For many New Yorkers, that Tuesday started out like any other day – commuters were rushing to work and parents were taking their children to school. But at 8.46am, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC), and life changed forever.
At first, onlookers wondered if there had been a malfunction with the plane, but less than 18 minutes later, Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, and it became clear that America was under attack. Brian Sweeney, an ex-US Navy pilot was on that second flight. In his final voicemail to his wife, Jules, he said, “Listen, I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you.”
The world stood still as images beamed across every news channel showed horrific scenes, with people jumping out of the crumbling Towers to their deaths. Over 200 miles away in Washington DC, at 9.37am, another plane crashed into The Pentagon, the Headquarters for the US Department of Defence. Then, just after 10am, a fourth and final plane, thought to be intended for the US Capitol Building, crash landed in a field in Pennsylvania.
It was the deadliest terror attack in history, killing 2,996 people, and injuring thousands more. Intelligence suggested that Al-Qaeda, a militant group led by Osama Bin Laden, were responsible.
In response, US President George Bush launched his “War on Terror” and invaded Afghanistan, then controlled by the Taliban, who were thought to be providing a safe haven for the group. The Taliban was toppled, and US troops remained in the country – up until this month. Now, as the world marks the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, the extreme group has regained power once more, sending the country into chaos as thousands attempt to flee the brutal regime.
Here, Closer speaks to the people who have lived with the agony of what happened that day for the past 20 years.
Kristine McFerren Daly, a physical therapist, lost her fiancé, Brad Vadas, 38. Now 53, she lives in California with her husband Brendan, 58, a golf pro, and their son, Sean, 11.
She says, “Tucked away in my garage is a 9/11 box filled with my memories of my fiancé who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC). In it is a tape recording of his last message to me, where he said, ‘Kris, there’s been an explosion. We’re trapped in a room. There’s smoke coming in. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.’ Then he said, ‘I love you’, and ‘goodbye’.
“Over the years, I’ve listened to that final voicemail from my fiancé countless times and it still makes me weep.
“I’d been with Brad for nine years and he proposed just 10 days before 9/11 happened. On the day, I was at St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital, where I worked as a supervisor, when a friend paged me. She wanted to know if Brad had gone to work that day as a plane had just hit the North Tower. It seemed unreal.
“Brad worked as vice president of an investment bank on the 88th floor of the South Tower. I rang him at the trading desk and he said, “You won’t believe what I’m watching. I just saw a guy rip his shirt off because it was on fire and jump.” He told me he was staying put and that he’d be in touch. I called his family to tell them he was OK.
“Minutes later, the administrative director walked in and said a second plane had hit the South Tower. I tried reaching Brad, but I got a busy signal, as if the phone was out of order. I grabbed my bag and raced to the flat of one of Brad’s colleagues. No one was home, but I could hear someone leaving a message on the answering machine. That’s when I realised Brad might be trying to reach me at home. I rang my machine and at 9:19am Brad had left that last message.
“Tears streamed down my face as I rushed home. I turned on the TV just as both Towers collapsed. I was shocked. It felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me. It was so surreal, as if I was watching a movie. But I knew he was gone.
“Nothing can prepare you for your fiancé dying. I coped by being organised, doing all the admin that a death involves and holding the family together.
“But I was devastated, not only for the life we’d had but the life we’d planned together. We travelled, we laughed, we binge-watched TV and played a lot of sport – we were very competitive. He was my best friend and I adored him and was looking forward to having children with him and spending the rest of our lives together.
“I dreaded going to sleep as I knew that when I woke up that the sickening reality would hit me all over again. Being busy was my coping mechanism.
“After three years I left New York. I felt defined by the tragedy and no longer wanted the constant reminders of the life we’d had. It was a few weeks later that my anger finally kicked in. For about 10 days I was furious. My overwhelming thought was “How dare they?” It was such a sickening and senseless loss of life – people of all beliefs and ethnicities just wiped out. I wasn’t myself at all, and it took me a long time to accept what had happened.
“It was in February 2005 that I met Brendan through friends. I’d gradually learnt to be happy alone and I was ready to be in a relationship. We got married in 2007. He’s the polar opposite of Brad, who was passionate and competitive. Brendan is laid-back and very calm – it’s a very different relationship. And even though I couldn’t be happier, it doesn’t mean I don’t still love Brad. I think of him every day and I still get surprised by stabs of raw grief even now.
“In January last year his father died and it felt like my link with him was gone. I try not to think of 9/11 or go to any memorials, it’s almost as if that is separate from losing Brad. But in the days leading up to the anniversary, I always feel out of sorts and cranky, as though my subconscious is forcing me to remember. Life goes on, but you never forget.”
The horrific aftermath
‘I told people to run as fast as they could’
Frank Puma was just 21 and working as a paramedic when he saw the Twin Towers come down. He saved the life of Deborah St. John, who was hit by falling debris. Frank, 41, has now retired and lives in New Jersey, USA, with his wife Jodi and their two children, Frankie, 11 and Addison, six. He says, “I remember that day like it was yesterday. I got to work and started my shift at 8am. I met my partner, Orlando, and we signed out our vehicle and medical equipment.
“We were located right outside the WTC that day and were getting breakfast when suddenly we heard a loud explosion. Then there were people running and screaming. I looked up at the North Tower and all I could see was fire and smoke raging from the top of the building. I couldn’t speak.
“Orlando ran to get the ambulance and I picked up my radio screaming. “A f--king bomb has just gone off in the Trade Center!”
“We were the first on scene and, as I looked up, I saw six people jumping from the top of the building to their deaths.
“I just kept telling people to run as fast as they could as we started treating people with injuries in the back of the ambulance. Suddenly, there was another loud boom – it was the second hijacked plane crashing into the South Tower. ‘I’m going to die today,’ I thought to myself.
“We started driving to the hospital and were flagged down. I saw a woman lying half in the road. Her whole back, from her shoulders down to her thighs, looked like it had been ripped off. Her name was Deborah and she was screaming in agony. I held her hand and reassured her.
“Once we dropped her off at the hospital, we turned back to go and help more victims. I called my mum to tell her I was OK, when all of a sudden I heard someone over the radio screaming, “Everybody, run! The building’s coming down!” The Towers tumbled. I started running towards my ambulance and the smoke caught up with me and knocked me off my feet.
“Everything went pitch black. After a few minutes the light started to come through, but it was hard to even see. Less than 30 minutes later, the second Tower came down and all hope was lost. I said, ‘Dear God, either kill me quick or help me get out of this.’ As I started driving away, I looked up and saw Orlando. We gave each other a hug.
“A month after the attacks, Orlando and I went to the hospital to visit Deborah, the woman we’d found by the road. Her family thanked us for saving her life. It was very emotional.
“We found out that Deborah had been hit by falling debris from the second plane that slammed into the WTC. She had temporary paralysis and lost skin and muscle on her buttocks. She was so positive though.
“As the months and years passed what I witnessed that day haunted me. I felt low and sometimes felt like giving up. But I continued to see Deborah and it made me realise that if she could find the strength to keep going, I could too. In a way, she saved my life, just like we saved hers.”
‘That day will stay with me forever’
Christina Stanton, 51, and her husband Brian, 55, have both suffered with ill health since 9/11. They still live in New York. She says, “My husband ran in to wake me up on the morning of 9/11 telling me that the North Tower was on fire. I went outside to our terrace – our apartment was just six blocks away from the WTC – and it was then that the second plane flew into the South Tower. We were so close that I was blown off my feet by the impact and passed out briefly.
“When I came round, we grabbed our dog, a Boston Terrier called Gabriel, and ran down the 24 flights of stairs. I was wearing my pyjamas and no shoes. When the towers came down, a cloud of dust hovered over us and there was so much panic. Brian and I said our goodbyes to each other, just in case the worst happened.
“We were evacuated off Manhattan Island and went to stay with friends. Brian became depressed and I had PTSD, plus Gabriel was terribly ill. He’d been covered in a thick layer of toxic dust and had tried to lick it off. He was never the same again and died seven years later from a rare stomach cancer that I’m positive is linked to 9/11.
“Our lives completely changed. I became a tour guide, showing people round Ground Zero. People were interested in how residents fared and I’ve since written a book – Out Of The Shadow Of 9/11.
“I’ve suffered physically since. I’ve been diagnosed with Hashimoto disease (an autoimmune disease that damages the thyroid gland.) I’ve had skin cancer removed and Brian had a melanoma removed too. Research has shown there have been far higher cancer incidences in people who lived or worked near the WTC. I think of the toxic dust that I inhaled, and my skin was covered in and I shudder. I feel lucky not to have been caught up in it more directly. But what happened that day will stay with me forever.”
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3) A Million Times
4) I'll Be There
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6) Today Was The Day
7) These Are My Footprints, by Tamara Barker
8) Angel Of My Tears
9) Oh Precious, Tiny, Sweet Little One
10) The Moment You Left Me
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‘I watched the Tower fall – and knew my father was dead’
Ashley Pastor, 37, lives in Connecticut with her husband, Greg, 45, and their daughter Hannah, two. She says, “I was 17 and at high school, sitting in class when a student ran in and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I couldn’t believe it until the teacher turned on the television.
“My dad, Ron, worked in the North Tower as a stockbroker. Immediately, I left school, picked up my little sister Ainsley, now 30, and went home where my mum and brother Dherran, now 28, were. I just told Mum to switch on the news and, when she saw what had happened, I will never forget the look of fear and horror on her face. So many parts of that day are a blur, but that moment is etched on my memory.
“We watched the television all day, when I saw the Tower fall I felt sick, but we tried to have hope. My mum even went to the train station to meet Dad’s train as normal.
“In vain, I called all the numbers I had for him. That night I cried myself to sleep, hoping that my dad would come in and wake me up, but the next morning I woke up knowing I’d never see him again. As the news channels replayed the images of the Towers falling I knew my father was dead.
“He was an amazing man, family was everything to him, and he worked so hard for all of us. The weeks that followed were hard. I got a lot of support from my friends and family to help me come to terms with what happened.
“One thing my dad always said to me is that education is everything, so I worked hard to make him proud. Now I work as an executive nurse, but I’m still studying for further qualifications and I know he’d be so pleased. Everything I do is in his honour.
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of him and I feel as though he guides me. When I had a bad day he’d always calmly tell me that tomorrow would be better and I remind myself of that.
“During the pandemic, the hospital was full of people with Covid. My lowest moment was when two patients died and I went to the mortuary and opened the drawers, but they were all filled. I had nowhere to put my patients who’d passed away, but there was someone desperately ill who needed the bed. I remember standing there feeling utterly hopeless, desperate to protect their dignity. But I could hear my father’s calming voice came saying it was the living that counted and to go and help them. Nearly 20 years on he’s still helping me through life.
“I can’t allow what happened to make me an angry person, it would only hurt the people I love, which my dad would have hated. But I do feel sad when I think of him and that he was robbed of his chance to see me graduate and meet his granddaughter. “She knows about him. We visit the memorial and she calls him Grandpa G. As she gets older I will tell her more about him and what happened.
“I don’t want my father to be defined by his death, but by the wonderful person he was – kind, happy, gentle, warm and funny. He’ll never be forgotten.”