One year on: The eyewitness account

As the city pauses today to remember, <b>The Independent</b>'s New York correspondent relives his experience of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. This is the story of his first reactions, and of how life has altered in the year since
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I have souvenirs from the atrocity. This makes me a grave-robber. Yet, we all need reminders of the biggest events of our lives. It might be a lock of hair from your child's christening, or an order of service from the funeral of a loved one. More likely they will be simple snapshots, but I took no camera on my journeys to the towers that fearful day, or when I returned to their monstrous remains before dawn the next morning.

I have souvenirs from the atrocity. This makes me a grave-robber. Yet, we all need reminders of the biggest events of our lives. It might be a lock of hair from your child's christening, or an order of service from the funeral of a loved one. More likely they will be simple snapshots, but I took no camera on my journeys to the towers that fearful day, or when I returned to their monstrous remains before dawn the next morning.

Usually, we keep mementoes as proof to others that we were there, pieces of evidence that we periodically dig out to show friends or family. But my September 11 keepsakes – if I hold on to them at all – are for private consumption, for me alone. From time to time, I may take them out to remind myself that, yes, I witnessed the awful slaughter, the terror that stripped away a superpower's innocence. Their viewing will always make me sad.

But when will I need them? Is it now? How much has the passing of a year dulled my emotions, removed me from the tragedy as daily life has recaptured my attention?

My memories of what happened that day, at least, are still living in my gut. They remain like a dull ache. Very occasionally, they rise up and grip my consciousness and shorten my breath. It happens when I allow myself to see certain images once again – the tiny figures plummeting through the air, the deathly wall of dust bearing down on me like a tidal wave or the raw, grey stump of the south tower's core, revealed by a sudden parting of the dust, before it too succumbs and melts into the earth.

But now a daylong orgy of civic remembrance is thrust upon me, as it is upon everyone in this still staggered city, whether we like it or not. I don't know anyone who hasn't been dreading this anniversary. Yet, we all know that there is no avoiding it. Moments in history of heroism and of tragedy need to be marked in a public way. So we give it a name – President Bush last week tagged it "Patriot's Day" and ordered that flags be flown at half-mast – and maybe in the future it will become a public holiday.

Visiting the gaping excavation at ground zero last week, a tourist from California had his own thoughts on why public mourning one year after must happen. The first was obvious: the dead must be honoured. But Brian La Face, one of hundreds of visitors poking cameras through the fence around the site – the void left by the fallen towers is the city's premier tourist spot – said something else. America should be forced to pause once a year to look back on September 11 – because it would prefer not to. "This is a very forgetful country," Mr La Face argued. "Americans prefer to forget the bad things and want to move on and make everything the way it was before. My best friend told me he didn't want to hear about the anniversary. That's how people think. And we have become complacent already."

So is remembering indeed something that has to be forced on the country by civic ceremony? Would we slip into forgetfulness but for the media, which have unleashed an avalanche of commemoration, replaying for us every ghastly millisecond? It depends on where you were on the day itself. If, like Mr La Face, you live in Los Angeles, all these things are perhaps necessary. But for so many, these cues are superfluous, almost cruel. There are maybe 15,000 souls out there, mostly in greater New York, who were directly impacted by the trajectories of those two planes – souls cut open after they lost family members, colleagues, friends. I certainly do not count myself among them.

Consider the 800 children who lost a parent. They don't need reminding. Each has lived through a birthday of that lost parent by now. Or taken a first family holiday with one empty seat in the car. Hilary Stauch, 12, whose father, George, worked as an insurance broker on the 99th floor of the south tower, is doing everything she can to avoid the memories. She watches the Food Channel exclusively on television, because even MTV, which used to be a place only for music videos, is offering anniversary documentaries. And Hilary simply can't watch them.

The many thousands who personally escaped death, mostly people who were on floors beneath the levels where the two aircraft struck – in the south tower, only 16 who were above that level made it out alive, and nobody from the north tower did – don't need reminding either. The closer they came to death, the harder it will be to lay those memories aside. Like Chris Young, 33, who was riding down in an express lift in the north tower when the first plane hit. The cabin bounced wildly and, though it was already in the lobby, it almost became his tomb when the doors refused to open. They came loose seconds before the building collapsed, and he ran just beyond the building as the first debris showered around him. About 200 people died inside lifts.

The same goes for hundreds who rushed to the towers to help with the evacuation when word first came that an aircraft – the earliest reports spoke only of something small, like a private Cessna – had hit the north tower and that dreadful plume of grey smoke began to trail across that morning's extraordinary azure sky. (Who among us knew then that the smoke, subtly suffused with the smell of burning human remains, would continue to cast a shadow over lower Manhattan for almost two months?) Of the 343 New York City firefighters who died, 60 were meant to be off duty. The police lost 23 officers. Joe Pfeifer needs no reminding; one of the first fire chiefs to arrive at the scene, he lost a firefighter brother, Kevin. "Seeing those towers fall on television always brings me back to that day, remembering how the street turned to darkness, and in that darkness I see Kevin's face and the faces of so many firefighters."

You will especially not need reminding today if you are a widow of September 11 – they outnumber widowers by five to one. Think of those, above all, who know their husband is gone but were never given the simple solace of a body to bury. All they had to greave over was an urn of soil, dug from ground zero and delivered to them by a city anxious to give them some way to say goodbye. A few eventually received an item of jewelry from their loved ones; a wedding ring, or a necklace. (Among the pieces recovered were 80 bracelets, 119 earrings and 144 rings.) Nor, surely, is today necessary for the scores of people in the Medical Examiners Office, who in the days after were sorting through the mass of severed body parts trying to identify the victims and who, in the months afterwards, came up with positive identifications for 648 souls with the help of DNA science.

And what about people like me, who suffered no direct loss but who witnessed it all at close quarters? We who watched with churning stomachs as those figures popped out of high windows and tumbled to earth, arms and legs gently flailing? We who ran for our lives when the first tower came down, throwing up that wall of dust, so large it seemed biblical, that chased us down the streets of the financial district? How much of today's events – the reading of the Gettysburg Address by Governor George Pataki, the bagpipe processions before dawn and the reciting at the site of the names of those who died – are aimed at me? Do I need my memory jogged, lest I forget? And will the act of remembering be beneficial or superfluous? Cleansing or just painful?

When I met Brian La Face last week, I was on a short pilgrimage back to ground zero, precisely to test my feelings one year on. Earlier, for the first time, I opened my desk and rummaged for those souvenirs I collected. First, there is the flimsy gauze mask a volunteer belatedly handed to me on the morning of 12 September. I had struggled out before sunrise to try to bypass the army checkpoints that sprouted in lower Manhattan and penetrate the perimeter of ground zero itself. I tramped the streets for hours, disturbing drifts of white ash, before I was invited to join a small, tightly escorted group of reporters to the edge of the rubble. That was when I got the mask. I should have worn one all the time, of course, but my health hardly seemed important. I only became worried three months later when a cough that began shortly after the attacks was still gripping my chest and I began to understand why.

The ash, made up of incinerated concrete, glass and human flesh, covered the landscape like a shroud, cloaking the streets, pavements and doorsteps. It lay like dirty snow on apples, oranges and grapes neatly arranged on an abandoned fruit stall on a street corner. But more than the ash, it is the shoes that haunt me still. Lace-ups with leather uppers and soles, and high heels with ripped straps. Not pairs, but single shoes, one here, another there. I remember how they puzzled me. I wrote then that they had surely come from office workers fleeing north as each of the towers came down. But today a more macabre thought occurs to me – that they had been torn from the feet of the jumpers as they hurtled through the air. They estimate now that more than 200 people either leapt or were forced out into the abyss on that morning, most of them from the north tower.

It was during that brief foray to the site of the carnage that I felt compelled to bend down and pick up a single piece of the debris. It was not going to be a shoe, or anything personal, or any of the physical wreckage. Instead, I looked at all the office documents that had showered down like oversized confetti. I simply picked up the first piece I saw at my feet. It lies beside me now, a portion of an A4 sheet, about six inches across, its edges singed brown. On it are notes written in ballpoint by somebody doing their expenses. It begins: "Parking@Newark". Whoever wrote this had apparently made a business trip to London, because it goes on, "Car rental from Hertz £424.17, per Amex". One person I know had the same magpie impulse. Her find was more macabre. She pocketed an air ticket. She wondered if it had come from a passenger on board one of the planes.

America at large may be forgetting already. And what of me? As I retrace my steps of that Tuesday morning, taking the same subway line south from midtown and emerging at the same station – Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall on the number four line – I am surprised, even dismayed, to find that the worst of the emotions seem, in fact, to have faded, if only little. I admit this, even if the memories are still there, vivid and unblurred. I recall easily the bewilderment as I first looked upwards and saw not just one, but both of the towers burning furiously. Why were they both on fire? (I got there just after the second plane hit.) I haven't forgotten how slow I was to believe what I was told – that each had been struck by a different commercial airliner.

The absence of the towers doesn't affect me so strongly now. I am almost used to the new topography of lower Manhattan, at least when I am in it. The shock only returns when I see the city from some distance. Glimpsing Manhattan then, without the twin towers at one end, is like seeing a map of Britain with Cornwall lopped off.

On my trip back downtown, I return to the exact location where I spent most time that morning before being forced to flee. It is a small area of kerbside, outside J&R Music, a famous electronics shop. It was from here that I first spotted the jumpers, so tiny, like seagulls against a vast horizon. This will always be the hardest memory for me. I cannot talk about it in dinner conversation. If close friends interrogate me, I do attempt to describe what I saw, but even then I am prone to break off in mid-sentence and turn away. I cried watching them then and I will cry today if I summon the precise images too effectively. I still can't look when the jumpers are shown on TV or even in still photographs in newspapers.

There must be worse things for a person to see, but I can't think of many. I did not, I should say, see any of them hit the ground. There were smaller buildings in the foreground. I am profoundly thankful for that. Yet there was so much terror bound up in watching just one of those people drop. There was time to think so many thoughts: that could be me (I had dreams of falling for months afterwards), and what kind of horror forced the person to take this route to obliteration? And above all, I am watching someone who is alive now, but in a few seconds will be dead. And he or she knows it. To that extent it is like that photograph of a man in Vietnam, with a pistol to his head, just moments before the shot is fired.

It was from this same vantage point that I noticed something peculiar happening to the south tower. First I saw what seemed like a ripple effect, travelling down one corner of the structure from where the fires were burning. Articles written later gave one explanation: that I was watching a flow of aluminium, a melted river of the fuselage of the plane that had crashed inside. Immediately after that, the entire tower began to fail. Excuse this cliché, but I could not believe what I was seeing. The top quarter of the tower at first seemed to snap off and start to tumble at an angle, but almost instantly every floor beneath started to go. In one, devastating "whoompf", the south tower was gone. My glimpse of that central core, left standing to perhaps half the height of the tower, lasted only a fraction of a second before all lower Manhattan became a great storm of dust and debris.

Like others, I didn't run at first. This was a simple case of brain overload. What we saw was concrete crumbling, but we all knew what we were really witnessing; death on a staggering scale. A few seconds later, spurred by the urgent yells of police officers, I turned round and started to run.

Yet, just being at the same place again is not quite enough to conjure all the dread I felt then. I look around now and, aside from that obvious space in the sky, things seem normal, settled even. J&R has spiffy new signs. Cars and taxis, not ambulances, speed by, and there is no room on the pavement for the ghosts of a year ago. I cannot see them stumbling over one another to escape the dust cloud, or vainly seeking contact via cellphones with the rest of the world. I no longer see the throngs of office workers barging forward to reach the Brooklyn Bridge, which offered them foot passage off Manhattan and to safety. What I see, instead, is New York as it used to be. The city, on the surface at least, has returned to type. Its denizens, from so many nations, are again caught up in the daily swirl of life in Gotham. It's about gratification and survival; sex, food and the size of your apartment.

Partly this is because the fear has gone. There are reminders of the terror everywhere, of course, like the bomb-sniffing dogs I see almost daily in Grand Central Station. But it is nothing like how it was in the days after September 11, when all of us were wondering when the next attack would come. A crack of thunder would jerk us from sleep as we wondered if, in fact, we had heard another building fall. Sounds of sirens scared us every time. We realise that fresh attacks could occur at any time; there may be a new blip of anxiety today. But, mostly, we have settled down and relaxed about the threat.

I generalise, of course. Nothing is the same for those whose lives were forever scrambled by what the terrorists did. Nor can we ignore the economic impact of the attacks on the city. Truth is, it was suffering the beginnings of a downturn even before the planes hit. One of the last articles I wrote before that day was about Manhattan restaurants coping with the slowdown. But most estimates suggest that about 100,000 jobs were lost in the city as a direct result of the tragedy.

As my insignificant pilgrimage back in time comes to an end, this creeping sense of detachment in myself begins to disturb me. Perhaps I am in danger of forgetting. Perhaps I too need this day of remembrance. But then something happens that lifts the lid off the well of my emotions.

For weeks after September 11 the streets were plastered with flyers bearing pictures of the victims, their names and ages and the floors they worked on. They were almost unbearable to look at because they put happy human faces on the tragedy. By Christmas they had gone. But on the railings of St Paul's Chapel, a block from ground zero, I see one. A young, handsome man with blond hair and blue eyes stares out at me. And I stare back for a full five minutes, immobilised. "David Tengelin, Swede, 25. WTC 1, 100th floor." A message reads: "We love you and miss you so much." It is signed: "Mom, Patric and Petra."

The poster looks new. The family of David Tengelin had put it back up, not because they think he will come back, but lest we forget. Lest I forget.