Memories of 911 – a personal connection

Nine eleven.

Those two words are powerful. They evoke deep emotions of awe, fear, anger, devastation, astonishment, concern and many more of which I am yet to find the words to describe.

I was awoken by a ringing phone which is always a little nerve rattling as night-time calls have often been accompanied by bad news. As the phone was closest to my wife Michelle she picked up the receiver. It was my youngest brother Wayne.

“Turn on your TV. America is under attack.” is all he said.

We rushed into our living room and turned on the TV to see the North Tower on fire, smoke billowing from the 93rd floor and above.

It was an incredible site.

Michelle and I were watching trying to make sense of my brother’s statement.
And then we saw it. Live. The second plane flew into the South Tower. I literally jumped out of my chair and stood up.

“Oh my God!” Michelle and I uttered.
“Where’s Denis?”

“About 300 miles away in Washington DC”.

You see my twin brother Denis was a manager in the security team at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC. On 911 Denis was in charge of security and the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard was on an official visit to the US.

After seeing the second plane fly into the South Tower Michelle and I were convinced that the US was indeed under attack. And we assumed Washington would therefore be on the list of whoever the attackers were. The Australian Embassy is less than a mile from the White House. So I was genuinely concerned for my brother.

We were also genuinely concerned about our world. As our eight and a half month old baby slept, we wondered, “Is this this the start of World War III?”.

Then the news flash occurred that confirmed our fears. A plane had flown into the the Pentagon.
Surely the White House will be targeted we thought. Denis isn’t far from there.

This was not just some news event on TV. It was personal. It was ‘Realer than real’.
When was this going to end?

As futile as I expected it to be I tried calling Denis. I didn’t get through.

Michelle and I sat and watched as the TV coverage captured every moment, including what was later to be seen as vision too gruesome to be shown again. To my knowledge, it hasn’t.

It was the sight of people jumping to their deaths from above the impact zone. The number of ‘jumpers’ was more than one’s mind and soul could bare. Yet we kept watching, desperate for news of what was happening in Washington.

Michelle and I continued to wonder how bad it was up above the impact zones that the better option was to jump. This question and the images of what we saw still haunts me.

The TV coverage flipped between New York and Washington DC. What was going to happen next?
Then the South Tower collapsed before our eyes. To see such a thing happen on live TV was horrific. It was clear that we had just witnessed thousands of people losing their lives in a matter of seconds.

We wondered about the motivation of people to do such a thing as to deliberately fly a jet airliner into a building. The evil of such an act was impossible to comprehend, and still is today.

The whole night we watched and watched. Terrified of what might be unfolding in the US. I desperately kept calling Denis.

When morning broke we received a phone call from my mother. Denis had called her. He was okay. He’d been assisting the US Secret Service who had taken over the Australian Embassy to look after Prime Minister Howard and his entourage. Our relief that he was okay was enhanced by our knowledge that four planes were involved in the attack, and all had been accounted for including the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania.

Wow. My twin brother was directly involved in protecting Australia’s Prime Minister. Who would have thought that a plumber from Clayton in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs could have been directly involved in such a thing. But he was.

As we later discovered when I was able to speak directly with Denis, the gap between the media reports and what really happened was immense. The media here in Australia had reported that Prime Minster Howard had been taken to a ‘bunker’ in the basement of the Australian embassy.
No such ‘bunker’ existed.

Instead Prime Minister Howard was seated on a plastic chair in the ‘Maintenance Man’s Cage‘ in the basement carpark of the Australian Embassy. Times were indeed different!

How could we be on the other side of the world yet experience a horror as if we were there? Although it was 2001 modern communication systems meant that we could in fact ‘experience’ and world event as it was unfolding. I’m sure psychologists would have some idea of whether or not it is a good or bad thing that we have the technology to allow us to experience such events. I still don’t know myself.

In closing I have no words of wisdom to offer regarding my experience of 911. Something tells me that it would be disrespectful to do so. Today I accept that I don’t understand why such horrific events happened and why, more specifically 911 happened. I just know that it did and I hope and pray that Iand the broader ‘we’ never experience such personalised horror in our lives again.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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