September 11 attacks: How a sunny Tuesday morning turned to a tragic day when the world changed

Credit: AP

It took just a little over 15 minutes to move from “this is a huge story” to “the world has changed”. That was the time between the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Centre at 8.46 am and the second flying into the South Tower at 9.03 am.

It was a beautiful day in Washington DC. We had been in the office just a few minutes when reports flashed up on the banks of monitors in our control room of the incident in New York. Within minutes CNN and MSNBC were both showing a liveshot of smoke pouring from the upper windows of the North Tower, early reports suggesting it may have been hit by a light aircraft.

With cameraman James Nicholas, we began grabbing some kit and an overnight bag to catch the next shuttle to New York, still watching the barely believable images on screen. And then came the second. In the moments that followed we were curiously silent. No one needed to say anything. The story was suddenly crystal clear.

Flying to New York was obviously not going to happen, so we walked the few hundred yards to Union Station to catch the Amtrak train northwards. Being stuck on a train for the next few hours was less than ideal, but what was the alternative?

The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn after hijacked planes crashed into them. Credit: AP

It was as we walked into the vast vaulted interior of the station that we heard the explosion from across the Potomac. The third plane had hit the Pentagon. This was no longer just a New York story – we should stay in Washington. Who knew what was coming next?

From the roof of our office building, watching the smoke from the Pentagon drifting towards us, reports starting to circulate of a fourth plane and that this one was on a heading towards Washington. The Capitol building was just a few hundred metres away, the White House a couple of miles up Pennsylvania Avenue. What was the next target? Was this rooftop really a sensible place to be? Did we have a choice?

The ITV News channel did not leave the live coverage all day, and we stayed on that roof for most of it, trying somehow to comprehend the incomprehensible, to sort what we actually knew from the sea of rumour and speculation. Most of all we were trying mentally to process – in all the horrific pictures we had been watching all day – just how many may have died.

As the two towers fell, it seemed certain that tens of thousands of the 50 thousand know to work in the WTC may have perished – indeed Mayor Rudy Giuliani quickly predicted the death toll would be comfortably in five figures. It turned out, deo gratias, that just before 9am many had not yet reached their offices, and that in the 17 minutes between the two attacks the evacuation of the South Tower had been swift and efficient.

James Mates reporting live from Washington on September 11, 2001. Credit: ITN

It is hard to convey the uncertainties of that day, the loss of any of the familiar anchor points on which we normally fix our understanding of the world. The President being flown in Air Force One to location after location around the country, but not to Washington DC. The fighter jets in the air above the capital. The total closure of all US air space. The knowledge that a reaction was coming, and that it may start very soon.

Late that afternoon our travel agent called to say she had heard on a local Spanish language TV station that there was a train travelling to New York City that night, and that she had booked us tickets. This seemed unlikely, given that all the tunnels and bridges into and out of Manhattan had been closed all day, most cameras and satellite trucks having to set up across the Hudson River on the New Jersey shore. But she was right, and the train ran as scheduled.

We got into Manhattan at around three in the morning, and immediately moved as far as we could towards its southern tip. The air was still rank with the smoke and dust of the two collapses. There were security cordons, of course, but the authorities were still a long way short of being able to close off the area around the now collapsed World Trade Center buildings.

The skyscrapers of New York are, at any time, almost incomprehensibly large. A collapsed skyscraper becomes a quite inconceivably huge pile of rubble. Twisted metal and concrete stretching 20 stories or more into the air. These are sights beyond any point of reference in the human mind.

Smoke billows from the Pentagon after an airplane struck the building in the third attack on September 11.

More than the destruction, what has stayed with me longest from those first hours and days in Manhattan are the posters and fliers that began to appear on fences and railings and billboards in every park and open space.

Thousands of them, tens of thousands. Each one carried a name, a photograph, a description, where they were last known to have been. And, of course, a phone number for any information. But one knew, with some certainty, that for the great majority no phone call would ever come.

Within a month the US and Britain were attacking the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In 18 months, 9/11 had been manipulated to justify an invasion of Iraq. Although we didn’t yet know it, the era of America’s ‘forever wars’ had begun.

A woman looks at missing person posters of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Credit: AP

Terrorists can never win an outright victory by force of arms, even with an attack as audacious and – in their terms – successful as that of 9/11. They can only hope to change things, to unbalance and unsettle their opponent.

At the start of the new millennium the world had seemed to have settled into period of stability in which liberal democracy was secure and unrivalled. A ‘new world order’ had been established out of apparent victory in the Cold War.

How different the world looks today, and how much of that difference can be traced back to the events of that sunny Tuesday morning 20 years ago.