On September 11th 2001, I was staying at the Marriott World Trade Center – the hotel at the foot of the Twin Towers. I was a diplomat at the British Embassy in Washington DC – posted there by Gordon Brown’s Treasury. I was at the Trade Center for two days, attending a conference on the US economy. My room looked directly onto the South Tower, across the roof of the Marriott.
I woke up that morning, ordered breakfast, and was watching Tracey Ullman on NBC’s Today Show. Fruit, yogurt, coffee. Nice close-up view of the South Tower. Then stuff started landing outside my bedroom window, onto the hotel roof right in front of me – burning debris, flying papers, and a very bad burning smell. I thought it was a bomb.
Tracey was still talking to Katie Couric on the TV. I stuck my head out the bedroom door. No evacuation announcement. Katie announced that a small plane had hit the North Tower. A one-off. Outside on the Marriott roof, it was looking really bad: more burning stuff falling within inches of my window. It was time to go.
I packed my case, and left my room. Went down the stairs, and got to the big lobby – which was packed with people. By this time, it was nearly 9am. I joined the line to exit the building. Just as I was leaving, the second plane hit the South Tower, right above our heads. Lots more stuff starting falling down, and we were pushed back inside. Some injured people were pulled in from the sidewalk, quite bad. People started calling on the pay phones, because mobiles weren’t working.
Panic started. This wasn’t an accident any more. There could be more planes.
The ground outside had the same stuff on it as the Marriott roof – burning fireballs, random papers, and that smell.
I was on my own, didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak to anyone. Nearer 9.30, they started letting everyone out. Don’t look up, run, and keep going. The ground outside had the same stuff on it as the Marriott roof – burning fireballs, random papers, and that smell. I didn’t look up, ran across West Street, and kept walking. Got clear of the Towers, with my suitcase, and called my sister in Newark.
Clear of the Towers, and walking down to Battery Park, I could see things more clearly. That blue sky, after the rain the night before. The top floors, trapped. The jumpers, quite a lot of them. People taking photos. I watched for a bit, didn’t take any photos, just watched. That’s when I realised how serious it was. Then I carried on walking.
I ended up on Wall Street.
It sounded like another plane was hitting. But it was the South Tower falling, about four blocks away. I turned the corner of Wall Street, and saw that massive cloud coming towards me. I dumped my suitcase, and legged it down Broad Street, past Wall St metro station. The cloud was yards behind me. To my right, a side entrance, with a metal shutter. An NY policeman let me and one other person inside. It was the New York Stock Exchange – strangely appropriate, for a Treasury diplomat. Within five seconds, the NYSE shutter came down. I was lucky to be inside. Outside, people were getting engulfed.
I was taken down to the basement, given a bottle of water and left there for over an hour. Circles of women were praying. For a while, I thought we weren’t going to get out. This was probably the most frightening bit. Then we were allowed up to the trading floor of the Stock Exchange. I stayed there for another couple of hours, watching the Pentagon and the collapsed Towers. Then we were allowed out.
Out on the street, the ground was covered in thick powder. Like grey snow. Hardly anyone was around. I walked away along Wall Street, under the Brooklyn Bridge, through Chinatown and Little Italy up to Midtown. Five or six miles to the British Consulate. They were expecting me. I was taken straight to the Consul-General’s office. Asked him for some cigarettes, and smoked most of his Dunhills. Called my family, who had no idea where I had been for the last six hours.
I watched Rudy Giuliani on TV that night, and George Bush, and Tony Blair. Actually went to sleep, amazingly. Got up the next morning, and left from Penn Station on a packed train. Met my sister in Newark, and spent the next three years in Washington DC.
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