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Friday, 25 July 2014

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Cumbrians caught up in aftermath of 9/11 remember attacks

In September 2001 George and Theresa Chambers were in New York as part of a cruise holiday.

George and Theresa Chambers photo
George and Theresa Chambers

On the morning of Tuesday September 11, this Whitehaven couple were preparing to leave their Manhattan hotel, travel two miles south, and take a ride to the top of the World Trade Centre’s South Tower.

“The day before, we’d gone to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty,” says Theresa. “The idea was that on the way back we’d go to the World Trade Centre and stand on the observation deck.

“On the ferry back to Manhattan I took a photograph of George with the skyline behind him. I asked him to move so I could get the Twin Towers in.

“Soon after that there was a torrential downpour and a storm started.

“We thought we can’t go to the World Trade Centre now so we went straight back to the hotel.

“Our first port of call in the morning was going to be the Twin Towers.

“We were on the last ferry. They stopped running them because the weather was so bad. So that photograph might be the last one taken of the towers from the water.”

The couple were staying at the Marriott Hotel on Broadway. That night they ate in the hotel’s revolving restaurant. The storm was still raging. Looking out across the skyline, the Twin Towers were lit up by lightning.

“It was almost like an omen,” says Theresa.

“We were saying what a pity it was that we hadn’t gone there, but we’d be there in the morning.”

Next morning they had breakfast and were about to leave when their friends Tom and Maureen Foy, who were on the cruise with them, rang their room and said “Switch the TV on.”

“We just sat and watched, stunned. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We thought it was an accident at first, as everybody else did. When the second plane hit we realised it was terrorism.”

Theresa describes going out that afternoon into a city that was “numbed”.

“You could see the cloud from where we were. The streets had been absolutely heaving with life on the Sunday and Monday. Now they were empty. It was as if we weren’t there. It was like a dream.

“We joined the people who had left their offices. They were numbed. They didn’t know where to go and what to do.

“There were thousands of people, some of them with no shoes, looking dazed, who I assumed had been near to Ground Zero.

“We just walked with them. Nobody was speaking. Everyone ended up in Central Park. People wanted to get away from the city.”

The couple’s cruise ship was not allowed back into port. Theresa and George were stranded in New York for the next five days until being bussed to Boston the following Sunday.

Theresa describes those days as surreal, with jets buzzing overhead and submarines patrolling the Hudson river.

“At night the city was deserted except for fire and rescue. The hotels became refuge centres for the firemen.

“At Grand Central Station we saw relief firemen being brought in to replace the firemen who had been killed or who were exhausted.

“As they poured off the trains, all dressed in their gear, people just stood and clapped. But it was a sombre clapping. We joined in. That was emotional.”

Ten years on, Theresa acknowledges that she was changed by 9/11: by what she saw and by how close she came to being more than an observer.

“My husband says it has affected me. I loved travelling. Now I don’t like to be far away from home.

“Every September I think about it. If those planes had been delayed by an hour, we would have been on the observation platform.

“I felt grateful at first. Now I feel you have to live for the moment.

“Now we’re coming up to the 10th anniversary, I just feel so sad for the people who are left. The people who are gone... they are beyond help.”

Graeme Brough was on top of the world: 107 floors up the World Trade Centre’s South Tower. Graeme, from Dalston, and three Cumbrian friends were on the tower’s observation deck, 1,362ft above New York.

“You couldn’t really comprehend the scale of the towers,” recalls Graeme. “A lot of the buildings around them were 60 storeys, and they looked tiny.”

The time: 10.30am. The date: September 10, 2001.

Graeme was 20 years old, a student on holiday with Simon Yeowart from Thursby, Neil Graham from Kirkbampton and Guy Woodcock from Caldbeck.

They were due to fly home next day. But the following morning their plans changed.

“We were staying in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan. I can’t remember if someone came out of the shower and put the TV on. But it was just after the first plane had hit the tower.

“We didn’t know what had happened, whether it had been an accident.

“I remember watching the second one hit. I remember a little black dot in the top corner of the screen, then it disappeared behind the South Tower, then the explosion. It was like watching a film.”

They tried to ring their parents to let them know they were safe. Simon got through and asked his family to tell everyone that the friends were ok.

They watched this dark piece of history unfold on TV, then went out into the scene of the crime.

“Just after the second tower collapsed a couple of us went outside. We were on 7th Avenue and we walked a bit further down. We could see all the dust drifting across. We spent quite a lot of time in Central Park. We talked to a lot of people. Everybody seemed to know somebody who worked in the towers.

“There was definitely a different atmosphere. When we arrived in New York it was all frenetic and how you expect New York to be. After the attacks it was subdued and quiet.

“I went back to New York three years ago and the city was back to its usual self. I didn’t go down to the World Trade Centre site in 2001 but I went then. It was strange. When you see how deep the foundations of the Freedom Tower are it reminds you of how big the Twin Towers were.”

Graeme is now an accountant in Newcastle. He started his job on September 11, 2002.

Then, as now, memories of the attacks were being revived by the media.

September always brings it back to Graeme. But he says 9/11 didn’t change him, at least not consciously. Coming within hours of an appalling fate is not something he dwells on.

“We came down from the South Tower at about half past 12, and it was 10 the following morning when it collapsed. If they had decided to attack a day earlier...

“When you know the size and scale of the Twin Towers it gives you more awareness of what the attacks were like. But I don’t think you could ever identify with anyone who was trapped in the buildings. I don’t think anybody would want to think about that.”

Francis Dunnery from Egremont is best-known as the former singer with rock band It Bites. He has lived in New York since the early 1990s.

“In 2001 I was living in 67th Street and West End Avenue, about a mile from the 9/11 site. Manhattan isn’t particularly large so anyone on the island was close to it.

“I had just come from the gym and was chilling out with a coffee, answering emails. It seemed like a normal day.

“I heard a noise, like a boom, but New York is full of those sounds and there are sirens 24 hours a day so I didn’t take any notice.

“My apartment was overlooking the Hudson river and the first weird thing I saw was fighter jets flying incredibly low over the river.

“I think I turned the TV on then and saw that the first tower had been struck.

“The first thing I thought about was my daughter Ava, who lived very close to the site. I tried to call but I couldn’t get a line, they were all busy. I was incredibly nervous.

“My friend Stephen Harris worked in the World Trade Centre and I was sure he was at work but I couldn’t check because the phones were out. Everyone was freaked out but no one could contact anyone.”

Francis’s friends and family survived the attacks. “But as a New Yorker you feel like you’re connected to everyone in the city.”

It was several years before Francis visited Ground Zero. It is still a place he does not like to be.

“9/11 no longer has a conscious effect on me but at the time I felt violated. The magnitude of this horrendous display of warped ego left me feeling bitter.

“It changed everyone but New Yorkers are a tough bunch. They just picked themselves back up and got on with it.

“I don’t really think about 9/11 now. It doesn’t exist anymore, it’s gone. All we have is right now and right now there’s nothing wrong with my life so I don’t want to go thinking negative thoughts about things and prolonging them.”

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