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I was in New York on 11 September 2001

I was walking along Broadway to catch the subway downtown to 50th street. I had a strut in my step and I was finally starting to feel like a New Yorker – like I belonged. It was 2001 and I was 25 years old. I had moved to Manhattan from Sydney three years earlier. Initially I dabbled as an over-worked and under-paid editorial assistant for a dotcom company (it was the overly-hyped boom), but eventually I got a job at a magazine. I was much happier and I loved my job.

It was the most glorious day. I remember looking up at the sky before I took the stairs down to the 86th street station and thinking how incredibly blue it was. It was one of those days where everyone’s mood was lifted by the weather. I had a short commute to my office at Hachette Filipacchi Media where I was an editor for Woman’s Day Magazine. It was around 8:30am when I left home.

It probably took 20 minutes for me to ride the subway to 50th street, buy a horrible coffee from a street vendor, and hop in the elevator up to the 42nd floor. The offices of Woman’s Day took up an entire floor of the building with advertising on one side and editorial on the other. We were a close-knit staff of mostly women and a few men, and we were all finding our way in the ocean of editorial that is New York City.

It was in the elevator that a man who was listening to the radio took his earphone out and said “A plane has hit the World Trade Centre.” What? We all questioned him, but he didn’t know any more. It was about 8:55am. I assumed it was a light aircraft that must have clipped the side somehow. Surely it was a horrible accident.

In the office my editor-in-chief had her TV on and we huddled around trying to get the news. Every now and then I’d run to the south-end of the building where the view was one of the most remarkable panoramas I’ve ever seen leading straight down to the Twin Towers. I could see the smoke billowing up from the gaping hole that was on the side of one of the towers – it wasn’t a small plane that made that hole. I ran back and forth between the TV and the window trying to learn what had happened. I was looking out of the window at 9:03am when I saw the second plane fly full speed into the other tower. I gasped and started to shake. There were screams. Looking at it through a window, watching it happen live, it was obviously real and yet there was a surreal feeling that this could not be happening.

Anxiety and panic filled New York City instantaneously. Everyone was trying to locate their loved ones. At one point I went into my office and noticed the red light on my phone flashing indicating I had messages. It was my Mum and Mal, my boyfriend at the time who is now my husband. I called Mum – she was watching TV at home and my Dad was in Europe on business, I told her I was fine. I called Mal – he had a 9:00am meeting at the World Trade Centre that morning and he was in a taxi heading downtown when the first plane hit. He told the cab driver to turn around and he went back to his midtown office.

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Mal worked near Rockefeller plaza and I worked just above Time Square. There were rumours of other planes flying around the city – every tall building was a target. Information was sketchy and no one knew how many unaccounted planes there were in the air  – we were all petrified. It was before the first building collapsed that a group of us decided to leave the office. We took 42 flights of stairs down to the ground floor. No one wanted to take the subway – there were rumours of bombs and fears of getting stuck underground. We grabbed a bus heading north with plans to go to one of the editors’ apartments who lived in Harlem. The driver wasn’t charging and we piled in as many people as we could. Like a mass exodus, everyone was heading north. Even though I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision, I decided to get off the bus at my apartment and leave my group of friends. I was nervous about being on my own, but I knew I would feel stuck in someone else’s home and I wanted to find Mal.

It was at home when I switched on the TV that I learned the first tower had collapsed. I tried to phone Mal, but I couldn’t get through. As I watched TV I changed into some jeans and more comfortable walking shoes and kept trying for a phone line. Finally, I got through to Mal, still at work. He was about to leave the office and walk through Central Park to his apartment – we’d meet there.

I packed some clothes and a water and headed outside. On the streets people were frantic. There were huge lines at the ATM and I checked my wallet to see if I had enough cash.  Everyone had a sense of urgency. In the distance at the southern end of Manhattan I could see a huge plume of smoke rising, someone screamed out that the second tower had collapsed. There were screams and tears. There were people covered in a thick dust from the collapsing towers, who had escaped uptown. Their  navy suits and dark hair were plastered with a white residue – their expressions numb. Shop keepers handed out water. Taxis and cars were taking as many people as they could, trying to get everyone uptown safely. Strangers were offering anyone they could a place to stay or a lift, or money to help them get home – it was a city already coming together in a time of tragedy.

At Mal’s place we sat glued in shock and grief to the TV finally allowing the enormity of the attack to dawn on us. As night fell we ventured around the corner to the local restaurant for dinner. It was eerily quiet, yet full of people. Everyone ordered food, yet no one could eat much. The TV was on and there were some remarkable stories of survival, but mostly, it was tragedy after tragedy. People held up pictures of their loved ones who were missing. Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke of groups of fireman and policeman who ran into the buildings to rescue those inside, only for the buildings to collapse, ending everyone’s life – whole fire departments were lost instantly, entire companies lost their staff, children lost their daddies, husbands lost their wives, all in the few seconds it took for the 110 floors of each tower to collapse into nothing. My heart ached. On TV, people covered in dust were screaming into the camera, frantically asking if anyone had seen their colleague, mother, father, brother…lives were tearing apart before our eyes.

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The whole country was declared a no-fly zone so a city that was normally home to one of the biggest airport hubs in the world, had no planes flying above it. The ominous  buzz of helicopters on patrol were all that occasionally passed overhead. Posters were starting to crop up all over the city of missing people. “Last seen in Tower 2: dressed in blue pants, white shirt and green tie.” And then a picture of the father, brother or husband smiling in a photo taken at a family celebration. Thousands of posters of missing people were pinned up around the city. Fences and walls became makeshift notice boards, wall-papered with smiling faces of people we were too scared to realise were no longer alive.

The towers collapsed with thousands of people, equipment, paperwork, offices, and belongings inside. And yet there was nothing left for families to take home – no bodies to bury, no personal belongings – almost everything had disintegrated into the thick dust that blanketed southern Manhattan. The steel beams that stood out of the wreckage became the iconic image of 9/11. Fire fighters who lost colleagues and brothers continued to work day and night searching for any possible survivors. Twenty people were pulled out alive after the collapse, 2,752 lives were lost.

New York city changed forever that day. For the months and years to follow, New Yorkers jumped at loud noises, shook if they heard a car backfire, and looked up when a plane flew overhead. It changed the city that I called home. And yet I had never been so proud to say that I was a New Yorker.

What’s your memory of September 11? How old were you? Do you remember where you were when you first learned of the attack?

These are the newspaper headlines from around the world covering a decade of terror since 11 September 2001

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