Memories of the Twin Towers

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Reflecting on a visit of six years ago

Over the weekend, I happened upon a fascinating gallery of photographs of the World Trade Centre, taken by J. David Mitchell in June of 2001.

Yes, just three months before the world changed.

Currently working as Director, Administration and Informatics with the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, David was in New York City for the conference of the International Association of Business Communicators. (That's him wearing the red Maple Leaf many reporters will recognize David from his work with the Canadian Centre for Marine Communications.) He used travel points to take along his mother and father, his sister came too, and they were touring the city together when these shots were taken.

The sixth anniversary of September 11 generated a lot of media coverage just a week ago, so I thought there might be some interest in David's images. (I, for one, am fascinated by all images of the Twin Towers, before and during 9/11.)

I contacted David, who lives in St. John's with his black Lab Joe, and requested permission to post these images. I also asked for personal reflections on his visit and his reaction to the events of 9/11. Here are his quickly written but nicely composed thoughts

Impressions from before the world changed

Photos and text by J. David Mitchell

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and explored the Times Square area near our hotel. Early Sunday morning we rode the subway from Times Square to the World Trade Center station. Walking most streets in Manhattan leaves one speechless, but leaving the subway station at the base of the Twin Towers one easily forgets to look down... I walked into a low concrete structure, leaving a piece of my shin behind!

We made our way to Liberty Park to take the ferry to Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty. As the ferry moved away from the tip of Manhattan, I was struck by how much taller the Towers were over any other skyscraper in the area.

After a tour of Liberty Island and plenty of photos with the famous NYC skyline as a backdrop, we made our way back to Manhattan and began walking uptown. I suggested that we only had time to visit the top of one building and that one should be the Empire State Building given its long history and pop culture. My sister replied: "I am going inside (the Twin Towers) as I will never get the chance again!"

Stepping inside one realizes that this is not primarily a tourist attraction, but a place of business filled with people working at a big city pace. As I recall, the South Tower lobby and mezzanine area was filled with white marble, contrasted with flags from around the globe... and visitors from around the globe as well, all speaking different languages. One also realizes just how much space a single floor in the tower occupies!

After purchasing our tickets to the observation deck in the South Tower, we joined the large but organized line-up to the express elevator. We stood next to a "cheesy" painting of the Towers and had our photos taken, with the option to purchase the print in the Observation Deck (which we regretfully did not).

A young African American man was checking tickets and counting heads, to the limit of the elevator car. He told my mother that her ticket was not valid as it was for a senior citizen and she did not look close to 65. Already nervous, she did not understand his humour and asked what she needed to do. He laughed and wrapped one arm around her back and gently squeezed; he then asked where we were from and the conversation quickly moved to a geography lesson... "From Maine you continue northeast..."

The first comment from my mother as she watched the events unfold on September 11 was "I wonder if that nice coloured man was working?" To this day, she still wonders what happened to him whenever she sees the images and sounds repeated from that day.

The elevator ride was fast... I recall counting the floors on the digital display as my ears adjusted to the slight change in air pressure. The doors opened to a large enclosed observation area with gift stores, a restaurant and telescopes around the perimeter. We walked around, took photos and pointed out landmarks.

My dad, sister and I decided to take the escalator to the roof of the tower; my mother, very nervous by this point, chose to shop for souvenirs instead.

Ahead of us was a Spanish-speaking family, trying to convince the elderly grandmother to take the first step onto the escalator. After several unsuccessful attempts, she managed to get one foot on the step, but only one! She began to fall backward and we all leapt forward to support her.

The door to the roof opened to reveal surprising calm. No dull roar of a big city -- we were that high. It was amazing to see the North Tower and its communication tower next to us stretch even higher. Seeing the twin of the building we were currently on top of added a fascinating perspective!

We could only walk around the roof on a specially built raised walkway... one that kept us well back from the edge. There were even coils of barbed wire between us and the edge to deter "jumpers". We walked around each side, took some photos, and marveled at the unobstructed views all around.

The morning of September 11 was surreal for everyone. I found myself scanning our photos over and over again, trying to remember every minute of our short visit just three months prior. I wondered if any visitors had been trapped on the Observation Deck (it was unlikely as it did not open until 9 am).

That morning, the phone rang in my office shortly before 10:30 am. It was my sister calling to tell me her daughter was channel surfing and had heard that a small plane crashed into the World Trade Centre. While we were on the phone reminiscing of our own visit to the Towers, she said: "Oh look, they have video of it." Her daughter exclaimed: "No mom, it can't be. One tower is already on fire and that plane looked like it hit the other tower." I hung up and called my mom, telling her to turn on the TV.

I walked around the office and told a few co-workers. Not yet realizing the full extent of what they were hearing, they quickly went back to their work. I surfed the net looking for more information. CNN.com and MSNBC.com were slow to load and quickly went offline (to be replaced later with basic, low bandwidth versions).

I had contractors starting that morning and went home to see if they had arrived. By now, we were hearing of the Pentagon crash and other possible hijacked aircraft. I hit record on my VCR and opened our trip photos on my computer, comparing them to what I was seeing live on TV.

I returned to work and gathered my co-workers in our board room where we watched the tape silently. I tried calling a close friend in the US who travelled regularly to NYC and DC, but could only hear the rapid busy signal of an overloaded system. Later that day, he e-mailed to say he was OK but worried about the fallout as he was a reservist in the US Army.

It was hard not to think "what if"... what if that happened while we were in the towers? How would I have managed to find safety for me and my elderly parents? Like everyone else, I spent the next week glued to the television on an emotional roller coaster.

Of the many stories that came out of 9/11, none of them saddened me more than the story of Sirius, the yellow Lab partner of the Port Authority Police officer who left him in his kennel in one of the Towers as he went to investigate what was happening. I found his e-mail address on the Internet and sent him off a short note with my condolences and a photo of my one-year old black Lab. To my surprise, he replied the next day, thanking me for taking the time to recognize his loss.

Later in October (of 2001) , I had a photo of my parents in front of the Towers enlarged and framed. On their return trip to Grand Bank, they were involved in a horrible accident that demolished their car and sent my dad into hospital for a week. Most of the car's contents were scattered over the highway and soaked with gasoline. An RCMP officer noticed the enlargement in the ditch; the frame and glass were destroyed. He brought it to my dad's hospital room and said: "Sir, you may want to hold on to this. It just may be worth something some day."

Some footnotes from David on the last two photos. The view of the island is "looking south towards the Verrazano Narrows Bridge... United Airlines flight 175 flew over this bridge before hitting the south tower about 25 stories below this photo." The last shot is a view of the "Twin Towers from atop the Empire State Building... American Airlines flight 11 approached the north tower from this direction."

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  • Charles
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Good story. It is still hard to believe. It was, and still is surreal. Watching those planes pierce both towers is like watching a cartoon, in the way that something so unimaginable could only be made up seen that way, it seemed too unreal to be real. An unforgettable day burned in our collective memories.