Re-visiting the events that shook our world

So where were you when you heard the news on 9/11 about the Twin Towers being under attack? It’s one of these moments which pretty much everyone remembers – alongside, for an older generation, the assassination of JFK.

Friday, 10th September 2021, 9:31 am
The body of Gavin Cushney, one of those who lost their lives in the Twin Towers on that fateful day, was flown back to Lewis and the funeral held in Ness. Pic: Lucas Collection.

I was on an all-too-rare visit to my mother’s native Islay, as UK Energy Minister. I had gone to look at what was then the world’s only commercial wave power device, generating power from the Rhinns of Islay. It was an idyllic day.

We called in at Bruichladdich distillery and I was in the courtyard when my phone rang. It was my ex-footballer pal, John Colquhoun, to ask: “Are you watching what’s going on?” So that was my unforgettable moment. While John was on the phone, the second plane went in. We went back to the Port Charlotte Hotel and the visual horror unfolded.

Until the General Election that year, I had been Minister of State in the Foreign Office and caught up in a lot of COBRA meetings and security briefings. Suffice it to say that international terrorism was not, at that time, top of the security agenda. I suppose it was always around and people at the sharp end were doing their best to keep tabs on the really bad guys.

The more urgent concerns, however, were around the potential that still existed for terrorism related to Northern Ireland, weapon smuggling from the former Soviet republics, organised international crime … . All that added up to a relative quiet before the great storm for, on that September day, everything changed.

For example, it’s hard to believe how lax airport security was, at Heathrow and Glasgow, never mind Stornoway and Benbecula. It was only from the late 1990s that the International Civil Aviation Organisation insisted on all checked-in baggage being screened.

The 9/11 attackers had noticed that all of this also applied to the US and all 19 hijackers managed to board the planes without questioning, in spite of several setting off alarms. For the first time in history, civil aeroplanes were used as weapons of destruction and security changed forever.

PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS

We asked some of our columnists for their own personal memories of how they first heard about the Twin Towers attack

Alasdair MacLeod: “I had travelled to Uist on Council business and was with Roddy ‘ Poker’ Macdonald when someone rushed in and said: ‘Something awful has happened in New York’ .We switched on the tv to see the carnage unfolding.

"That short flight on the Shorts 360 plane back to Stornoway was the most harrowing and nerve wracking I have ever been on. I had an illogical fear that the world was coming to an end.”

Maggie Cunningham: “I walked into the BBC building in Edinburgh to an eerie silence. The receptionist was glued to the horrific images on the monitor across from her desk. We had been in the restaurant at the top of the Twin Towers on New Year’s Day 2001.

"That was a beautiful sunny day, the panoramic views were breathtaking. The children were fascinated by aeroplanes below flying to and from La Guardia, Newark and JFK . The staff were lovely and so indulgent as the children ran from one amazing view to another. I often think of these beautiful innocent people and wonder how many of them survived.”

Donnie Maroot MacLeod: "I was working in Standard Life House, one of the tallest buildings in Edinburgh and designed with two towers like the World Trade Centre, when news began percolating round the office. As events developed, and it became clear this was a terrorist attack, the atmosphere changed from shock to disbelief. I’ve visited New York several times since – the 9/11 Memorial is a poignant tribute to all who lost their lives around the world as a direct result of events that day"

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

For Willie Gillies, from Point, the experience was much closer to home. Still a resident of New York, back in September 2001 he was living in Battery Park City, a riverfront neighbourhood on the tip of Manhattan built on landfill excavated during construction of the World Trade Centre and dumped into the Hudson River.

This was the nearest residential complex to the Twin Towers. “Each weekday morning,” Will recalls, “I would do the short walk from my apartment, pass the Twin Towers and up to Broadway where my office was located.

“On that unforgettable Tuesday morning, I did witness the events at close hand. It was a beautiful morning and I left my apartment at 8.40 a.m. As I was approaching the Twin Towers, I heard the very loud roar of a jet engine, which was getting louder by the second, initially thinking this must be part of a military fly-by.

“As the roar grew louder, I looked up at the North Tower and heard a huge explosion, and watched as thousands of pieces of debris fell from a quarter of a mile up in the sky. I stood for a few seconds to take it all in before sprinting away towards Broadway. I made it to Broadway where commuters were coming up from the NYC subway system and had no idea what was going on. I had by then caught a sprinkling of dust on my business suit.

“When I got into my office, everyone was at the windows watching the black smoke plumes and huge fireballs falling from the North Tower. At 9:03 am, we witnessed the moment of impact as the second aircraft came around and crashed into the South Tower. A fireball exploded and we immediately ran to the emergency exit and went down 12 flights of stairs.

“People were crying, concerned about loved ones and those they knew of in the towers. I remember thinking this is no accident. We watched from the street along , shell-shocked, the horror of the twin towers burning and people on fire jumping from windows. It looked like a scene from The Towering Inferno. The Twin Towers were built to withstand a plane crash but they could not withstand the jet fuel.

“Suddenly, as I was looking at the twin towers, the South Tower started to tilt and disappeared in a huge cloud of smoke, ash and dust. We knew the North Tower would certainly collapse as well. Firefighters and police were yelling, “Run, Run, don’t look up”. I had this vision of me running like in a slow motion version of Chariots of Fire. I was in a large crowd which was being escorted away from ground zero and was fearful of being trampled in the chaos.

“There were families with strollers, elderly people, thousands of people evacuated out of offices and local businesses running north on Church Street away from the cloud of debris from the collapsing towers. At 10.28am the North Tower imploded floor by floor, with the dust cloud completely covering a large radius in Lower Manhattan below Canal Street including my neighbourhood, as it went into the Hudson river.

“We ended up getting escorted through the East Village – Chinatown, and it was there we learned of the other attacks that had taken place at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. Social media and the internet were not widely adopted and most people were still reliant on telephone landlines, so we had no way of knowing what was happening.

“I stayed with friends and spent most of my day at Pier 40, cheering rescue workers coming from Ground Zero and waiting to hear when we would be allowed back to salvage personal possessions. Lower Manhattan was a ghost town, with all its residents gone and declared a closed military zone. I eventually got back to my apartment complex two weeks later.

“My apartment was covered in a thick layer of grey dust which appeared like someone had sprayed dry cement powder everywhere. The windows had been blown out and the rain had added to the damage. The building had been declared unsafe and we were given five minutes to sift through the debris to grab a few personal items including my passport.

“Over the next few months, the fire at Ground Zero was still burning and the air was full of black smoke. I was able to return to salvage some more belongings before abandoning my apartment for good in November 2001, as the building had been rendered uninhabitable.

“I will never forget the courageous fire-fighters, police officers and first responders. At St Vincent’s Hospital, a board was put up with ‘wanted’ posters of the missing people from the World Trade Center which had been put there by grieving family members. I finally returned to work at a special disaster recovery site in New Jersey and it was heart-wrenching watching people leave early every day to attend funerals and memorial services for those that lost their lives. To this day, I am grateful to have been one of the lucky ones, who was able to finally call my family on that day and say I was OK.

ISLAND BURIAL

There was a poignant connection between Lewis and the events of 9/11 when the first burial of a British victim took place in Ness. Gavin Cushney (47) worked as a computer consultant on the 104th floor and was engaged to be married. His coffin was draped with the American flag and Rev Kenneth Ferguson put up a Gaelic prayer.

Calum Macdonald , then MP for the Western Isles, recalls: “Within a few weeks we were voting in the Commons to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan by providing NATO support to their opponents.

“I had mixed feelings as I thought promoting a more liberal and civic society was going to be next to impossible. A visit in 2003 began to change my mind and there was tremendous progress in the years since. The recent debacle now threatens that progress, but it’s too early to say that it's completely lost.

“We must continue to engage. The so-called ‘forever war’ may be over but we still have a ‘forever moral obligation’ to live up to”.