Living in Melbourne, Australia I had gone to bed and was asleep when the first plane flew into the Twin Towers in New York. I was awoken by a phone ringing which is always a little nerve rattling. Phone calls late at night nearly always mean bad news. As the phone was closest to my wife Michelle, she picked up the receiver. It was my youngest brother Wayne.“Turn on your TV. America is under attack.” is all he said.
Michelle and I were watching trying to make sense of my brother’s statement. And then we saw it. Live. The second plane flew into the South Tower. I literally jumped out of my chair and stood up.
“Oh my God!” Michelle and I uttered. “Where’s Denis?”, Michelle asked.
“About 400 miles away in Washington DC”. I replied.
You see my twin brother Denis was a manager in the security team at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC. On 911 Denis was in charge of security and the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard was on an official visit to the US.
After seeing the second plane fly into the South Tower Michelle and I were convinced that the US was indeed under attack. And we assumed Washington would be on the list of whoever the attackers were. The Australian Embassy is less than a mile from the White House. So I was genuinely concerned for my brother. For all intents and purposes I was watching the start of a war unfold before my eyes and my twin brother was in the direct line of fire.
We were also genuinely concerned about our world. As our 19 month old baby slept, we wondered, “Is this the start of World War III?”. Michelle was also in the early phases of her pregnancy with our second child.
Then the news flash occurred that confirmed our fears. A plane had flown into the Pentagon.
Surely the White House will be targeted we thought. Denis isn’t far from there.
This was not just some news event on TV. It was personal. It was ‘Realer than real’. When was this going to end?
As futile as I expected it to be I tried calling Denis. I didn’t get through.
Michelle and I sat and watched as the TV coverage captured every moment, including what was later to be seen as vision too gruesome to be shown again. To my knowledge, it hasn’t.
It was the sight of people jumping to their deaths from above the impact zone. The number of ‘jumpers’ was more than one’s mind and soul could manage. Yet we kept watching, desperate for news of what was happening in Washington.
Michelle and I continued to wonder how bad the conditions must have been above the impact zones that people were choosing to jump. These people were normal family people like us. Never in their wildest dreams would they have imagined that soon after having arrived at work that day they would be faced with such a choice. This choice and the images of what we saw still haunt me.
The TV coverage flipped between New York and Washington DC. What was going to happen next?
Then the South Tower collapsed before our eyes. To see such a thing happen on live TV was horrific. It was clear that we had just seen thousands of people lose their lives in a matter of seconds.
We wondered about the motivation of people to do such a thing as to deliberately fly a jet airliner into a building. The evil of such an act was impossible to comprehend, and still is today.
The whole night we watched and watched. Terrified of what might be unfolding in the US. I desperately kept calling Denis.
When morning broke we received a phone call from my mother. Denis had called her. He was okay. He’d been assisting the US Secret Service who had taken over the Australian Embassy to look after Prime Minister Howard and his entourage. Our relief that he was okay was enhanced by our knowledge that there were four planes involved in the attack, and all had been accounted for including the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania.
Wow. My twin brother was directly involved in protecting Australia’s Prime Minister. Who would have thought that a plumber from Clayton in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs could have been directly involved in such a thing. But he was.
Three days later I was able to speak directly with Denis. I discovered that the gap between what the media had reported and what really happened with Prime Minister Howard was immense. The media had reported that Prime Minster Howard had been taken to a ‘bunker’ in the basement of the Australian embassy.
No such ‘bunker’ existed.
Instead Prime Minister Howard was seated on a plastic chair in the ‘Maintenance Man’s Cage‘ in the basement car park of the Australian Embassy. Times were indeed different!
How could we be on the other side of the world yet experience the horror of these events as if we were there? Although it was 2001 modern communication systems meant that we could in fact ‘experience’ a world event as it was unfolding. I’m sure psychologists would have some idea of whether it is a good or bad thing that we have the technology to allow us to experience such events. I still don’t know myself.
In closing I have no words of wisdom to offer regarding my experience of 911. Something tells me that it would be disrespectful to do so. Today I accept that I don’t understand why such horrific events happened and why, more specifically 911 happened. I just know that it did.
The events of that day also reinforce my deep commitment to being the best that I can be. Rather than letting my experience of 911 drive fear to stop me living the life I desire, I prefer to use it as a catalyst for ensuring that I leave no stone unturned in trying to become the best that I can be. I hope it has the same effect on you.
Gary Ryan enables organisations, leaders and talented professionals to move Beyond Being Good.
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