'We stood on the site of unimaginable suffering' - remembering 9/11

Emergency workers move through the debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York

Emergency workers move through the debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. - Credit: AP

Twenty years ago almost 3,000 people were killed as terrorists slammed aeroplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon and a fourth hijacked plane crashed. 

The deadliest terror attack in history was unleashed in the heart of New York, turning bright blue skies black and sending shockwaves of noise, debris and fear through densely packed streets. 

It is the noise that Ian Kirkpatrick remembers the most vividly. A plane exploding on impact, the roar of the collapsing towers, and between them, more horror. “We could see people jumping. And hear them land – the sound of the bodies hitting the ground.” 

Ian, of Brooke, near Norwich, was part of a seven-strong team from Anglia Television who had been working in New York all summer.  

A film editor, he was staying just a few minute’s walk from the twin towers. “I was having a shave when I had a phone call from the producer, saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade building. We were just round the corner. I went out and just as I got there the second plane hit.” 

By this time he was with a colleague and they realised the towering buildings could collapse.

"We could see the buildings starting to move at the top, a kind of shimmer,”  he said. They knew they needed to take cover and found themselves in a nearby park. “We went and hid in the gents as the first tower came down,” said Ian. When they emerged they realised the second tower was likely to fall too. With their previous shelter now packed with people they cowered against the walls of the Jewish Museum as debris rained down. 

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They opened their eyes to a city drained of all colour. 

"It was almost apocalyptic, as you would imagine the apocalypse to be,” said Ian. “Everything and everyone was covered in dust. All the streets were grey, all the cars were grey."

A ball of fire explodes from one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York

A ball of fire explodes from one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York after a plane crashed into it on September 11, 2001 - Credit: AP

A jet airliner is lined up on one of the World Trade Center towers in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 11,

An aeroplane flies towards the twin towers on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 - Credit: AP

Emergency workers move through the debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York

Emergency workers move through the debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. - Credit: AP

As tens of thousands of people scrambled to get away they found themselves blocked by the Hudson River and open water on two sides, with the collapsing buildings to the north and the emergency services rushing in from the other direction.  

Many hours later Ian and his East Anglian colleagues regrouped at the home of one of the American members of the team. “That evening we sat in his apartment watching the television and if we just looked outside and slightly to the right, we could see it."

It was 20 days before Ian was able to fly home – and in that time the team continued filming the work of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They had been following animal protection officers for a series called Animal Precinct, to be shown on the Discovery Channel. “American animal cops have the same cars as the NYPD (New York City Police Department), the same uniform. They have powers of arrest and they carry guns.” 

The team told the stories of animals from rescue to rehoming - but they quickly switched to recording the work of the sniffer dogs at Ground Zero. Then there were the cases of neighbours contacting the animal protection agents, worried for pets left alone because their owners had not returned home on the evening of September 11. “It was quite harrowing,” said Ian. “And the agents knew quite a lot of people who had lost their lives too.”  

Today Ian works as a transport route co-ordinator for Langley School, near Loddon. His older son, Ben, is a school head of sport and his younger, Harry, is a chef at Michelin-star Trinity restaurant in London - and spent a year working for a three Michelin-starred restaurant in New York.  

“I still adore New York,” he said. “I am not really a city person, but I love New York.” 


Ian Kirkpatrick in New York with his sons Ben and Harry, when they visited him earlier in 2001. - Credit: Kirkpatrick family

He believes it was harder for his wife, Sharon, than him on that terrible day 20 years ago. After finding shelter as the towers collapsed he was never in fear for his own life – but with communications down or jammed it was impossible to get a message home for several hours. “They watched the whole thing unfold on television,” said Ian.  

“It’s a strange realisation, that you are part of history,” he said. And although he does not mark the anniversary in a specific way he said: “I’m always mindful of it. I think of those people jumping. That always seems to come to the fore.” 

STACIA BRIGGS travelled to New York to report on how the city marked the first anniversary of the tragedy

It looked, for want of a better description, like a gigantic archaeological excavation.

Almost a year to the day after the twin towers were reduced to rubble by hijacked passenger jets, I was sent to report from New York and a city preparing to mark the darkest day in its history.

The almost lunar landscape of Ground Zero was dotted with construction vehicles and workers in fluorescent jackets, a vast crater carved into the middle of Manhattan.

At a viewing platform created for those wishing to pay their respects, people stood, staring into the cavernous hole where two soaring skyscrapers once stood.

Just days before New York’s most unhappy anniversary, it seemed inconceivable that 12 months ago, there was no Ground Zero, no war on terrorism and no reason for a national requiem. We stood on the site of unimaginable suffering.

Mourners process into the pit at ground zero

Mourners process into the pit at ground zero during a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Wednesday, September 11, 2002 - Credit: AP

Beside me, a family stood, transfixed by the enormity of what lay below them – once a mass of contorted steel and smouldering fires, a graveyard for the missing was now a neat hole scooped to a depth of seven storeys.

Around us, the flag-draped buildings and podiums heralded a ceremony, which would, within two days, be held in the aching expanse which once marked the highest point in New York’s silhouette.

Simply listing the names of all those who died on September 11, 2001 would take former Mayor Rudy Giuliani two hours; more time than it took the twin towers to be obliterated and ground to choking dust.

I had been sent to report on the devastation wreaked on this corner of the world’s most famous city.  I spoke to people who had seen the destruction at first hand, saw fire engines being saluted, applauded and cheered by pedestrians still thankful for the service’s role on 9/11 and talked to people keen to remember, but also to live.

Mark Bowden, 42, a native New Yorker, told me: “When planes go over low, people can’t help but look up. If anyone in New York tells you they’re not scared, they’re lying”.

A block away from ground zero was Chelsea Jeans, a clothes store which became an impromptu shrine on the 9/11 pilgrimage, a visceral reminder of the terror and turmoil of the day, its shelves coated in toxic dust, capturing the collapse of the towers in a single, frozen moment.

An eerie time capsule, the shop had become an impromptu shrine and a place of pilgrimage visited by hundreds of thousands of people – for relatives, it represented the final resting place of the lost. That dust contained lives.

And at St Paul’s Chapel, across the street from where the towers stood, the tattered remains of photographs of the missing were plastered to the iron fencing alongside scraps of American flag, flowers, poems and letters.

“American Airlines Flight 11. Karleton Douglas Beye Fyfe, 31. A ridiculously tall and insanely handsome guy, loving father to Jackson, 22 months, and his unborn child due May 13,” said one poster. A poignant update added at a later date simply said: “Parker Douglas Beye Fyfe, born 16/05/02”.

Back at Ground Zero, the family I’d seen gazing into the abyss started to move away. Kneeling down, snaking her hand under the wire fence, the mother picked up some rocks from the ground and crammed them into her rucksack.

“I got one for Ellen!” she said, triumphantly.

A police officer, standing sentry at the fence, looked over at me and raised his eyebrows.

“You get used to it,” he said, “people all want a piece of history.”

I spoke to him for a minute or two, surprised that he wasn’t horrified by people robbing a graveyard for a handful of dust.

It soon became clear. He’d seen far worse. He was on duty in exactly the same spot on September 11, 2001.

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