There is hardly a day in my life when, even after 20 years, I know exactly where I was at what time and what had happened.
Unfortunately, September 11, 2001 is such a day.
It was a day that changed the world. Even if we, here in Belgium were not personally affected, it changed the geopolitical fabric of the world. In retrospect, the “war on terror” has affected every country.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I am sitting in our server room on the 2nd floor of the BRF radio building in Eupen. Shortly before 3 p.m., the director of BRF, Hans Engels, drops in on us. He gives a shocked report of an accident in New York, where an airplane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 14:46 (8:46 local time). The news just came over the ticker.
I immediately turn on the TV app on the computer to follow CNN’s coverage. Hans Engels has just left our office when the 2nd plane crashes into the South Tower of the WTC at 15:03. CNN is covering it live. In this moment of shock, I am transfixed. At first I think it is a replay of the first impact. But why are both towers on fire? I jump up and call out to the director, “That wasn’t an accident, a second plane just hit the second tower.” He comes back and looks at the first pictures on CNN, then runs to the BRF newsroom. From now on, BRF will also change its regular program.
We sit spellbound in front of the TV in the office and still can’t believe what we just saw. The first videos of the first impact are now also shown in continuous loop. The panic in the faces of the passers-by is clearly visible. The screams get under the skin. We try to find out how many people usally work at the WTC: 50,000 people is the number we find. A horrible thought. I still get goose bumps and a shiver down my spine when I think back on it.
Barely half an hour has passed when American Airlines Flight 77 hits the Pentagon at 15:37. These are no longer coincidences: the USA is being attacked from within.
At about the same time, I receive an e-mail from a friend in Frankfurt who works in banking. He tells me to turn on the TV because of an attack in New York. They had also already turned on TVs in the conference room and were following the coverage. The stock exchanges in New York were supposed to open at 15:30. We write back and forth briefly and continue to try to get more information. People are falling out of the towers, or throwing themselves to certain death to escape the fire and smoke.
I can’t believe my eyes when at 15:59 the south tower collapses like a house of cards. This can’t be true! 56 minutes have passed since United Airlines Flight 175 hit the tower. Half an hour later, the end also comes for the North Tower. It collapses at 16:28. It was American Airlines Flight 11 that had caused this disaster.
I try to reach a good acquaintance in New York. On New Year’s Eve 2000, she had lent me her daughter’s cell phone for a few days so that I could be reached because of the “millennium bug” (Y2K bug). I can’t get Susan or Diana on the phone. Very likely the phone networks are overloaded. I send Susan an email and hope that she is safe. She lives near Central Park, but is very often downtown on business. While I’m at it, I also send short emails to all my professional contacts in New York to express my concerns and sympathies — these days, Facebook, Twitter or other social media would allow us to reassure each other much more quickly.
Reports are also now trickling in that a plane has crashed in a meadow in Pennsylvania. We later learn that United Airlines Flight 93 had also been hijacked, and according to recorded phone conversations, passengers were trying to stop the hijackers. The passengers and crew paid for their heroism with death.
At a little after 5 p.m. I decide to drive home from Eupen. On the way on the High Fens my thoughts are with the victims in New York. The memory of the return trip is a blur.
Arriving home in Wirtzfeld, my mother already knows what happened in New York. The BRF has already brought the first reports. I tell her how we heard about it. Before dinner, I buy online a detailed intelligence review by Janes report on the structure of Al Qaeda and the danger posed by Osama Bin Laden. There is still speculation in the media about who is responsible for the attacks in the United States. Al-Qaeda is one of the possible terrorist groups. It will not be until early October 2001 that Osama Bin Laden will claim responsibility for the September 11 attacks.
I am hardly hungry and poke around in my food. In my other hand I hold the Janes Report. What I read there is like a stone in my stomach. The attacks of the day fit the pattern of Al-Qaeda.
I spend the rest of the evening and half the night watching the news on various channels. CNN is always on one screen with the live coverage, and on the other screens I zap through other news channels from around the world.
Finally, I also get a message from Susan in New York. She is fine, but the chaos is great. She has included photos that her other daughter, Chrissie, took from her window on the Lower East Side. Smoke still hangs over the Wall Street financial district. But Chrissie is also safe.
Fortunately, no one from my direct, personal contacts in New York was harmed. However, Danny Lewin, co-founder of Akamai, was killed on Flight 11. We were negotiating with Akamai in the fall of 1999 to set up a Belgian Internet POP for their content delivery network.
Danny was probably the first casualty of 9/11; I learn this 10 years later. A former Israeli anti-terrorist soldier and Internet millionaire, he was in the business class of Flight 11. After a flight attendant was attacked by the terrorists, he tried to prevent Mohammad Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari from storming the cockpit. According to phone calls from the other flight attendants, the 3rd terrorist, Satam al-Suqami, cut Danny’s throat from behind between 8:15 and 8:20 (local time). He was dead before Flight 11 triggered the chaos of September 11, 2001.
Every time I am in New York, I visit the 9/11 Memorial. It is amazing and depressing at the same time how quiet the world metropolis is all of a sudden when you stand at the Memorial pools. On September 11, 2001, 2,977 people were killed and more than 6,000 people were injured. Rest in Peace. Lest we forget 9/11.
Belgium, September 11, 2021