BY SAM ALLEN
Most people will remember exactly the moment they learned of the attacks on New York ten years ago….
9/11 had begun as a crisp clear morning, full of hope. I had arrived in New York that morning after spending four months jungle-bashing through Bolivian cloud forest and floating down the Amazon on a Kon-Tiki reed-boat as medical officer for an expedition led by the British explorer Col. John Blashford-Snell. I was back in civilisation and on my way back to London when the pilot announced, “I am afraid there will be a delay. There has been a terrible accident…” Looking out of the cabin window I could see black smoke billowing into a clear blue New York sky from the twin towers. A moment later, a flash as another plane hit the second tower.
America was under attack! News channels repeated the chilling moments, caught on camcorder, of the passenger jets flying into the World Trade Centre towers and the graphic slow-motion fall of New York’s iconic landmark. Dumb-founded commentators tried in vain to find words to describe the fiendish events that were gradually unfolding. For once, there were no adverts.
Responding to the State Department call for doctors, nurses and blood donors, I headed down to Manhattan along with our expedition anaesthetist and surgeon. During the expedition we had carried trauma kits and medical supplies to cover for most eventualities. These kits now came in useful not least the supplies of antibiotics which could be used as protection in case of bio-chemical exposure. The three lanes of traffic leaving the city were at a virtual standstill as New Yorkers left Manhattan. South-side was a virtual ghost-town.
A group of white-coated doctors stood outside Pier 61 trying to look relaxed and rehearsed. I joined their number and waited for casualties to arrive. It was deadly quiet. Then the eerie sound of a hundred ambulance sirens approached. They dropped off their load of fire-fighters and picked up the next shift.
The returning fire-crews were covered in a fine flour-like dust. Physically exhausted, they bore a harrowing look, painfully aware that work-mates, known in their fraternity as ‘brothers’, had been consumed by a hellish inferno. Incongruous in his apostolic robes and mitre, a Greek Orthodox Priest was sat in silent prayer for the ‘brothers’. It was surreal.
Outside Styvesant School the world was covered in a fine grey powder. The composition of the dust cloud was still not known. Previous speculation about chemical and biological agents had heightened the pervasive paranoia. Did it harbour potentially hazardous agents? Had the terrorists devised such an intricate trap?
I gazed at the scene before me. Papers that had been on office desks the previous morning were strewn down the street for several blocks – timesheets, printouts, memos, some marked IMPORTANT.
Having donned my filter facemask and safety helmet I walked through the dust towards the smithereens of the World Trade Centre. Apart from the immediate vicinity of the disaster, there was very little collateral damage – at least in the physical sense of the blown out windows at street level and the ubiquitous dust. In the wider sense, the collateral damage would be incalculable.
What was once the world’s tallest building had been reduced to a pile of dust and girders. Shards from the outer shell of the North Tower stood like pieces of neglected fencing in this eerie apocalyptic landscape. The dust hung thick in the air making an ethereal atmosphere that muffled the sounds of the whirring sirens and distant voices.
“I’m so glad that you have come here. I am only a family doctor. I have never had to deal with anything like this. Please take over…”, said the doctor I had come to relieve. “It’s so terrible”; he added pointing over to the temporary morgue in the corner. I did not see any survivors.
When JFK Airport reopened, notices of what were and what were not now permitted in hand luggage had been posted throughout the airport lobby. As I checked-in, a pair of octogenarian ladies were emptying their handbags at the counter.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to put your nail file and clippers in the hold, ma’am.” said the young check-in attendant.
“Do you want my clippers too?” asked the second wrinkled lady.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s the new rules. You can keep the mascara.”
Never in thirty years had an airliner been hijacked in America. Ten years on and the world remains a different and more suspicious place, something I am reminded of every time I board a plane.
These events were unexpected as they were diabolical. Armenians in the diaspora (I am one), can offer comfort to those whose homeland has been violated for we have history on our side. This cataclysmic event would define the Twenty-first Century.