9/11 and the World Trade Centre collapse: My memories of a trip to New York a week after the devastating terrorist attack

Twenty years ago, I should have been at the part-time job I worked while I was attending university.

But on this particular day – September 11, 2001 – I’d had to phone in sick with a bug. I was watching TV on the sofa and after lunchtime Neighbours finished, an image of the Twin Towers in New York came on the screen.

I knew exactly what they were, as I’d been researching places to visit in New York ahead of a birthday trip I was due to go on just a few days later.

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After it became clear what had happened, and the horror kept unfolding live on air, I couldn’t stop watching the wall-to-wall coverage.

Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001 in New York City. Photo by Fabina Sbina/ Hugh Zareasky/Getty Images.

Completely traumatised by what I was witnessing, I couldn’t sleep that night. Thousands of miles away, safe in my bed, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like in the USA if I was feeling so shocked here; how unimaginably terrifying and heartbreaking it must be for people living in New York.

But over the next couple of days, as the world tried to understand what had happened, my then boyfriend and I had a decision to make.

We had booked the trip to New York months before, to celebrate my 20th birthday. We could possibly cancel, given the circumstances – and there was a chance flights wouldn’t resume in time anyway – or we could go.

We really weren’t sure what to do, but then my dad saw Rudy Guiliani, then mayor of New York. speaking on a news report urging would-be visitors still to come to his city. He said tourism was vital to the Big Apple, and that in this time of grief they needed people to help the economy to survive.

Katherine visited New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks

And so we planned to go and, with some trepidation, given what had happened, boarded our flight to New York just a week later.

I can’t think of any other word to describe it other than to say it was completely surreal arriving in the city that had dominated the newspapers and television screens for days.

We had no idea if our presence would be welcomed but, as has been written about many times, New Yorkers seem to have a determination and spirit that propels them. We were never met with anything other than gratitude for visiting the city they took so much pride in, despite their grief.

We even visited the lower Manhattan area, where the World Trade Centre was located. Looking back, through older and wiser eyes and with 20 years more life experience, perhaps this wasn’t the right thing to do. But at the time, it felt wrong not to see the place where such a monumental event happened, and to attempt to pay our respects.

You obviously couldn’t go close to the site, but through some of the streets, you could see the immense piles of rubble and the utter decimation of what had been the thriving financial centre of one of the world’s biggest cities. Everything was covered in dust, but what I remember most was the smell. Unlike anything I have ever smelled before, it permeated the air. The eerie quiet and emptiness of an area which just a week or so ago would have been a throng of people, only punctuated by the sound of machinery attempting to clear the debris and continue the search for survivors. It was a profoundly sobering experience.

Even though I saw the tragedy on TV and the aftermath in person, 20 years on I still find it hard to believe it happened. As so many of us do at this time of year, I’m thinking of all those affected by the tragedy in both New York and Washington and sending lots of love to a city that made me so welcome just a week after its darkest hour.