On the 19th anniversary of the attacks, we explore how 9/11 affected New Yorkers. For many of us, the aftermath of the events was the hardest part.

Before we moved to London, I took my children to the 9/11 Memorial. Even though none of my three children had been born in 2001, when the attacks occurred, as New Yorkers I believed they needed to understand what we, the residents of New York City, had gone through that day and on the days (and years) that followed.

I wanted them to understand what it means to be a New Yorker in the wake of 9/11.

How 9/11 affected New Yorkers

I have a story about that day; all New Yorkers do. It is all of those experiences together that changed our city forever. 9/11 and its response made us feel vulnerable and unsafe and distrustful of the government’s promises.

It was also the event that caused a chasm between the people who began to revere police and firefighters and American might, while others became more concerned for their immediate neighbours’ safety and well-being. As rough as that day was, the aftermath has proved more trying.

Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images

The first attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor

New York has the dubious honour of being the first attack site on American soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941 when a truck bomb was set off at the World Trade Center in 1993.

Unlike London, where surviving the Blitz is part of the city’s mythology, Americans’ mythology is shaped by the belief no-one would dare attack the country again because of what happened after Pearl Harbor.

However, New Yorkers know differently. New Yorkers learned lessons that day many Americans might only be learning now – don’t wait for the government to save you because they’re not always fast enough, trust your instincts and life is short.

Oh, and America and Americans are not inherently invincible just because our president tells us we are. When we aren’t careful, we are vulnerable. That’s a big one.

How the 9/11 attacks unfolded

Tuesday, 11 September 2001 was a preternaturally beautiful day in New York City. It was the type of morning that makes you feel optimistic and excited to be alive – sun glinting off shiny surfaces, everything still in bloom, a perfect breeze, a swing in everyone’s step.

At 8.46am, five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower in lower Manhattan, a 110-storey building. As the nation watched on their television screens as the top floors of the building burned and listened to live coverage of the attack on their car radios during the morning commute, another aircraft flew into the second tower.

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Between them, the towers housed 50,000 workers and welcomed more than 100,000 visitors a day. Some estimates have this number as high as 200,000. Because of their size and population, the towers had their own zip code.

The Pentagon, headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, was hit by a third aircraft at 9.37am and, at 10.03am, a fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers fought the four hijackers.

These attacks resulted in 2,977 fatalities, more than 25,000 injuries, substantial long-term health consequences for tens of thousands, and at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage.

9/11 is the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history and the single deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the US.

My experience of 9/11 as a New Yorker

My father, sister Jillian and I were among the many thousands of people within that half-mile radius around the towers as they were attacked. The events of 9/11 affected us, as New Yorkers and as human beings, in ways we couldn’t even begin to imagine at the time.

My sister left work and bumped into an old classmate of mine, Jacki Esposito, at the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Jacki had run from the first tower when it was falling. They spent the rest of the day together in a blur of news coverage, desperate attempts to reach family members and loved ones, and a very long trek home.

Despite our harrowing experiences that day, we woke on 12 September with limbs intact and immediate family accounted for. Knowing so many weren’t in the same boat, we felt the pull to go back and help. Many New Yorkers felt that way, but there wasn’t anything to do.

I remember standing on my parents’ balcony the next morning looking across the river at FDR Drive. I saw police cars from as far away as New Mexico, Louisiana and Calgary speeding downtown to the disaster site. My sister remembers that too.

She says: “I woke up to seeing you crying on the terrace. We got our acts together to go give blood. I lost my sunglasses on the train.”

Empty hospitals

Hospitals expected to be mobbed and created makeshift emergency rooms and called in off-duty staff – but nobody came. It wasn’t like the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, where 1,000 were injured and six died. It was multitudes worse. So many people died on impact and no-one was rescued from what was ultimately called ‘ground zero’.

“All the sadness and all the love of our fellow New Yorkers swept over us. It was overwhelming. It was the kindness and the worry and the realisation we lost so many people”

Jillian Reid

On 12 September, my sister remembers: “We got turned away from the hospital and ended up drinking our day away at Subway Inn.” There were already homemade ‘missing’ posters everywhere.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

“All the photos. All the sadness and all of the love of our fellow New Yorkers swept over us. It was overwhelming,” says my sister. “It was the kindness and the worry and the realisation we lost so many people.”

The city’s armories became official spaces where friends and relatives of the missing gathered to post pictures of their loved ones and lend support to one another. But that was unofficially happening in every public space, every subway station, bus stop, wall or patch of grass.

Black clouds, burned buildings

My father says: “The city was overwhelmed by grief for months. The search for bodies of loved ones was emblematic of the black clouds above the city from burned buildings and flesh.”

My friend Daniela and I made cookies for the first-responders and brought them as close to the site as we could. We ran into a bunch of firefighters at a bar on the lower east side in their dress whites. They had come from a funeral.

We danced the night away with them until the 4.30am last call. No-one slept. We wanted to work, live, love and care for each other. A surreal, end-of-the-world-as-you-know-it feeling permeated the city for years.

My sister says: “I had night terrors after that every night until I underwent sinus surgery. I guess it knocked me out enough that I had my first good night of sleep. My night terrors were always the same. I’d wake up, see fire and water outside my window and become overwhelmed by fear.”

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The fires at the attack site continued to burn for 69 days. Workers remained there digging up debris at Ground Zero, searching for body parts for 230 days – 105 people are still classified as missing.

How we mark 9/11

My sister and Jacki meet for breakfast on 11 September every year – but can’t this time because of the pandemic. “I like meeting up with Jacki,” my sister says. “It’s nice to commemorate the day in some way. Remember it. Feel it. Acknowledge it. Think about how lucky we are and how unlucky so many others were.

“There is guilt, I think, for all New Yorkers. I don’t forget the day – how could I? – but it’s nice to consciously revisit it with the person I spent it with.”

Capture the scene with a Long Exposure as the 9/11 remembrance tribute lights up the night sky.

I think the anniversary of 9/11 gets worse every year. I don’t think any of us really dealt with the day – we just persevered as the mayor, our schools and employers asked us to.

We were all just going through our days and now, with the understanding of what really happened that day, that’s a lot to take in. Perhaps we were in shock for too long?

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