9/11: The day that changed my city

David Usborne, The Independent's US Editor, was in Manhattan when the terrorists struck. He reflects on reporting the disaster, how New York has changed and the effect 9/11 continues to have on him and his adopted city

David Usborne
Friday 09 September 2011 00:00 BST

Every 9/11 anniversary is a chore to be dreaded. I feel a sense of inadequacy as a writer.

Particularly one who was there, under the twin towers as they gave in to the inferno and collapsed. Observations that once seemed potent – the high-definition blue of the sky, the pallor of the ash disturbed by my steps as I headed to the pile the following dawn – are too well-worn now. The reader is as familiar with these details as I. And there has been some inevitable blurring of memories that are my own with the images that all of us have seen on the screen or the printed page.

A few things that you won't read or see anywhere else remain entirely vivid and probably will never leave me. I saw, for instance, a corner of the South Tower turning suddenly molten and running like wax from a fast-burning candle seconds before the entire structure roared to its foundations. I remember finding out what my instinctive verbal response would be to something unimaginably bad happening in front of me. I said (excuse me), "Holy fucking Christ", not thinking for several seconds that I should turn around and run.

And yet there are things that I am slightly muddled about now. Before I spun and started to flee, did I actually see the billowing white cloud coming at me down the narrow Lower Manhattan streets like I think I did or have I stolen that part from the television documentaries? Honestly, I am not sure any longer. I do know I saw people jumping, though that is a memory I still have an almost panicky need to repress.

I have grown allergic to the obvious duty of the journalist in New York: annually to track down relatives of the victims of 9/11 – preferably ones not already interviewed or featured on the pages of your rivals – and ask them how does it feel x years later without their mother, father, brother or son? Immediately after the attack, some of the conversations I had with the grief-stricken or the frantic were genuinely intimate, even – dare I suggest – of some therapeutic value to them. I sensed sometimes that a reporter's approach was opening some door for them to let the horror out, even maybe for the first time. But now the writer is more likely to be repulsed, even if politely. Phones aren't answered, numbers are ex-directory.

And what is the market for this annual avalanche of 9/11 prose? It provokes as many words in response from the conspiracy theorists who 10 years on still argue that we are all dupes in a giant cover-up of the "truth", by which they usually mean that the World Trade Centre and the adjacent 7 World Trade building were brought down through controlled explosions and the Pentagon was struck by a missile set off and fired by George Bush and Dick Cheney seeking an excuse to begin wars in the Middle East in defence of Israel. Read them, if you must, in the comments that will be posted by them when this article appears online on this newspaper's website. But they are not readers I want, as I am not what they want in a journalist.

But for the sane people, should we invoke some statute of limitations on revisiting 9/11, say after this Sunday? Or should that have happened already? And who is going to reach their saturation point first, Americans who have direct ownership of the tragedy or overseas audiences including in Britain?

As it turned out, the year 2011 assumed an additional and unexpected importance when the US Navy Seal finally succeeded in tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. Wouldn't that mean that the anniversary of 9/11 itself would be drained of some of its importance, in spite of it being the 10th?

I probably saw the answer to that and to some of my other questions on that first night of May without realising it at the time. President Barack Obama delivered the stunning news at roughly 11pm and within minutes crowds had gathered outside the White House and also at Ground Zero itself. Notebook in hand, I arrived in lower Manhattan at about 2am. The throng was enormous and it felt like the terraces of the winning team at a football championship final. Most surprising to me was how it was mostly made up of people who were barely out of primary school when the twin towers fell. They were there for a simple reason: 9/11 may have happened when they were too young to know what terrorism meant but it had coloured all the years of their adolescence. "It was the defining thing for us as we grew into adulthood," 22-year-old Nicholas Occhuito told me, a US flag around his shoulders with the peace sign stitched where the stars would normally be. "Bin Laden's death is a book-end."

As I quiz New Yorkers, I find that many have some of the same conflicts as I do. "We have to have this day of mourning, but do you think they do the same thing in India, where they had the killings in the hotel? Or in Pakistan?" Margot Angles, an events organiser for the film industry, asks: "When do we move on? Are we seen as the most sentimental pussies on the planet for building memorials for everything?" Yet, when I ask about what she recalls of the attacks, she can't stop talking. She evokes the shoes that lay abandoned by those fleeing the towers outside her office as far up as 40th street. Days afterwards, she was mugged on the street. She isn't sure which of the two events knocked her off balance the most but probably it was the combination. "Nothing felt safe to me any more. I was eating Valiums like candies."

A good friend, Cator Sparks, tells me that reading the brilliant 10th anniversary issue of New York magazine, on the stands now, he wept twice, notably reading a segment headlined, "Goodbye", where Beverly Eckert described the bravery of her late husband, Sean Rooney, as he shared with her by telephone the horror that would eventually consume him on the doomed 105th floor of the North Tower. Alex Delgado, an advertising art director today, watched the second plane strike the North Tower from Jersey City just across the Hudson River where he was living at the time. A message he had received just the night before, changing a job interview in Manhattan from the morning of 9/11 to the afternoon, might, he knew at once, have saved his life. (His train would have taken him under the World Trade Centre.) He also needs no encouragement to open up about his memories of the day. "It just seemed like it was like a dream or a movie. It didn't seem real. I remember thinking about that magician who had made the Statue of Liberty disappear, David Copperfield. It was if he'd done it to the twin towers." Is he watching the documentaries about 9/11 flooding the TV channels in the US this week? Yes, he is.

And so, even if I resisted at first, the rush to reflect on 9/11 a decade on has finally taken hold of me too. I have come to understand several things, including that my experiences of that day were narrow and New York-centric. I was not at the Pentagon where 224 died, including those aboard American Airlines flight 77, nor was I in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United 93 hurtled into a field leaving behind a smoking crater and another 189 fatalities. Of course, as I stood under the towers in lower Manhattan with a cell phone that wouldn't work, I had no notion of the panic in other parts of the country. But it has taken until now, thanks to new reporting undertaken for this anniversary, for entirely new details to come into focus for me. Some I may have just forgotten, others perhaps I had never registered.

That all US borders were closed, that President Bush's then national security and anti-terrorism adviser, Richard Clarke (a man who would later step forward to criticise his own former colleagues for what he said were gross lapses in anticipating the attack) was for a while essentially given control of the country, as Bush himself took to the skies from Florida where he had been reading to school children, and other top advisers, including Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, vanished into a bunker. That another plane briefly went missing over Alaska.

The crisis had a vast canvas just on that one day. But beyond catching up with what I missed, I have unexpectedly found myself drawn more feverishly than ever before into trying to grasp the much larger panoply of consequences of the terrorists' actions, for this country, for those directly hurt and, indeed, for me. How would things be if 9/11 hadn't happened are among myriad mostly unanswerable questions that now crowd in. What emerges above all is a sense within me of deep sadness about all of it. When the towers imploded they crushed not just bones and fire engines. They crushed innocence. Eight hundred children lost a parent on 9/11, among them Madison Burnett, whose father, Tom Burnett, was among the leaders – the heroes – of the attempt to recapture the cockpit on United 93 before its descent into the pastures. "For the longest time I thought he was still alive, that he was somewhere in Pennsylvania... for years and years and years," she told NBC at the family's California home this week. Aged 15 now, she spoke of something she hadn't even told her mother. Each time her father travelled when she was little, she prayed he would return safely. On that particular trip she had forgotten to. And so all these years she has not only felt robbed of a father, she has also felt the kind guilt no child should feel.

Seven years ago, before the third anniversary, I had a weepy lunch on Third Avenue with Bob McIlvaine, who lost his son, Bobby, a media executive with Merrill Lynch, who was visiting the towers only to set up a trade show. His father explained how he had struggled through the grief that nearly cost him his marriage and how he had rediscovered his balance by joining Peaceful Tomorrows, a group dedicated to denouncing wars, as the right response to 9/11.

He was in New York partly to protest at the Republican National Convention being in town to crown George Bush for a second term. If most family members have by now moved on from the tragedy in their different ways, Mr McIlvaine, now 66, has allowed the memories of it to swallow him whole, spending his days now speaking for the conspiracy theory brigade. "I've got anger, bitterness, rage, I really do," he recently confided to a sympathetic audience at a college in Hartford, Connecticut. He says he attended nearly all of the hearings of the 9/11 Commission on Capitol Hill which gave no credence to the idea that Washington was behind the attacks. He came away seeing only cover-ups. "You would have to be a moron not to at least say, 'Jesus the government must have done something if they are not even answering questions'. I can't be civil any more. I can't say I'm a patriot, I feel my country murdered my son. I want answers. I want to find out why my son was murdered."

My attempts to get back in touch with Mr McIlvaine this week were thwarted. I'd like to ask if his son would have looked askance at his conspiracy crusade, though that would probably have been too harsh.

Something almost like innocence – may be more like a shared sense of emotional nudity – seemed conversely to be reborn in New York in the days immediately after the attacks. All that normally characterises the city – the elbowing, the self-satisfaction, the conviction that each one of us is more crucial to the universe than the other – was stripped away. Strangers talked and hugged, people made love more (as demonstrated by the bursting maternity wards nine months after) and cars stopped if you crossed the road mid-block. New Yorkers were swimming in emotions that, above all, included sheer shock. "That was what really freaked me out," Alex Delgado recalls, "This sort of thing wasn't mean to happen to America. It was almost like we were paralysed all the time it was happening."

But before long there was Bush and Rudy Giuliani telling us to Stay Shopping and Carry On and the feeling was suddenly gone. It lasted perhaps two weeks, longer if you lived right downtown by the still stinking pile. And this is what perhaps makes me saddest 10 years on: the tragedy had the potential to take America to a new, more self-aware and less egotistical place. It might, for instance, have been a lesson that the country was no longer as unique in the world as it had assumed and that its shores were as vulnerable as everyone else's.

The trauma of 9/11 might have been a leveller. American hubris at that moment could have allowed in at least a thread of American humility. But of course "keep shopping" became "keep thumping" and the foreign policy response was first Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of asking if past policy had contributed to the hatred that had brought about 9/11, America instead railed at everyone else.

Today as I travel the country, I find a citizenry clinging more zealously than ever to the curious notion of "American Exceptionalism", that theirs is a land chosen by God, better, kinder and wiser (and more powerful) than any other on the planet, never mind the growing evidence to the contrary like debt, deficits, Wall Street crimes, crumbling roads and gridlocked government. When Barack Obama attempts to express humility in speeches overseas, conceding that the US may have made mistakes, he is lambasted at home, notably by people who keep the US Constitution in their underpants and identify with the Tea Party.

The rightwards lurch of American politics probably has little directly to do with Bin Laden. But on foreign affairs we can say that with the immediate consequences (wars) there has been little of the rethinking of America's underlying instincts that one might have expected, including under this President. The Obama drones drop their payloads almost daily and the path to peace in the Middle East is as obscure as ever.

Explaining why I love America is for another day – I just very recently became a citizen – but these things dishearten me. How distant is that fleeting moment of post-9/11 unity as politics in Washington plumb new acrid depths. And at times I am dumbfounded by individuals I meet. How am I meant to respond to the pastor in Florida who wants to make a show out of burning the Koran or the protesters in lower Manhattan fulminating over plans to build an Islamic centre close to Ground Zero, or the sheriff in Arizona who wins points for every hapless illegal immigrant he hunts down and throws out? Theirs are views that defile what their country stands for and all have xenophobic roots in the 9/11 attacks.

And what of me? Clearly, in the post-9/11 period I have been more cynical or perhaps just clear-eyed about Uncle Sam than before. It is worth admitting that my reporting of the attacks and their aftermath in New York will probably stand as the defining moment in my career, whether I rose sufficiently to the challenge or not. But here I am, avoiding the question. I am still British in my distaste for self-psychoanalysis.

The truth is, the experience of the attacks, even for me, was awful. In the early months of 2001 I lost a brother and then my father. My normally pretty robust outer shell was already weakened when an editor called and dispatched me to lower Manhattan and I emerged from the subway to see a conflagration in the sky that was only about to get very much worse. While I had reported on a civil war and an earthquake before, this was a step into Hell too far.

As I mentioned, I don't really talk about the jumpers to anyone. It's too much, even for a story-teller. I found that I cried when interviewing others suffering frightful grief and that conveying that pain in words at my computer was itself more emotionally draining than I might have imagined. Like so many others, I endured months of nightmares of being in collapsing buildings and repeated moments of sudden anxiety when helicopters gathered in the sky, an unusual number of sirens seemed to sound or a plane appeared too low over Manhattan.

Such moments are more frisson than fright nowadays. Touring Ground Zero last week, I caught the reflection of an airliner in the glass cladding of the fast-rising One World Trade Centre and merely thought it eery rather than scary. Up on a high floor of the new tower I was shown one of its emergency staircases and for a moment I could not stop a vision swimming into view of what the staircases of the twin towers were surely like on that morning ten years ago.

But if I say I am quite fine, that the scratches on my soul made by 9/11 are all gone, you will know I am lying, if only because of my admission of the dread I feel as every new anniversary comes around.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in