1373 was not focused on Al Qaeda, but on international terrorism.

American diplomacy and influence, coupled with an uncompromising leadership, was successful in galvanizing the international community to take action within days of 9/11.

The rest of the world, especially countries such as Sri Lanka for whom terrorism was almost a daily experience, had not been able to command such a reaction. Importantly, Res 1373 did not pay attention to human rights in the context of terrorism.

That year, the UN Treaty Event during the UN General Assembly and a special event held in October, focused specifically on encouraging participation in the 12 UN treaties against terrorism. These were exceptionally successful events.

Sri Lanka missed a golden opportunity to mobilise international support, strengthen its security forces, and deal decisively with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) post-9/11. Misguided into believing that negotiations and appeasement would solve its terrorist problem, it concluded a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in 2002 and recognised a part of the country as a no go area for its security forces. The result was the LTTE blatantly used the ceasefire agreement to further arm and strengthen itself (it even developed an administrative structure with Police and Courts and Naval and Air capabilities) and its murderous terrorist campaign and carnage continued for another eight years.

Military Response

The US, under President Bush opted for a military response to Islamic terrorism which had deep roots and demanded the extradition of Osama bin Laden and the expulsion of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan made overtures to discuss these demands, the US along with the UK launched a massive bombing campaign against Afghanistan followed by an invasion in October 2001. They were later joined by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries and others. While many criticised the invasion as illegal under international law, the US justified its action as self defence authorised under the UN Charter. In December, the UN Security Council authorised the creation of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan. As former Pakistani President Musharraf describes in his autobiography, Pakistan was monstered into supporting the US invasion with a threat of being bombed itself. Sri Lanka, among others offered logistical support to the US. The expected quick and clean conclusion to the war that the US launched in Afghanistan never happened. Although, Osama bin Laden was killed only in 2011 in Pakistan by US Navy Seals, sixteen years after the invasion, the US continues to be bogged down in Afghanistan. The Taliban remains unconquered. Over 3400 Americans have died and in excess of 19,000 have been injured. Thousands of Afghan civilians have perished. The cost to the US so far exceeds $700 billion.

Like an inevitable row of falling dominoes war after war began to engulf the US. The US with the UK invaded Iraq, ostensibly because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), it was supporting Al Qaeda, and it was a threat to the peace and stability of the region. The UN Security Council was shown photographs as proof, which later turned out to be bogus. France, Germany, and New Zealand steadfastly opposed the invasion and Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, called it illegal. Millions around the world, including in the US, rallied against it.

The invasion went ahead and has reduced Iraq to tatters. Some have suggested that the real goal was Iraqi oil and the need to dominate the Middle East, and in the process remove a dangerous challenge to US allies, especially Israel. Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, who was an undoubted irritant, was captured, hastily tried, and executed while the country was engulfed in sectarian and anti American violence. US troops on occasion responded with extreme brutality, as demonstrated by the Abu Ghraib photos. The UN’s Station Chief, Sérgio Vieira de Mello along with 19 UN staff, was killed in a bombing of the UN Office. I was to have joined Sérgio that week. Over 4400 Americans have died in Iraq and a much larger number have been maimed. Some estimates suggest a civilian death toll exceeding 500,000. The Yasmin Sookas and Collum Macraes of this world are not seen wringing their hands in exaggerated agony and demanding justice for this carnage. Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, has blamed the 2008 recession mainly on the Bush Administration’s decision to wage war with borrowed funds rather than raised taxes, and the chaos generated by the invasion has not come to an end. While terrorism has prospered, a new extremist Islamic group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has emerged to challenge Western interests. They even set up a Caliphate in the lands that they controlled which has required additional military action to subdue.

Military Action in Libya

The invasion of Iraq was followed by NATO led military action in Libya in 2011, another oil rich Arab country. The Libyan Leader, Muammar Gaddafi, who had earlier surrendered his WMDs to the UN, was ousted and brutally murdered in public. Today, Libya is a splintered failed State, where terrorism flourishes and has become a jump off place for thousands of illegal immigrants to Europe.

In 2012, the US intervened in the Syrian internal conflict along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar and later Turkey. That conflict has, for the first time, attracted direct Russian intervention on behalf of the Syrian Leader, Assad. Syria, which was a relatively liberal Arab State, has also been reduced to chaos and the ISIL’s caliphate extended to large areas within it. Syria is a major source of the thousands of refugees flooding into Europe.

Yemen has also followed the path to sectarian violence.

The 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, whether orchestrated by Al Qaeda or, as some conspiracy theorists suggest, by elements who were determined to provoke US military intervention in the Middle East to advance their own interests, has had multiple consequences, some may not even have been envisaged by the 19 Twin Tower jihadists. Islamic terrorism has become widespread and does seem to abate. It has now engulfed a nervous Europe as never before and South East Asia, including Australia. A flood of refugees has engulfed Europe causing serious socioeconomic challenges.

Border controls have become rigorous and oppressive. Surveillance of individuals has increased. Much of the Middle East Region, which was relatively stable, even under obnoxious rulers, is now in chaos. Pro Western Arab regimes live with an uncertain future.

The US has become bogged down in a Middle Eastern quagmire, bleeding it of its wealth and young men and women, unable to extricate itself. Ominously, a resurgent Russia has become a militarily active player in the region. If Al Qaeda and its 19 Saudi born suicide bombers sought to cause increased Islamic militancy and chaos and uncertainty in the Western world, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.




Filed under accountability, Al Qaeda, atrocities, foreign policy, jihad, life stories, meditations, military strategy, photography, politIcal discourse, security, self-reflexivity, suicide bombing, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, trauma, vengeance, war crimes, war reportage, world events & processes

2 responses to “Experiencing Terror in the Heart of New York: 9/11

  1. Anne

    Senseless terror. I can never forget the images.. People jumping from windows, people walking and running out of buildings covered in ash, Mostly while everyone was gazing in horror at the burning tower trying to understand what was going on, the 2nd tower being hit and no one could do anything about it!! How can anyone understand why this happened, what made it happen and who could make it happen??? Please God, don’t ever let anything like this happen again!!

  2. Though not a witness I — and I would say most readers — can comprehend your horror. BUT consider the horrors wrought on (A) the Rohingya by Myanmar forces responding to Rohingya violence from their “liberation fighters”; (B) the warring horrors wrought on each other by Israelis and Palestinians; (C) the massive terror that USA unleashed on Iraq during the toppling of Saddam; (D) the many excesses directed at each other by Sinhalese and Tamils over the last 40 years, often via state engines — whether LTTE or GSL; (E) the massacre of 147 SL Muslim men and boys at a mosque in Kattankudy by the Tamil Tigers on 3rd August 1990 etc, etc. YES, YES, different scales and different shapes.’ BUT terrifying for victims and witnesses. … and NOTE, where New Yorkers and Americans had this one reverberating horror-impact, the Rohingyas have been facing underdog suffering for decades and all sides in Sri Lanka went through intermittent and./or regular horror for three decades…….Michael Roberts in Adelaide, as Editor, Thuppahi

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