Twenty years ago today, members of militant Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda launched an audacious terrorist attack on the United States, hijacking four commercial airliners and killing almost 3000 people after flying into both towers of New York’s World Trade
Centre – both of which would collapse within 102 minutes – and the Pentagon, in Washington DC.
A fourth hijacked plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers, including Kiwi Alan Beaven, stormed the cockpit.
Few have forgotten where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the attacks, and watched the unimaginable horror unfold on TV.
From living rooms, classrooms and faraway hotel rooms to a trans-Pacific flight and, terrifyingly, an apartment next to the collapsing Twin Towers, Kiwis tell Cherie Howie what they remember about the day America came under attack.
'When the tower fell … the noise was like a freight train'
My friend Maria Williams and I were living directly across the highway from the Twin Towers, about 500m away, and woke that morning to a sonic boom.
After living in LA, we thought that’s what it was because it sounded like when jets did the booms across the desert.
An assistant called and told us to turn on CNN as she was concerned about our proximity to the Towers. By 9am we had the TV on and our mothers were calling us from Auckland.
We were on the 27th floor and looked out at the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty.
Within minutes, the second plane had gone over and we watched it live on TV hit the second tower with another sonic boom.
It was a busy hour of calls from friends, family and colleagues from New Zealand and all over Manhattan.
It wasn’t till 9.59am, when the first tower fell, that the flight-or-die mode set in.
The noise was like a freight train. The ominous shaking, the electricity blinking – you knew the unthinkable had happened and one of the towers had come down.
We didn’t know if it’d imploded or fallen, crushing other buildings. We did know it hadn’t fallen on us.
Maria was in her nightie and I was in boxers and a singlet. We grabbed cigarettes and a lighter and immediately fled the apartment with no footwear, money, ID, nothing.
We did what you’re taught not to do and took the lift as we wanted the fastest way out.
We got as far as the foyer, where 100 residents were told by security it was too dangerous to go outside. They wouldn’t let people in either, including those injured, much to the disagreement of everyone.
It was blind chaos as you couldn’t see a thing outside. It was a blanket of white-ash cloud.
We ended up sitting on the floor, as calls came in saying there were gas leaks all over Manhattan, there’d been more attacks and the second building was about to go.
Someone’s transistor radio was the best source for info among the chaos.
We honestly just sat looking at the concrete girder above our heads, making peace that it’d be a quick way to go.
At 10:28am the second tower came down and, being at ground level it was even worse than the first one, causing everyone to run, and we did – fast.
Not being able to see a footstep in front of ourselves we followed people’s voices and direction, cut our feet on glass and in our minds, miraculously, made the water at the Hudson and were lifted on to a departing ferry.
It was a perfect blue-sky day and we looked back in disbelief at the changed skyline and Manhattan on fire. It was tears, major, major anxiety and relief.
When we arrived in New Jersey we were taken to hospital, where we saw masses of
stretchers waiting on either side of the street, unused.
It was at that stage we realised how lucky we were, and how many people would’ve died instantly when the Towers collapsed.
'This is not what Islam is about'
I was in Ms Joyce’s social studies class at Avondale College. She turned on the TV so we could watch.
Everyone was solemn and quiet.
I was crying a bit, silently in the corner because I didn’t want people to see.
I remember the looks on people’s faces. My teacher, she had this look of utter sadness on her face.
At lunchbreak, everyone was talking about it. But I don’t think we watched any more in class.
It was like, “okay, that’s enough”.
One thing it changed for me was that it made me even more determined to speak up when people blame Muslims for what happened.
I spent half of my childhood in Malaysia and have many friends who are Muslim, and this is not what Islam is about.
The people who did this were extremists.
'The US and the democratic world were under threat in a way that was absolutely unprecedented'
I was Foreign Minister at the time terrorists used planes to destroy the World Trade Centre in New York.
That night, I had got home from work shortly after midnight and was falling asleep when the telephone rang.
It was the public service driver who had dropped me off at home.
“Minister,” he said. “You need to turn your television on. A plane has crashed into the Trade Centre in New York.”
I stumbled downstairs and caught sight of the image we will always remember from that night of an aircraft flying straight into the side of the building with the flames from the explosion and pall of black smoke that followed it.
It was alleged that it was a terrorist attack but there was huge confusion about what was happening.
Then, with the second plane going in and America locked down in a state of panic, the enormity of the situation became clear.
I got dressed and went back to the Beehive where a small collection of officials had gathered. I made calls to the American ambassador and talked to Jim Anderton, who was acting Prime Minister as Helen Clark was out of the country.
There was not a lot we could do in a practical sense about what was happening in the US but going home to bed wasn’t an option either.
The US and the democratic world were under threat in a way that was absolutely unprecedented, and we worked through the rest of the night on what the implications were and the options and actions we might need to defend ourselves.
At dawn, bleary-eyed but driven by adrenaline from the events that had occurred, I did the first of a series of media interviews.
'I saw the plane go into the building'
I’ll never, ever forget the time.
It was eight minutes past one and I was working alone as Overnights host on Newstalk ZB.
We had monitors in the studio and I always had one on the BBC.
I saw the plane go into the building.
I thought, “Oh my goodness, that didn’t look like a movie” but I couldn’t turn the sound up.
So I said to my audience, “I just saw something on TV that’s a little unnerving. Turn on your TV and tell me what you see”.
It was only a minute and someone was telling me, “Oh my God, a plane has flown into the building”.
People began arriving. My boss came from Waiheke Island, I don’t know how.
At 2.30am Paul Holmes arrived. Paul was Paul and he rightfully took over, although I thought it was a bit alarmist for those who usually listened to Overnights.
For whatever reason, that time of eight minutes past one and the image of the plane going into the building has never left me.
I can get a vision of it immediately – seeing it, in the studio, at that moment.
'It was the lunchtime conversation topic for weeks on end'
I’d just turned 18 three days before the attack, and was in my final year of study at New Plymouth Girls’ High School.
I was home on study leave that particular day, and I remember Mum got off the phone and ordered me to turn on the television.
I thought initially it must have been a hoax, because a plane flying at that level into a building just seemed like something out of a movie.
Mum, Dad and I sat on the couch most of the day watching the footage in utter disbelief.
I remember ringing my friends to talk it through, no one could believe it.
It was the lunchtime conversation topic for weeks on end.
I only had a few months of high school left before I was due to leave Taranaki for university in Canterbury.
Lots of my friends were about to leave for their OEs.
As an 18-year-old it really made you question your next move.
It made you question the safety of the world, and whether leaving New Zealand was the right thing to do.
'Holy s**t, it looks like WWIII's on'
I was in North Hollywood, where our band, Shihad, was writing and recording its fifth album, when my wife in Australia told me a plane had hit the World Trade Centre.
I turned on the TV and saw the second plane hit live. [Fellow Shihad members] Jon Toogood and Phil Knight, they’re both quite anxious people, and I unhelpfully went to their rooms and said ‘Holy s**t, it looks like WWIII’s on’.
Everyone thought something would also happen in LA. We saw soldiers in Humvees and, because the airspace was shut down, you knew anything you heard in the air was military.
There were American flags on cars everywhere. There’s a lot of flag-pride anyway, but this was even more so.
It was military presence and nationalism, within very short order.
The name Shihad comes from the science fiction novel Dune, which borrows a lot of Middle Eastern words.
In high school in 1988 we watched a film adaptation and misheard the word Jihad as Shihad during the final, awesome, battle with lasers and worms.
Within 48 hours our label told us there was already a blacklist of songs radio stations wouldn’t play because of the terror attacks.
So, you quickly realise there’s an emotional and national narrative around what’s going to be allowed, and there was no room for nuance around the difference between Sh and J in the spelling of Jihad.
We’d fought very hard for a decade to have our shot in the US and there was no doubt there would’ve been an end to forward momentum for us as an artist in the US at that point.
We changed our name to Pacifier for two years.
On reflection, it was the wrong decision. We should’ve been brave. We should’ve held on to our name, taken a step back, and returned to the US later.
'It felt strangely close to home'
Being woken in the middle of the night by a producer telling you, “The world is ending” isn’t something you forget, particularly when I then watched the second Boeing 767 turn into the World Trade Center’s South Tower.
I’m not sure what was more horrifying, that image or the realisation the first plane that hit the North Tower was no accident, but the start of a concerted act of terror.
Despite it happening on the other side of the world, it felt strangely close to home.
I don’t mind admitting I shed a few tears as I held my then 18-month-old son, Ben, worrying about what the future might hold for him.
Little did I know it was about to change dramatically for me.
I would spend the next decade travelling the world reporting on the so-called “War on Terror”.
'The passengers suspected nothing'
I was a flight attendant for Qantas on an Auckland to Los Angeles service when we got what’s called an “emergency all stations call”.
One of the business class zones was empty, and the purser said, “I want everybody down there in two minutes”.
When we got there, he told us aircraft had gone into buildings, American airspace was being closed down, and we’d be diverting to Honolulu.
Our passengers were asleep as it was the middle of the night. Later we did breakfast service and, because we’re trained professionals, the passengers suspected nothing.
Sometime after breakfast they were told we were diverting to Honolulu, and that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft.
When they were given more information, everyone was in shock. But we couldn’t tell them much, because we didn’t know much.
It never crossed my mind our plane might be in danger, because those affected were American planes in American airspace.
Later at the hotel, I turned on the TV and thought I was looking at an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
It was kind of like the Covid situation. It’s the same kind of feeling, where you just can’t believe it’s turned into this.
'We dropped F bombs when we could catch our breath'
I was 17 with two babies under 2 when 9/11 happened. We were living with my parents.
My nan, who meant the world to me, would religiously watch the news and her TV soaps.
Hearing the news in the house was common then.
I woke up at about 6am to the news. It was odd because it wasn’t supposed to be on in the mornings.
I knew something was wrong, without even knowing what it was.
John Campbell was fronting 3News. His tone told me it was serious.
Then I saw the images. One of the towers had smoke billowing from it – John said a plane had just crashed into it.
I remember feeling an empty void in the pit of my stomach.
I yelled out to my mum and kept yelling until she came in. As she did, a plane flew into the second tower.
We dropped F-bombs when we could catch our breath.
I felt the blood drain from my body. I went into shock.
I recall feeling numb but couldn’t understand why it was affecting me as much as it was – it wasn’t in my country, why should I care?
But I did care.
Those images were real – of real people, in real life and not in the movies.
I remember thinking, “This only happens in the movies”.
I waited for at least an hour for John to say, ‘Gotcha! It’s just a joke!’.
He didn’t. It wasn’t.
I felt scared. I worried for my babies, for my family, for myself.
We didn’t leave the house. Not for a couple of days. My eyes were glued to the news for days, if not weeks.
I felt a deep sadness for all the lives lost and so much aroha for all their families as well as for the survivors and everyone involved in search and rescue efforts.
John Campbell became my idol from that moment.
I’d liked him before, but I believe he was outstanding during 9/11. Both he and Hilary Barry were the anchors and they inspired me to want to read mainstream news.
The next year I enrolled and studied at South Seas Film and Television School, the first steps of my career in broadcasting and journalism.
'It made you appreciate home more'
We were in a Singapore hotel for a night, on our way to tour Pakistan.
I was rooming with Chris Harris. We couldn’t really sleep, because of the jet lag, so I turned on the TV and it was on CNN.
We were in shock, watching it play out in real time. We sat through the night transfixed to the TV.
I’d been to New York before and couldn’t believe what I was watching, those two magnificent buildings collapsing into a pile of rubble.
The next morning, the team all met at breakfast and talked about it. It was pretty surreal.
It was such a hideous and unknown event; It threw the world into shock and a bit of a tailspin.
New Zealand Cricket made the sensible decision to bring us home.
There was nervousness for everyone about getting back on a plane. I was nervous flying for a good 12 to 18 months after.
But it also made you appreciate home more, when events like that happen and you’re away overseas.
'Still such haunting imagery'
It’s one of those days (for me the others are Princess Diana dying, Michael Jackson dying and the Millennium) that will forever stick in my mind.
I was studying broadcasting in Auckland at the time and a flatmate was working the midnight-dawn shift at a talkback station.
I woke up at 7am to my radio alarm to a long news bulletin, I thought I’d accidentally changed stations, I hadn’t.
Ran upstairs, turned on the TV and woke up the flat to the news.
Our flatmate had watched the whole thing unfolding live on a stream of a US news channel.
I called my mother, she’d been milking cows, she hadn’t heard a thing. Didn’t believe me.
We watched TV all day. Still such haunting imagery.
'I realised I'd put to air the biggest story of my career'
I’d been with CNN in Atlanta about five months. I was a supervising producer, responsible for what went to air in four of any eight-hour shift.
That day my first hour was 8am.
I put out a half-hour bulletin before handing over to the Hong Kong newsroom for an Asia business show. I then left to get a coffee.
When I returned I immediately noticed the copy editors were all looking up at a bank of TV monitors near the ceiling.
They all showed the Twin Towers in New York. There was smoke pouring out of one.
An editor yelled, ‘Paul, you should know there’s a fire at the Twin Towers!’
I instinctively knew this must be a terror attack as there’d been an underground bombing in the World Trade Centre some years earlier.
When breaking news occurred while off-air, the first thing was to put the duty presenter back in the anchor’s chair while firing up the control room.
Then you rolled “Breaking News” titles and got the anchor to apologise for interrupting scheduled programmes, before throwing to the breaking story.
But there was no presenter in sight and, frankly, time was against this option.
The alternative was to contact the Hong Kong newsroom and get them to instruct the business presenter there to throw to CNN America, which was already covering the Twin Towers.
This was also time-consuming.
The best solution was to call the Master Control Room and get them to switch the output instantly to the New York pictures.
“When and where?”, asked the controller.
“Go now”, I said, adding: “Go all regions!”
Suddenly CNN International was broadcasting throughout the world the first pictures of the attack.
And I realised I’d put to air the biggest story of my career – if not my lifetime.
If I ever write my biography, there is only one title – GO ALL REGIONS!
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