‘I witnessed 9/11 and it was like watching a horror film’

Twenty years ago today South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne, then a journalist, was on holiday in New York when the unthinkable happened. Writing for CambridgeshireLive he shares his memories of the 9/11 attacks… The man running up Sixth Avenue in bare feet was the first sign I was getting close to the world’s worst terrorist attack.

I stopped him and asked why he had no shoes. He had been getting dressed in the Marriott Hotel at the bottom of the Twin Towers when a body fell past his window. Without waiting to get his shoes or wallet, he ran out of the hotel, past the smashed up fallen bodies on the ground outside, and just started running, running, running – saving his life.

I gave him £20 so he could call his home in San Francisco. : Latest news from around the UK and world Seconds later, a truck with a smashed-in roof covered in grey ash drove past, a portent of the horrors to come.

I carried on going towards ground zero. The day before I’d had lunch with my wife at the World Trade Centre, admiring the astonishing architectural and engineering achievement in a stopover weekend in New York on the way back from Canada. The next morning, 20 years ago today, I turned on the hotel TV and thought I was watching a film.

There was the same building but now with a gaping black hole near the top, and smoke pouring out. The presenters carried on in their tone of horror, and it was very convincing – I thought there was a real risk that viewers would believe this was actually happening, as they did when the Orson Welles radio show War Of The Worlds caused public panic. Then I suddenly realised – what I was watching on TV was happening.

Just down the street. My wife was in the bathroom and I screamed at her: “Come here!”. We fell into a shocked silence, got dressed, and went outside.

The Twin Towers were both struck during the 9/11 attack

Looking down Fifth Avenue, we could see the north face of the North Tower, its ominous black wound, smoke pouring out and flames lapping its edges.

I felt like I was in a Hollywood movie – I had seen New York skyscrapers destroyed so many times in disaster films, and here I was witnessing it. Everyone was standing out in the street, staring in silence, not talking, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Few people were driving, and some parked their cars, opened their doors, and put the radio on full volume to people could hear the news to work out what was happening.

A second plane had hit the South tower. We learnt a plane had also hit the Pentagon. We were under attack.

To get a better view, my wife and I walked from Fifth Avenue to Sixth Avenue, and by the time we got across there was only one tower left standing, a huge cloud billowing up around it where its partner had fallen. I was gripped with the horror of the thousands of people suddenly being crushed to death nearby. I was working at the Observer, but on holiday, and they had no idea where I was in the world.

I phoned up the news editor and said: “I am standing in the middle of Sixth Avenue looking at the one remaining twin tower.” He replied: “Excellent!”. I was now in journalist mode. I had nothing to write any notes on, so I went into the stationers Staples, and asked for a pen and paper, explaining I was a journalist.

No one has any training how to act in such a crisis when the whole of reality suddenly changes around you, and in the middle of a major terrorist attack the confused assistant went automatically into a sales pitch outlining their wonderful range.

'I witnessed 9/11 and it was like watching a horror film'New Yorkers watch as smoke bellows from one of the Twin Towers

“I just need a pen that writes” I said, grabbed one, threw some cash at the counter, and just as I came out the second tower was falling. We were watching the history of the world changing in front of us. My mother knew I was in New York but I couldn’t get hold of her.

I managed to phone my sister who had not heard the news, so I told her: “I can’t talk, but just turn on the TV and phone mum and tell her I am fine.” As others fled north from the terrible scenes at Lower Manhattan, my wife and I ran south towards them, notepad in hand. Shops were being closed, but one cinema threw its doors open to give people a place to sit and take refuge.

A plane went overhead, and everyone screamed and ducked for cover thinking it was another attack. The first person I met from the scene of the attack was the man in bare feet, then came the escapees covered in ash. Finally I got down to where all the streets and buildings were covered in ash, and was stopped by the police cordon.

People were dazed, confused, petrified, lost for words, having just escaped the attack. I spoke to one Chinese American who had been in the first tower to be hit and phoned his brother who was in the second tower, telling him to get out before he himself started walking down dozens of flights of stairs. He had no idea if his brother had made it.

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'I witnessed 9/11 and it was like watching a horror film'

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There’s an ‘unsubscribe’ button at the bottom of every newsletter we send out. A woman, a stranger also covered in ash, listened in, and said: “My flat is just a block away, come and clean up and make some calls.” Like the pandemic, this was a crisis that brought out the best in people. The whole of Manhattan was quickly put into lockdown.

No one apart from emergency services was allowed to enter or leave. Airspace was closed. All businesses closed.

The streets became devoid of traffic, and people just wondered around the middle of normally busy roads. They had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Only food shops and cafes remained open so people could eat.

The smell of the ash and burnt ruins of the towers pervaded lower Manhattan, and people put wet handkerchiefs over the mouths to stop being poisoned. I did a podcast for the Guardian – a new-fangled thing at the time – that ultimately got picked up by Oliver Stone and incorporated into his film World Trade Centre with Nicholas Cage, in which I get a credit. Within hours of the attacks, posters started going up asking for news of missing relatives.

By nightfall, the posters were plastering all the lampposts and railings. Thousands of people couldn’t find thousands of relatives and were hoping the worst wasn’t true. It was then that I learnt that if you can’t find a loved one, you can’t rest until you have found them – every minute has to be spent searching.

'I witnessed 9/11 and it was like watching a horror film'The aftermath of the Twin Towers after 9/11

People started touring the hospitals, lining up outside hoping to find that their relatives were inside.

Parks were lit up by seas of candles as the city went on vigils, and strangers hugged strangers. People walked along the streets spontaneously bursting into tears, and everyone understood. We were meant to meet a friend, but she herself had six friends missing and needed to look for them.

Outside one hospital, I spoke to a girl about 10-years-old whose mother was working on one of the top floors of the World Trade Centre, and had phoned her after the planes hit, telling her what happened and that she loved her. The girl said she knew her mother was alive, she just needed to find her. I asked her what floor she had been on and which tower.

I knew her mother was dead, but said nothing, and just checked the girl had other relatives to look after her. In the coming days, endless tales of horror from survivors came out. Being so close to it, you could not also fail to think what the people in the towers saw and felt.

What pure terror forces someone to jump out of a window 100 floors up to certain death? People above where the planes hit would have gone into freefall inside their offices as the tops of the towers collapsed. As New Yorkers struggled to cope with their loss and come to terms with what had happened, across the world the drum beats of war could start to be heard.

The events of 20 years ago changed history.

They also changed me.

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