This writing of mine was published exactly 17 years ago by the NST — 14 September, 2001. I wrote this piece when I was experiencing the tragedy in NYC.
13 Minutes later and I’d have been history
By Noorul Ainur Mohd Nur
From New York City
September 14, 2001 (page 22)
To love New York City, you have to live there. Since I stepped foot on it in 1993 and until my return to Malaysia late last year, I have not stopped loving this city. It is a vibrant city, full of life and energetic individuals.
Call it a coincidence, I am now in Manhattan and experiencing the catastrophe that struck the city. I arrived on August 28 and was supposed to leave on September 14, but I had cut short my trip and brought the departure date forward to Sept 11 — a memorable and sad day where thousands perished under the act of terrorism.
It was a nightmare for me.
On Monday night I was packing my bags with items bought for my daughters, Nadia and Najwa. I tried on Nadia’s Puma new sneakers and I knew she would love them. I carefully folded Najwa’s Old Navy pants and visualised the gleam in their eyes when I show them the stuff. It was raining heavily that night and I was hoping that it would stop by morning.
Earlier in the day, I had a lunch with a friend. She had wanted me to leave on Sept14 because the Malaysian Mission would be having the Merdeka Day celebrations on the day I was to leave. I refused, saying that I had some urgent business to attend to.
True enough, the sun shone brightly on Tuesday morning. As promised the limousine arrived at my friend’s, Norlin Othman’s apartment on 54th Street about 7.45am.
It was 7.50am when the concierge finished arranging my luggage at the back of the limousine. My flight was scheduled to depart at 11.30am, so I assumed I would have ample time to reach Newark Airport.
My driver was a Bangladeshi in his 20s. I asked him which way he would be taking me and he asked whether I knew the route in the city. The driver suggested we take the Holland Tunnel. I wanted to protest thinking that Lincoln Tunnel has less traffic and there are not many turns and corners. But somehow, the sunny and beautiful weather made me hold back my words.
As usual, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive was congested with inbound cars from the suburbs. As we were inching downtown towards Canal Street, I passed the Twin Towers about 8.35am.
Only an hour later did I realise that it was to be the last sight I would have of the Twin Towers. A few days before I was shopping with my best friend, Rusni Ahmad, at my favourite Century 21 Store — a.k.a New York’s best hidden secret — which was located right across the Twin Towers. The store is known to carry quality and branded items at basement prices.
However, I must confess that my”relationship” with the World Trade Center has never been a relaxed and comfortable one. I always had jittery feelings when I stepped out of the train as it stopped at Van Cordtlandt Station, which was locate right below the towers.
The 1993, terrorist attack on the building had left its impact on me; so much so that I had always tried to quickly get out of the building whenever I had to take the train there.
It is a known fact among my family members that the Twin Towers were not my favourite. I had never ventured to the top-most section of the building, even though the rest of the family did. I had been on top of the Empire State Building a few times, but never the Twin Towers. No one could entice me to do so.
The first attack occurred at 8.48am when an aircraft crashed into one of the towers. I passed by the tower at 8.35am and narrowly missed this “attack”. When the catastrophe took place, I had already passed through Holland Tunnel.
On reaching Newark Airport, I heard people talking about an aircraft crash at the Twin Towers. On hearing the conversation, I asked one of the airport’s employees at the check-in counter.
“Yes, there was a plane crash and it went through the Twin Towers,” she said.
I quickly checked in my luggage and went straight to MAS Clubhouse. The Clubhouse was so quiet; everybody was glued to the television. I watched the live telecast of the attacks in disbelief and somehow deduced that it was an act of terrorism.
I know too well that aircraft do not pass downtown Manhattan. No, these were no freak accidents. I am not prejudiced, but Osama bin Laden’s name did cross my mind at the time.
An announcement was made at the Clubhouse that the flight to London had been cancelled.
“What about the flight to Malaysia?” I asked an employee.
We have not received any information about MAS’ flight,” she said.
I quickly re-focused my attention to the live telecast. Soon, it was announced that all airports had been closed. I immediately ran out of the clubhouse. The first thing that came to my mind was to retrieve my luggage.
While loading my two big bags on a trolley, I heard an announcement asking everybody to evacuate the airport. “Oh my God, this is serious business,” I muttered to myself.
I decided to call my friend, Norlin, a Malaysian diplomat in Manhattan.
As I was queuing, a security guard approached me and said: “You should evacuate the building. This is for your own safety… One of the aircraft that crashed was from this airport,” he said.
I learned later that the plane had crashed into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Then there was another announcement; again requesting passengers to leave the building. Security guards quickly directed us to the exit door.
Six hours later I managed to to check in at a nearby Best Western motel.
From my room, I called MAS and was told that the airline would not be flying back to Malaysia the next few days.
I also called Nadia’s twin friends — Su Ming and Su Ying in Manhattan. Su Ming was so relieved to hear my voice. Nadia had e-mailed her and asked her to find out about my whereabouts. I couldn’t help envisioning my two daughters’ anxiety. It was a touching moment for me. I told Su Ming to tell Nadia that I was fine.
In bed, another realisation sank in. I was lucky to pass by the Twin Towers at 8.35am. Thirteen minutes later and I would have been in the middle of the catastrophe. For the first time that day, I shed tears.
*The writer is a senior project co-ordinator at the National Institute of Public Administration’s economics centre.
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” –Nelson Mandela