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Twenty Years Ago Today

September 11, 2021
by the gentle author

Twenty years ago this morning, I woke in an apartment in New York City. It was around eight thirty when my friend called from outside the bank in Midtown, where he had gone to deposit cheques. He had left early to be there at opening time and, as he was standing in line waiting for a teller, he saw on the television that there was a fire in one of the towers at the World Trade Centre.

I got out of bed and climbed up onto the flat roof of the apartment. It was a beautiful day, clear and bright with a blue sky after days of rain and cloud, and the humidity which overwhelms Manhattan in July and August had cleared. Although most people try to avoid New York in the summer, and residents who have the option seek refuge in beach houses, it is my favourite time of year in the city. The one time when the pace slows, languor prevails, and there is peace in the shadowy air-conditioned buildings where people linger to avoid the baking temperature and blinding light outside in the streets.

Summer was drawing to an end and there would be no more of the trips to Long Island that had punctuated my time in the City. Just a week earlier, on Labor Day, which marks the change in the season, the beaches had closed for the year.

I stood on this same roof on July 4th and watched the fleet line up in the East River, admiring the firework display as I ate dinner with friends. Looking across Manhattan that morning, I could see the distant plume of smoke from the westerly of the towers. It did not mean anything to me then, but I was puzzled how it could have happened, so I went downstairs and switched on the television. The television was reporting a plane had crashed into the tower. It was an extraordinary event for which the news anchor had no explanation, and so I went back to bed and dozed again.

I was awoken by the return of my friend who had cycled back from his errand at the bank. People were getting really excited about this fire, he told me, and he switched on the television again. For the first time, I sensed the panic and helplessness which was to envelop the city that day, as the presenters struggled to find words and keep their cool in the face of inexplicable and unprecedented events.

Then came the strangest moment of television I ever saw. Upon the screen, a plane jetted out of nowhere and disappeared into one the towers. “That’s a re-run, you’re seeing here, of the plane hitting the tower that we reported earlier,” commented the news-anchor, only to swallow her words – almost choking – as she exclaimed, “Oh no! That’s not a re-run, that’s another plane.”

Exactly a week earlier, at eight thirty in the morning, I visited the World Trade Centre accompanying my friend who was applying to an office there for a street traders’ licence. We came through the subway which opened up into a shopping mall and emerged onto the plaza directly beneath the towers. I recalled the first time I came to New York and stood at the top. Stretching my arms between those external struts and gazing down upon Manhattan from such a height, it was as if looking from the window of an aeroplane. My birthday was in a few days and we vowed to return to the top for a celebration, but we did not go back.

Once the second plane hit the towers, the tenor of events changed. Very quickly, reports came in of hijackings and other planes unaccounted for. I went back up onto the roof of the apartment and looked again to confirm the reality of the television news with my own eyes. Now there were two plumes of smoke in the sky, and sirens erupted through the streets as fire crews and police hurtled down the avenues of Manhattan. I returned to the television and stayed there, compelled. I had a pocket email machine and I was able to write messages to everyone in London to let them know I was alright, before the lines went dead.

A campaign was underway, something I could only comprehend through reference to science fiction such as “The War of the Worlds.” An attack had commenced that morning without indication how long it would last. As I sat there in shock at the accumulating reports of the plane hitting the Pentagon and the crash of United 93, a dread grew inside me. There was no reason to assume that this would not continue all day and it was impossible to know where and when it would end. It felt like the end of the world – there was no way to grasp the nature of what was happening. When I returned to the roof and looked again, the World Trade Centre had gone completely, replaced by a vast black tower of smoke billowing into the blue.

Twenty-one months earlier, I had been in Los Angeles at the time of the Millennium. Somehow, everybody expected a transformation and a new era to begin then. Nobody wanted to admit it was a non-event. But that morning, I realised that I was witnessing the actual moment when one century ended and a different world was born.

For a couple of years, I had been working with producers in Times Sq who were to present a play of mine on Broadway, opening on September 15th 2001. I loved being in New York in those days, it was a true metropolis of glamour and affluence – a world incarnated in the now over-familiar fiction of “Sex & the City.” Many times I enjoyed Cosmopolitans at the Bowery Bar, the location where Candice Bushnell’s novel, which was the origin of that series, began.

Walking out onto the street on that September day, several miles from the unfolding catastrophe at the World Trade Centre, the scene was not dissimilar from usual, except – as people went about their business – I knew what everyone was thinking. We were all looking at each other in fear and knowing that we could only enact the semblance of routine. I went to the grocery story and bought food for the next few days. On my way back to the apartment, I saw a postcard of the World Trade Centre on a rack and, without thinking, I took the entire stack in hand, went into the store and paid for them.

Back at the apartment, I addressed postcards to everybody in my address book in England and then I went to the Post Office and mailed them all. I still do not understand why I did this, because I never wrote any messages on the cards, yet I knew everyone would realise who sent them and why. In fact, half arrived within ten days and half arrived four months later, intercepted perhaps as suspicious material in the collective paranoia that ensued.

On the day J.F.Kennedy Airport reopened, I flew back to London, peering from the window of the jet at the smoke still rising from the foot of Manhattan. At once, I went to see my parents in Devon and found them well, but within a week my father died unexpectedly. My mother had dementia and could no longer live alone, so I chose to move back into the family house to care for her. My play never opened on Broadway and I did not have the American career that I so longed for at that time, but after the events I had witnessed it no longer mattered to me.

40 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Knisely permalink
    September 11, 2021

    A remarkable narrative. Your life has been eventful —

  2. Peter Hart permalink
    September 11, 2021

    Wow. You’ve said it all there. There are no words except thank you for posting GA.

  3. September 11, 2021

    Dear GA
    I’ll make a proper comment when I recover!

  4. John Fletcher permalink
    September 11, 2021

    A very moving story, especially being in NY at the time.

  5. Lorraine permalink
    September 11, 2021

    Thank you again GA. There are no more words today.

  6. September 11, 2021

    Sharing memories of that terrible day must feel like an impossible task. I admire the sense of your domestic routine in amongst the inexplicable which you give us – and the moment when everything changed. No going forward, no going back. There is a poignancy about the ghost of your play hovering over Broadway after the years you spent there.

  7. Leana Pooley permalink
    September 11, 2021

    Thank you for a powerful and poignant account. A small footnote to the horror and drama – America may have lost a playwright but we gained a Gentle Author.

  8. Zoe permalink
    September 11, 2021

    Thank you for sharing your experiences of a event that changed our world

  9. Ann V permalink
    September 11, 2021

    The world changed that horrendous day. I remember exactly what I was doing as we all do. My husband was at work and he rang me as I was doing the ironing. He told me to put the television on, there was a fire at the Twin Towers. I don’t think any of us could believe what we were witnessing. I was in New York with my younger daughter exactly 6 months before the destruction of the Twin Towers so was lucky enough to see the buildings from the ferry bringing us back from Ellis Island, and also from the ground. Let us all just take at least a few minutes to remember those who were lost and their loved ones who will never forget. Sadly the world has changed again with the pandemic. Let us be kind to one another.

  10. Milo permalink
    September 11, 2021

    I’ve been reading a lot of accounts of 9/11 today and yours was the most evocative; the most touching. I’ll remember that piece.

  11. September 11, 2021

    A wonderful, moving story on this special day in history.

    Love & Peace

  12. September 11, 2021

    I walked home across the sunlit Fountain Square in Baku.

    Entered the apartment and my partner was watching CNN along with my PA.

    Sat down and glimpsed the brown shadow from left of screen.

    First tower collapsed.

    Second tower collapsed.

    I said “Al Qaeda”, who were based two borders away.

    My PA, mid-twenties, secular Azeri, said “They deserved this.”

    I asked her if she believed that.


    I have never spoken or seen her since that day.

    On the Thursday I flew to Dubai.

    On the Sunday in my Kuwait hotel room watching CNN, I was as horrified by President Bush’s comment when he emerged from helicopter on White House lawn, as I had been by my PA’s, and said “This crusade….”

    The human race never learns.

  13. Helen H permalink
    September 11, 2021

    A very poignant account. I was in New York in September 2000 when we saw the WTC…and then we returned in 2002, when we visited Ground Zero. It wasn’t exactly planned that way. We were visiting two different sets of friends who were living and working there at the time…but not in 2001. I’ll never forget that day. It all happened so quickly, and so shockingly. I was watching it live on my little tv at home, standing up and feeling as though my legs wouldn’t support me. I remember feeling a cold chill run through me, subconsciously realising that the world had changed forever. In remembrance of all those who lost their lives then, and since, in other circumstances. Let’s always be there for one another.

  14. Brian Wood permalink
    September 11, 2021

    My wife and I were waiting to go upthe tower that Tuesday morning but they didn’t let tourists in till 09.30. Luck was with us! Lots of memories and photos of that day but two stick in my mind. After moving away from lower Manhattan we went to the only bar which was open, even Starbucks were closed. No one wasbehind the bar but someone said tohelp ourselves! I assumed he was staff? We did. No payment required.
    The second, and perhaps more worrying, was after midnight in our hotel near Empire State. We had to evacuate and were directed by police to go west towards the Hudson river. After walking for about half an hour we, and many others, came upon literally hundreds of people, some in night clothes, but no police. We waited for half an hour before going back to our hotel. A false alarm
    The next part of our holiday was in an hotel overlooking the Pentagon, but that’s another story.

  15. Adele Lester permalink
    September 11, 2021

    The day Shanksville, a place most of us had never heard of before, became part of our history.
    The memories of that day are still hard to recall. Rest In Peace all those we lost, especially my friend Kathryn, and all eleven former students.

  16. September 11, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a moving description of that fateful day from your perspective of really being “there.”

    Your description of New York City in late summer reminded me of GATSBY:

    “It was a beautiful day, clear and bright with a blue sky after days of rain and cloud, and the humidity which overwhelms Manhattan in July and August had cleared … it is my favourite time of year in the city. The one time when the pace slows, languor prevails, and there is peace in the shadowy air-conditioned buildings where people linger to avoid the baking temperature and blinding light outside in the streets.”

    September 11 was a magnificent day on the East coast, as were the many days that followed while the world tried to grasp the significance of that terrible event.

  17. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 11, 2021

    I just finished reading your breath-taking memory and it is 8 AM here in Toronto. For the next hour I will sit in quiet and remember how life changed for so many during that same time twenty years ago.

    We had received word that my mother-in-law was in her last days and we had to prepare for her funeral. A special floral tribute was needed and I was going to make it. I had just parked in a craft store parking lot and I went to turn off the car radio. But no, as I reached for the knob, they announced the ‘strange’ news of the first plane.

    Moments later, inside the store where only a few of us early-shoppers were wandering the aisles, the Muzak had been turned over to the radio. The announcer’s voice blared in the near-empty store; every shopper, like myself, stood absolutely still in place. And then we all rushed to get home. I turned on the television just in time to see the second plane accomplish its hateful mission.

    Within days my mother-in-law passed. To her final resting place she took the silk-flower tribute I had ‘picked’ that morning. And every time since then, when I see purple cosmos waving in late summer gardens, I remember her, and the day the World shook.

  18. Sonia Murray permalink
    September 11, 2021

    I’m sorry your show was cancelled, GA. The world changed for the worse that day. We were in Killarney when the tour guide said we should go back to the hotel, as something had happened. We watched the horror on a TV in the lobby. People from every country were trapped and dying in the Towers, and the Irish people, as well as everybody on the tour, were shockened and sickened, crying and outraged.

  19. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    September 11, 2021

    Dear G.A.,

    Thank you for your remembrance. I lived in Brooklyn, across the East River from the two towers of the World Trade Center, on September 11. I remember sitting in the churchyard of our church in Brooklyn Heights and watching ash swirl around me like snow. I’d gone to Long Island College Hospital to sit with survivors, to find that there were none.

    When people ask what it was like, that is what I remember most profoundly. As for the rest, I have no words.

  20. Saba permalink
    September 11, 2021

    GA, you were doing well in NYC! Not everyone gets to have Long Island weekends and Broadway producers. So, the city lost your talents, but your many readers have benefited from this blog. I was in the city that day, tragic and a taste of the strangeness and insecurity that so many of us experience now.
    Tell us one day about how you came to own your present home!

  21. September 11, 2021

    It is still difficult for me to talk about that day, which makes me doubly appreciative of those who can share their narratives. It changed the world and reignited a xenophobia that’s torn U.S. politics and society in two.

  22. Su C permalink
    September 11, 2021

    Thank you for sharing. Expressing grief by sending those postcards is lovely. I still can invoke the utter disbelief of that day when I think about it. Being a continent’s width away I could only watch the scene unfold, gripped in helplessness and yet, knowing I couldn’t do anything I couldn’t turn away. Life is too short. Yes, let’s be kind.

  23. Sue permalink
    September 11, 2021

    Thank you for sharing your remarkable experience.

  24. suzy permalink
    September 11, 2021

    As ever, TGA, beautifully written. Poignant, moving and deeply nostalgic.

  25. September 11, 2021

    Thank you for your extraordinary account of the unfolding of that day. I flew home from NY city on this very date two years ago and overheard so many conversations of local folk who had either been eye witness or personally touched by the tragedy. I was deeply moved and overwhelmed with sadness.

  26. September 11, 2021

    9/11 will always be a day for stories. Stories help us endure the unendurable.
    Until 1988 we lived in a loft in Lower Manhattan, and the Twin Towers was perfectly framed in one of the huge rectangular windows in our home. We often referred to it as our “night light”. Our lives were inextricably entwined with the Towers, for business and pleasure.
    By the time of 9/11 we lived in the Hudson Valley, but still had strong associations with friends, colleagues, neighbors from downtown NYC. About two weeks after the Event, my husband was reading online through the lists of the lost, and came across “William Biggart”. I still remember him rushing into the living room — “Wait. Whoa. Lynne, I see Bill Biggart’s name on this list!”. We quickly got our Roll-a-dex (remember those?) and John dialed Bill’s number; feeling hope and dread. Bill’s wife Wendy answered, and said “You must be calling about Bill.”
    Sigh. The morning of 9/11 Bill, a gifted journalist and photographer, left his home on 18th Street and headed downtown to get the story. He arrived on-scene and started shooting. When he had a moment, he called Wendy to check in. “Honey, I’m OK. I’m with the firemen. I’ll see you soon.” Bill was crushed by the Tower that fell a moment later. His
    body, camera, credentials, and belongings were found 4 days later. If you wish, you can go online and see more of Bill’s legacy. He was an amazing friend, colleague, and journalist.

  27. Barbara Hague permalink
    September 11, 2021

    so hard and unexpected, and frightening to be so near.

  28. September 11, 2021

    A powerful story. Thanks.

  29. gkbowood permalink
    September 11, 2021

    The event of that day has always brought to mind the voice of Herbert Morrison as he witnessed the crash of the Hindenburg…exactly how I felt watching those towers crash down and burn on the television.

  30. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 11, 2021

    This is the first account of that fateful day in New York I have read that has been written by someone I know personally which gives it an extra resonance.

    Thanks for sharing your experience of what was literally a life changing day for you, and for reminding us just how many lives were adversely affected by the terrorists, not just those people in the epicentre of the drama.

    Stay safe!

  31. Stephen Baisden permalink
    September 11, 2021

    On the morning of 9/11/2001 three planes left Boston headed for the west coast. My two best friends were on one of those planes. Their plane had a stopover in Chicago and the other two were direct flights and carried a full load of fuel. When my friends reached Chicago they found out about the attack on the Trade Center. They safely disembarked and made it back home to Boston. The other two planes? One hit the second tower, the other the Pentagon. I’m happy to say, both my friends are alive and well today. I always think of them on 9/11 and wonder what I would have been like to not have them these past twenty years.

  32. September 11, 2021

    I have no words….. Thank you for sharing yours

  33. Annoné Butler permalink
    September 11, 2021

    This brought that day back to me so vividly. My brother was living and working in NYC. He had just stopped working for a firm called Risk Waters. It was an amicable break and he still had many friends and contacts there including his best friend. That morning, the employees of Risk Waters met in the Windows on the World Restaurant in the North Tower for a conference. They all died that day. They had asked my brother to join them; he had refused because he had another appointment. So, it’s simply luck that he was not there. Otherwise, the anniversary would be even harder to bear for me.

  34. mlaiuppa permalink
    September 12, 2021

    Wow. Just.


  35. Wendy Cook permalink
    September 12, 2021

    This is an extraordinary story; what a lot of tragedy in a small, terrible period of time. My condolences.

  36. September 12, 2021

    Your account did not need pictures, it was so You Are There (title of an old American TV show about history), rivetingly and movingly well told. What a dramatic impact these events had upon your own life and fate, along with many others.

    Because I’m the kind of person who always wants to know “And what happened next?”, I wonder if you would mind telling if your play ever did get produced, in England? I didn’t know you wrote plays and would like to know a little about them.

    All best wishes, and thanks for this. Here’s You Are There, though thinking it over I don’t mean your story had the somewhat hilariously cheesy effects of the old show at all. I only meant…it really made me feel as if I was truly there!

  37. Georgina Briody permalink
    September 12, 2021

    Oh GA, I had no idea you were there that day and what might have been.

    It just brought back memories of my friend and I flying to Boston six weeks after the twin towers attack on an almost empty plane. Boston and of course the USA were still in shock but we took a bus ride around the city and the driver and few passengers on board clapped us for not forgetting them and visiting their great city at that terrible time. I will always remember them.

    This break was already planned before the attack and, within reason, we had no thought of cancelling.

  38. September 12, 2021

    This is really good writing.

  39. Allison permalink
    September 12, 2021

    The terrible event sent out millions of little ripples and thank you for sharing yours. That day changed me forever, probably for the worse, but it has been impossible to accept the evil that existed that day.

  40. aubrey permalink
    September 13, 2021

    A few years before 9/11, I had visited the Twin Towers, and as a structural engineer having a little knowledge of their construction principles, I was so impressed with the architecture and immensity of the buildings; the like of which I had never seen or experienced. On being told on that day that the television was now showing “that these building are falling down”. “No way!” I responded, “that’ll never happen, damaged yes, but not collapse”. How wrong I was; 100 per cent. How I was totally wrong.

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