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Inspiration

Twenty four hours, twenty years ago.



Ben

For four of the five years that I lived in beautiful New York, this was the view north from my little railroad apartment, a 5th floor walk up, one tiny segment of the top floor of a splendid turn of the century row of buildings on King Street.

It was a view I loved. It made me feel so alive, so happy, every time I got home; every time I woke up. And if you went on the roof of the building and looked south, you'd see the Towers rising over the wonderful cast iron roofs and water towers of SoHo.

No one in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001 can ever forget. I’d woken up so early that day. It was such a beautiful morning, and I was incredibly excited. The evening before, on the Monday, I’d had my very first client meeting with my own very first client whom I was bringing into the architectural office where I worked. I was keen to get the notes written up early, before the day began properly. I walked from my little apartment on King Street, along Bleecker Street, up to the office, in the Meat Packing District – Gansevoort Street. Brought my coffee and a bacon roll as usual. The day was clear and bright and full of promise. I was the first person in the office. I unlocked and opened up the shutters.

Literally, at 8.47 that morning, less than a minute after the first plane hit, the office phone rang. It was a call from Roger, the site foreman of a townhouse project that I was running on West 11th Street. I knew he’d been up early that morning. At dawn, the street had been closed for the contractors. They were loading heavy mechanical equipment onto the roof of the house – a difficult task that needed a huge crane, and a gang of men on the roof, to guide everything safely in to place. The sort of thing you want to do very early, before the city wakes up. So from about 6 that morning, they’d all been on the roof for this delicate and complicated task. I was acutely conscious that it was happening, and that things could quite easily go wrong.

Just as they were coming to an end, the first plane few incredibly low just overhead. Roger told me they could see people through the windows. Not believing their eyes, they watched as the plane floated gently into the tower. And then, for some reason, I’m not sure why, Roger thought he needed to call me. “Ben, it’s like a movie out there, we’ve just seen the most terrible thing, a plane has just flown straight into the twin towers. You must go and see”. As I write, 20 years later, my fingers are trembling, a horrific chill has just gone down my spine. I remember that call as if it happened this morning.

I ran out of the office. I was still the only person there. Remembered to lock the door. Past Florent. Nothing wrong on the street. People out and about, sweeping the pavement, unloading stuff. I got to the end of Gansevoort, to the West Side Highway, where we looked down the huge wide stretch of the Hudson River down to the towers. And very clearly, there was smoke billowing out of one of the towers. Unreal. A tiny, curious group of people were beginning to gather. Many of them were of course meat packing workers, tired from a night of processing and rendering; their white coats stained and blooded. They had the usual banter. It seemed surreal, unreal, but also as if time was balanced, not moving.

I walked back to the office. I wanted to call Dad, back home in England. Still the only person in. maybe 2 or 3 minutes to nine. I called Dad but just got the familiar click of the answerphone. “Hello, we’re not here to answer your call at the moment, so please leave a message!” (followed by the sound of Dad fumbling to turn off the recorder, forever recorded on their message). “Hi Dad, it’s Ben here – just to let you both know, I’m completely fine. All well. Will call you soon”.  My parents had been out doing a shop. They returned to a mysterious message. Of course, I had forgotten to say quite why I was calling.

I felt I should carry on working but I couldn’t. A minute later I walked out again, down to the end of the street. A larger crowd now. More banter “HEY, CAN YOU STILL CALL THEM THE TWIN TOWERS IF ONE OF THEM BURNS DOWN GUYS?” in a thick New Jersey accent. that sort of thing. But I was staring, mesmerised. The towers were a long way away but unmistakably I could see tiny pricks of smoke opening up all around the building, above the flames, like a perforation. People smashing windows and smoke pouring out. I felt sick to my stomach. Something told me, this must be an accident, but this cannot have been accidental.

And then, and then. Another plane, what seemed like a tiny little thing, came in from the side. “OH LOOK AT THAT, said banter man, more serious, in that split second… “it must be a government spotter plane, a fire department pl….” He never got to finish his sentence. The second tower exploded. People screamed, fear was tangible in the streets, people were crying.

I felt astonishingly calm at that moment. I knew something terrible was happening, that we were under attack, my beautiful city, this beautiful life. I ran back to the office again. Someone just arriving at work – I said – go and see at the end of the road. Run!

I ran back up to the desk and called Dad once more. Still the answerphone. The sound of his voice, again. the familiar clicks. I couldn’t bear being so far away. I burst into tears. “Dad, it’s me, I just need to let you both know, I’m fine, I’m fine, but it’s just so awful, I’ve just seen the second plane hit”. I was streaming with tears.

My brother sent an email. “everything okay over there? Seems like something bad is happening Ben?” I called Tim, let him know what I’d seen, that I was fine, call Dad, get hold of him for me. Please. And then I began calling friends.

I went to get a coffee. I was in the corner store. Suddenly a woman hurtled in, tiny, red haired, with a crazed look in her eyes. I watched amazed as she scooped up every bag of pasta in the shop and paid for it and ran out. I remember thinking – whatever is happening, we are not going to starve. And I left and walked back, many more people now in. Strangers on the street, hugging. Florent opening their doors. Anne and Richard, my bosses, were in, being brilliant.

And then for me perhaps the most frightening moment – I now know, 9.37, Diamond Ann, our receptionist, on the phone with her sister – who was watching TV at home – screaming “OH GOD, OH GOD – the Pentagon’s been hit”.  And that felt like a terrible, terrible moment. This was bigger than we knew.

Finally I got to speak to Dad. Agonising for them. I wasn’t really in a good way.

We had no TV in the office, but there was a flat upstairs. I remember being up there watching in a crowd. Bizarre to see on screen what we could see with our own eyes. I remember walking back out to see the buildings. And then coming back down Gansevoort, and in that moment, the South Tower fell.  And then the next crumbled in front of our eyes. And as far as we knew then, perhaps 10,000, 20,000, maybe 30,000 were dead.

My best friend Valentina had walked up from Hudson Street. We hugged like never before. She’d seen the thousands of dusty, terrified workers heading north. Like me she’d been calling friends, finding out who was safe. Terrified for those we hadn’t heard from.

Anne and Richard – so brilliant at that moment – said to us all, the entire office – come on, let’s all have lunch at Florent, it’s the only thing we can do, then we close the office and then we look after each other and ourselves and we go home and get as safe as we can.  Val came too. And then we headed back to her flat. Later I tried to get home, but Houston Street had been sealed off – the exclusion zone, and my passport and bills were at home, and I had no ID with my address on. I couldn’t pass the security cordon.

Our friends Adam and Nathan were safe, they’d gone to rescue their dogs from their apartment so close to the towers, on West Broadway. We went to Becky & Josh’s apartment that evening. Hours passed, as if we were in a dream. I remember Mayor Guiliani sounding so calm, so clear, so reassuring (strange writing this; but that was then, this is now). I shall never forget when we all went for a walk out to the west side highway. New Yorkers, totally silent, staring down the Hudson River in shock, huge clouds of smoke rising, the sound of sirens wailing into the clear, warm evening light, the horrific stench of burning – well, burning everything – thick in the air.

Finally, maybe it was around midnight, Val and I got to the Houston Street checkpoint and, one final time, I managed to persuade a policemen that my apartment was just over there - just down there on King Street - and he took pity on me. And let me go home. I stumbled past the fire station, already filled with tragedy and exhaustion, across the street, hugged Chucky at Le Pescadou, the owner of our corner bar. Stumbled home. Home. Climbed the stairs, all five flights, my legs full of lead, my heart full of dread. I showered, crawled into bed, listened to the wail of sirens all night long, cried and cried, and cried, and woke thick-headed, bleary eyed, in the grey dawn of Wednesday September 12th.

 

It's strange, looking back, to realise how 20 years can pass in the blink of an eye, but also to realise that love, truly, conquers all.

 

Rest in Peace Suria Clarke, who had just arrived in New York for your new job at Cantor Fitzgerald, and joined our summer house group on Fire Island, and had New York in your heart. 

 

 

37 comments on this post

  • Sally

    Thank you. This made me cry. I had visited NY for the first time in June that year and then in December, to a changed but resilient and defiant city. Later in the decade I lived in Manhattan for five years and became irrevocably attached to that wonderful island. I really appreciate your writing.


  • Jessica Marcum

    Beautifully written, as always. Thank you for sharing. I was only in middle school at the time but I remember the whole day as if it were yesterday.


  • Stephanie Murray

    I will never forget that day. I was head of a fashion departement at LVMH and I heard it on the radio of one of the workers in a corner and felt my blood go cold. I passed through the workrooms telling people and they just ‘well low flying planes, had to happen’ but I said NO this was something else and the world would never be the same and they looked at me like I was mad. Next day they no longer thought me mad. My cousin who worked under the tower got out of the subway that day two stops sooner to pick up his favorite cofee and saw it happen as he walked the rest of the way. The world is mad.


  • Julie Wilford-Gold

    Thank you for this profoundly personal remembrance. I recall getting our daughters ready for school that morning in Columbia, Missouri…in the very middle of the country…when my mother called from Michigan to tell me the news. I remember, inexplicably, looking east out the kitchen window as if I could see the smoke 1000 miles away. I made myself take our 3 young daughters to school that morning. In truth I wanted to keep them home. Keep them close. Life changed that day in so many ways — both subtle and monumental. I am fascinated, and somehow comforted, to read various personal experiences of that terrible morning — forever seared in our collective memory. My 3 little girls grew up in the “post 9/11” world and now all live in and love NYC — that remarkable, resilient city. The stories of heroism and love and support and caring tell us everything we need to know about the greater human spirit. Thank you so much for sharing your memories. I was deeply, deeply moved by your recollection.


  • jasonn

    Bings tears to my eyes


  • Allison

    Thank you Ben. I love New York and am still so affected by it even though it’s 20 years ago now. I worked in the Metlife Building a year later and my boss there kept his blinds closed to block out the view of where the towers would have been. His sister died in one of the towers. So incredibly sad.

    To Deborah Wagner – what a crass and ignorant comment. No, “love and respect for others” would NOT have prevented this. How dare you. Those men and their followers were pure evil and nobody else is to blame for what they chose to do that day.


  • Andrew

    Thankyou for your as always eloquent, inspiring and moving post. Love does indeed conquer all…


  • Southern Gal

    oh damn i just read this and now i have a call with a client. need to stop my tears and comment later.


  • Pamila F

    Ben, Thank you for sharing your experience in NYC on September 11, 2001. Tears still flowed down my cheeks these 20 years later reading your memories of 9/11.
    I live in Washington D.C. and had taken a long bike ride the day before/Sunday 10th September with a friend from Old Town Alexandria past the Pentagon, over to Arlington National Cemetery. Such a lovely ride of all the history here in Washington that beautiful fall day. Monday morning 9/11 I arrived at 8am my car to be serviced. I was sitting in the waiting room at the Car Dealership watching TV and NBC Today Show was on. I see news anchors interrupt the show to say a Commercial Airplane had just hit one of the Twin Towers. My gut felt sick, and I watched the TV to see what is really happening in NY. Then plane 2 hit Tower #2…..now it was a reality the USA was being attacked. Right then, 1 of my teenage sons called and asked have you heard from Dad? Is he ok? My kids Dad and I were divorced but we still cared about one another and I called his cell immediately. He was a Captain for USAirways. He answered his cell, as he was sitting in the cockpit of his plane at Pittsburgh Airport. He told me the Tower would not let any planes push back and he had no idea why. I told him what had just happened in NY. His plane never left the airport thank God on that day. Then, the Car dealership told us all in waiting area that warnings and alerts were being sent out that Washington D.C. who was possibly next. While waiting for my car to be brought to me the waiting room TV showed the Pentagon was just hit. There are no words to express the gut wrenching ache of it all, and the fear of who is doing this to America as it is intentional we now all see. How could this be happening? First I called my Mom & Dad who lived closely to see they were ok, then called my daughter. She was already driving to my house with her 1year old baby. I then called friends who I use to be a flight attendant with at United Airlines to see if they were ok, and phone lines were starting to jam and only got a busy signal. I went straight to the school to get my teenage kids and we all went home. I remember it like yesterday, every minute. All we could do is say prayers for everyone involved, their families, our families of the USA and how would we ever feel safe again.


  • Kaaren Slawson

    So many words, so many images and yours were the ones that unleashed, finally, all that remains from that time. We were asleep in our Pasadena home when my brother called demanding that we turn on the television. His wife was in Washington, D.C. The second plane struck. And the horrors multiplied. Finally, I went for my usual morning walk. The streets were empty, and the silence was oppressive, the only word for it. Finally a car passed, and that was both frightening and reassuring. The next two days are a blur of phone calls, television, and ironing which soothed. And then I slept. Twelve fireman from the Amsterdam Avenue station died. I had passed the station daily when I lived in New York. I saw them, always good humored. I think about them often. I read every single one of the New York Times ‘Portraits of Grief.’ There were so many children left. Several weeks later, I called a florist for flowers for a close friend. A life-long New Yorker, she was so sad. The florist was so sad. Our dear friends in Brazil, frequent visitors to the city, were grief stricken. Thank you for your words which powerfully remind me of how much was shared that day by so many.


  • Darlene Chandler

    Thank you for this beautifully written reflection of that horrendous day. Such a sad recollection. And your memory of loss. Love conquers. Thank you.


  • Bryan Janeway

    Ben your Loving heart shines through your writing. Thank you for sharing those moments. I was in bed when my best friend called and just said I had better turn the television on. I saw the second plane hit the South Tower live. By the time I got to school to teach my choirs I was wrung with sadness and defeat. My kids in my Vintage Singers just held each other and cried. We were a family in that class and I had told them about my 21st birthday at the top of the North Tower. Within 20 minutes my principal was on the all call explaining that Kern High School District would be dismissing classes and busses would be taking kids home. The day was surreal enough. Parents were already lined up to get their kids. Columbine had only happened two years before.


  • Pamela Bush

    Thank you for writing this memory down on paper! It brought tears as I relived my memories and my feelings of that day. We all have a story. We all have scars left on our hearts from that tragic day. And now 20 years later, you and many others alike, express their sadness and condolences for all the lives lost and sacrificed. Again thank you and God Bless.


  • Deborah Wagner

    Ben, yours is the most touching and eloquent rendition of what went on in New York that day that I have ever read.

    The casualties would have been exponentially higher but for the fact that New York office workers tend to start work at 10:00. Thank God the perpetrators weren’t aware of it.

    You speak of love. Love and respect for others would have prevented this.

    The office building where I worked overlooks Boston Harbor and Logan Airport, where the flights originated. It closed that morning, fearful that there would be more attacks, and sent us home. As I walked all the way back to Cambridge, too afraid to get on the T, a few thoughts penetrated my shock and paranoia: chickens coming home to roost, this was a long time coming, and the Blitz makes this look like a birthday present.

    And yet, America, blinded by its bloated conceit, affrontery, and greed for power and oil, learnt nothing from it, and I fear it never will. For all our perceived advances, humanity cannot subdue our collective reptilian brain, so we take refuge from it by extending charity to those whose lives we have destroyed, seeking out beauty, and loving each other (but not our neighbors, for there be dragons in today’s divided America) in an attempt to redress the balance.


  • Lis Sheppard

    So poignant Ben, all those people whose lives ended that day. You express how many New Yorkers must have felt, the aftershock has never gone away. I remember picking up my daughter who had just started school, all the parents crying together at the school gate. Like the lady who bought all the pasta, people because obsessed with not being able to get petrol. My older children remember watching the news on a loop, until I turned it off and we had a very subdued supper..


  • cmorgan

    It it both the gift and the burden that we humans carry because we not only witness, at every turn, both utter joy and immense horror that is LIFE. Especially is that burden that we witness AND on some level, will be charged with, what that horror MEANS both now and in our future. It is THEN, thus, that we rally to find the JOY in a bowl of dahlias, a walk across field and dale with the pups, and anticipate autumn days in the bothy.


  • Patricia Childs

    Thank you. Melbourne


  • Nancy Bowers

    Yes, love and friendship are vital in our world. Thank you, Ben, for your eloquent account of such an horrific event.
    Peace for all.


  • Sarah

    Thank you for sharing beautifully what must have been the most utterly terrifying and beyond awful event to witness and live through, I’m lost for words and deeply saddened to read your account – with love and peace


  • Dorothy Lindsay

    I had been woken up in the early hours of that morning (in London) by my eldest son, who was twenty years old.
    I shall never forget it.
    He stood at our bedroom door yelling for us to “Get out! Get out1”
    I realised that he was having some kind of nightmare and got out of bed to calm him down, but I couldn’t pacify him.
    .I managed to get him downstairs as he was insistent that we left the house, yelling “But can’t you hear the noise? The noise! It’s falling down, it’s falling down!”
    I opened the front door and we went onto the street, him still unable to grasp that it wasn’t real.
    The cool air and the quiet eventually convinced him that everything was ok and that he was having a really bad dream…

    Later that sunny morning we set off to drive to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral, in a quiet little country church in Church Warsop. a mining village in Nottinghamshire.

    We held the ‘wake’ in the church hall; there were a lot of us, and we had arranged for the grandchildren to watch TV in an
    adjoining room. Suddenly, one of the older boys ran in, urgently demanding that we go and watch something that was happening.
    He was so insistent that we eventually caved in and went to see why he was making such a fuss.
    The screen was showing the ’planes going into the twin towers…
    The newsreels later described the noise and chaos that my son had so graphically experienced in his dream.


  • Maureen Andersen

    Thank you. Beautifully written.
    My son worked one block away. Saw people falling. Arrived at work, told to take as many coworkers as possible to his apt in Greenwich village. A 40 sec phone call to London to reassure us he was ok. I was at work. Got home to TV images of towers falling. Had no idea if he’d been caught in the debris cloud aftermath. A heart stopping 48 hrs before he could call again. Still lurks somewhere inside me.
    I too once lived in NYC and loved it. Of all the cities it was probably best suited, by its innate energy and its people, to rise up again and to recover. But never forget.


  • Cydney

    Thank you for your witness of this tragedy. You write and photograph so beautifully.


  • Kent Shawver

    Ben:
    Thanks for reminding us that wherever we were that day WE BECAME NEW YORKERS in those sad terrible moments that changed our world 🌎. G-D Bless you and all those who were lost on that tragic day.


  • Annone Butler

    My brother was living in NYC at that time. He had just (amicably) left his position at a firm called Risk Waters. He still had many friends at the company including his best friend in NY. The company were holding a conference that morning in the Windows on the World Restaurant at the top of the North Tower. They all died. They’d asked my brother to join them but luckily he had another appointment and he survived. Difficult to think how mere chance dictated his survival.


  • Lesley jenkins

    Crying


  • Jennie and Ray Swan

    Ben from us both, a poignant and beautiful message of respect and hope.


  • Anna

    Thank you for that movingm heartfelt recollection, Ben.

    I was walking the dog on the Somerset Levels that day, and as I saw the ancient church of Rodney Stoke, the cluster of cottages and the Mendip hills beyond, a view that had probably not changed for hundreds of years, I remember thinking: to be living in a peaceful, prosperous democracy at the beginning of the 21st century – we are the luckiest people in the history of the world. Then I returned home to a phone message from my daughter saying she wouldn’t be flying home from Edinburgh as ‘all the planes have been grounded because of the attack on New York’. I switched on the TV, and I realised, as I think we all did, that all was changed, utterly changed. May all who died rest in peace; and all survivors find comfort.


  • Simon Hodgson

    We were building a house, living next door to it. Men on the scaffolding on the roof, called out to tell us to put the TV on. We watched in horror, youngest daughter aged 2 not aware of what was happening, eldest vaguely.
    Consequences then flowed, which are still with my family to today. No one died, but life changed in those moments.


  • Susan Oxford

    Thank you for writing such a beautiful but heartbreaking account of the morning of 9/11 and the aftermath. That morning is ingrained in my memory as I was sitting in my living room, my 1 year old baby son asleep upstairs and my 4 year old daughter who had just started school was playing Reader Rabbit on the computer. I watched the news footage in absolute horror and disbelief on my own with my daughter a few metres away oblivious to what I was seeing . I had visited the World Trade Centre towers on a trip to New York a few years before when I was a fashion/ textiles student and vividly remember the Joán Miro artworks and rugs that had been on display – huge scarlet and black knotted pieces and the never ending lift ride to see them. I later went back to New York for a few weeks’ work experience in a knitwear design studio, so my connection with New York felt palpable.
    To read your very personal experience of the 9/11 attacks really leaves an impression, so thank you again.


  • Mary Jones

    Thank you for your sad & moving words. I visited Ground Zero 5 year later & cried again with dozens of others. Still so raw then & still now. But the Buddlia was already growing! . I will be thinking of you in NYC when I park my car below your terrace in Truro. Best wishes.


  • Anne
    Thank you from Amsterdam

  • Penny

    Thank you for mentioning Suria’s name. I didn’t know her but now I’ve looked up her mother’s heartfelt account of her daughter written ten years ago. She is not forgotten


  • Emma Hydleman

    Beautiful writing. One can only imagine, but you make it so very, very, spine tingling real. I remember arriving at school to drop my little children, people arriving in floods of tears. The shock, the outrage, the fear. The need to protect our beautiful little innocents.
    Love just has to conquer all.


  • Sian Hughes

    Got to the bit where the policeman took pity on you and let you go home before really tearing up—an act of kindness amid the horror of it all.
    Thank you for writing.


  • Nicola Lawrence

    Poignantly written Ben and what a harrowing time for you. On the other side of the world I took my daughters to catch the school bus at the front gate and was shaken to hear the radio announcer in tears. He was struggling to get the words out. We had tradesmen laying a limestone gravel path in the garden and they all came in and watched it on my little television / all glued and just so absorbed in the shock of it all.

    I didn’t know these men beforehand but I bet they also remember, exactly.

    Rest in peace, so very many, and love and peace to those impacted including you Ben xx


  • Jan Campbell

    Your piece is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing such personal reflections on such a terrible day.


  • Annie T

    I could howl.

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