Photo: The Twin Towers ablaze after the second plane crashed in to the Twin Towers. Credit: Dr Palitha Kohona, former Sri Lankan Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. - Photo: 2017

9/11 – The Morning That Changed The World I Knew

By Dr Palitha Kohona*

COLOMBO (IDN) – It was another sunny September morning. The sky was a brilliant blue. As I gazed out of my kitchen window while having breakfast, in Mid Town Manhattan, the twin towers were glistening in the morning sun. I noted, as I often had, that they were still there, a familiar reassuring sight. The cute young blonde in the apartment across the street was drying her wet hair, as usual, by her plate glass window. The walk to the UN and my office on the 32nd floor of the Secretariat was uneventful. Not that I expected anything untoward to happen. A pre-scheduled closed-door management meeting began on time.

Just then there was a knock on the door, and Tony M put his head in and nonchalantly informed us that some black smoke was rising from one of the towers. None of the participants paid much attention to this intrusion and the meeting continued. A few minutes later there was more insistent knocking. It was Tony again who blurted out the Tower may actually be on fire. Both USG Corell and I went round the corner to a window, more to keep Tony happy than because we thought something was amiss. What we saw sent a shiver down my spine. Black smoke was billowing out of the top of one of the towers. We both looked at each other and Corell said, “Let us suspend the meeting and find out what is going on.”

I walked down to the 32nd floor and decided to ask my staff to leave the building although I had no instructions to that effect from anyone. But I felt that their safety was my responsibility. I went from room to room. Some staff were just beginning to settle in. Some were having breakfast at their desks, some were writing personal emails, My deputy was actually playing cards on the computer. I insisted that all assemble in the courtyard below and return when instructed. By the time I had locked up my office, the lift had been stopped and I had to walk down 32 flights of stairs to the bottom.

On the way down I passed the UN media Centre and found a few people assembled in front of a TV screen. Then, as we watched, an aeroplane came streaking across the screen and slammed in to the other tower. A massive ball of fire and smoke gushed out of the other side of the building. Someone behind me commented that it looked like a Cessna. I said no. That was a big passenger plane.

By the time I reached ground level, most people working in the Secretariat building were milling around, uncertain and fearful. My secretary, who was there, asked what she should do. I told her that I was going back to my apartment, just five minutes away, and that she should call me when the security services permitted us to go back in to the building. (I DID NOT KNOW THEN THAT THE BUILDING WOULD REMAIN CLOSED FOR THE NEXT TWO DAYS).

On reaching home, I went on to my balcony and ominous clouds of black smoke were billowing from the top of the two towers. As an amateur photographer, I could not resist the temptation to take a few shots with my long lens of the burning buildings. I turned on the TV and sat down when to my utter disbelief, the first tower began in crumble down, first in slow motion and then gathering speed in a cloud of cascading dust and smoke. It took a while to grasp what had happened.

Then, I grabbed the camera and went on to the rooftop and took a series of photos. Unknown to me at the time, I was taking pictures with the clock on the Woolworth Tower in between me and the towering inferno that was the Twin Towers, now reduced to one. The exact time was recorded in each photo. (Sadly, the camera was left behind in a NY taxi and the photos were lost to me. But some have appeared in various publications from time to time.)

A few minutes later the second tower crumbled in a giant swirling cloud of smoke and dust. The enormity of what had just happened was difficult to grasp at first. Thirty thousand people worked in the two towers and it was possible that thirty thousand lives had been snuffed out in those awful minutes. But it later transpired that for various reasons only about 3000 had died, including 800 first responders.

The tragedy immediately reduced this previously well ordered humming city, New York, in to utter chaos. The phones stopped working and took me hours to get through to Sri Lanka and Australia to reassure those close to me that I was OK. At least one person in Australia who switched on the TV following my call thought that a cheap Hollywood movie was playing, but the same horror flick was on all the channels!

A Chinese friend’s wife who was working in the Xin Hua office on the 30th floor of Tower 1 had been on the phone with her husband who was in Kingston, Jamaica, at the time. She had felt the thud of the plane hitting the building but thinking that it was a malfunctioning lift had kept on talking. She understood the gravity of the thud only when he husband screamed for her to leave the building. He was watching TV.

Ling Ling ran down the stairs past firemen climbing up with their equipment. When she reached ground level and saw the terror and chaos, including people leaping out of top floor windows, she had joined hundreds of others and run blindly over the Brooklyn Bridge until she reached the other side. In the process she lost her shoes. Then she realised that her young daughter was at school in Manhattan. Her efforts to get back were prevented by the police who had blocked all the bridges by than. It took her several hours to get back to Manhattan to recover her daughter.

The city went in to lockdown mode. All the bridges and tunnels in to Manhattan were closed. All ferries, trains and subways were stopped and the US airspace was cleared of all aircraft. This situation remained for days.

Fighter jets began roaring above the city. Civilian aircraft due to land in the U.S. were diverted to Canada and other neighbouring countries, stranding travellers for days. We did not know at the time but another aeroplane had been crashed in to the Pentagon and a fourth, possibly heading for the White House, had crashed in to a field in Pennsylvania, either as a result of passengers taking action against the hijackers or because it was shot down.

The streets of Manhattan were soon log jammed with cars trying to leave the island and food stores, including supermarkets were emptied pretty quickly by people wanting to ensure supplies in their homes. Thousands of people who relied on public transport to get to work, were fleeing on foot. One of my staff members took seven hours to reach her home in Queens on foot. The phones remained dead for hours. Heavily armed soldiers appeared threateningly at all strategic locations.

As we watched from our roof top, seven high rise buildings collapsed in the area of the Twin Towers during the course of the day as a result of the vibrations caused by the collapsing WTC Towers. The last, in the evening at around 7 PM. Many were seriously damaged. Others were covered in inches of dust. A friend, a night owl, remained asleep through the noise and vibrations in the Marriott Hotel until forced to leave in late morning.

A giant pall of smoke and dust covered lower Manhattan for almost three months and fires burned while the twisted steel of the once magnificent Twin Towers remained, stoking deep and complex emotions in every one who visited the area. The smoke and the smell spread towards Queens and spared the rest of Manhattan.

Large parts of lower Manhattan had to be evacuated. My friends, Denise and Espen, had to leave their loft with their pet African Grey, Nelson, Alsatian dog, Mickey, and a cageful of birds they were minding. Battalions of firemen and para medics searched the rubble for months for body parts and personal items which were later stored in Queens and meticulously identified and returned to the claimants.

Total confusion and uncertainty prevailed in the city for days before the authorities were able to restore confidence in the population. The city which touts itself as the capital of the world, certainly of the financial world, and the cutting edge of everything modern and dynamic, was gripped by fear and uncertainty. Mayor Giuliani played a critical role in providing leadership and portraying a defiant image of a beleaguered New York. Some men thrive in adversity. He was one of them.

As confidence returned to a shaken New York, people started to search for missing friends, relatives and lovers in large numbers. Walls were covered with notices asking for information of missing persons. Visiting a wall covered with these notices near ground zero, I watched a pretty young woman in red clutching a bunch of roses so tightly that her fingers had turned a ghostly white and tears were welling in her eyes as she stared blankly at the notices. The cute blonde across the street never reappeared by the window again to brush her wet hair. But someone placed two candles on that windowsill two days later.

President Bush, whose presidency was sinking into oblivion, was given a massive opportunity to boost his standing that morning and he and his advisors grabbed it with gusto. His statements gave a sense of confidence and reassured a nervous nation. His address to the Congress was inspiring and provided firm leadership to the country. The United States will henceforth be uncompromising and defiant in confronting terrorism.

Global politics would also be seriously impacted by the U.S. crusade against terror. The U.S. under George Bush successfully mobilised the world, including the UN, in to adopting an uncompromising stance against terrorism.

The UN General Assembly expressed its sympathy with the U.S. and the 9/11 victims. The Security Council adopted Res 1368 on September 12, 2001 condemning the attacks on the U.S. and recognising the right of self-defence against acts of terrorism. On September 28, the Security Council adopted Res 1373, an unprecedented act of international legislation, obliging member states to take a range of detailed measures proactively against terrorism. Crucially, Res 1373 was not focused on Al Qaeda but on international terrorism.

American diplomacy and influence, coupled with an uncompromising leadership, was successful in galvanising the international community to take action within days of 9/11. The rest of the world, especially countries such as Sri Lanka for whom terrorism was almost a daily experience, had not been able to command such a reaction. Importantly, Res 1373 did not pay attention to human rights in the context of terrorism.

That year, the UN Treaty Event during the UN GA and a special event held in October, focused specifically on encouraging participation in the 12 UN treaties against terrorism. These were exceptionally successful events.

Sri Lanka missed a golden opportunity to mobilise international support, strengthen its security forces and deal decisively with the LTTE post 9/11. Misguided in to believing that negotiations and appeasement would solve its terrorist problem, it concluded a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in 2002 and recognised a part of the country as a no-go area for its security forces. The result was the LTTE blatantly using the CFA to further arm and strengthen itself (it even developed an administrative structure with police and courts and naval and air capabilities) and its murderous terrorist campaign and carnage continued for another eight years.

The U.S. under President Bush opted for a military response to Islamic terrorism which had deep roots and demanded the extradition of Osama Bin Laden and the expulsion of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan made overtures to discuss these demands, the U.S. along with the UK launched a massive bombing campaign against Afghanistan followed by an invasion in October 2001. They were later joined by NATO countries and others.

While many criticised the invasion as illegal under international law, the U.S. justified its action as self-defence authorised under the UN Charter. In December, the UN Security Council authorised the creation of an International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan. As former President Musharraf describes in his autobiography, Pakistan was monstered in to supporting the U.S. invasion with a threat of being bombed itself. Sri Lanka, among others, offered logistical support to the U.S.

The expected quick and clean conclusion to the war that the U.S. launched in Afghanistan never happened. Although, Osama Bin Laden was killed only in 2011 in Pakistan by U.S. Navy Seals, sixteen years after the invasion, the U.S. continues to be bogged down in Afghanistan. The Taliban remains unconquered. Over 3400 Americans have died and in excess of 19,000 have been injured. Thousands of Afghan civilians have perished. The cost to the U.S. so far exceeds $700 billion.

Like an inevitable row of falling dominoes war after war began to engulf the U.S. The U.S. with the UK invaded Iraq, ostensibly because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, it was supporting Al Qaeda and it was a threat to peace and stability of the region.

The UN Security Council was shown photographs in proof which later turned out to be bogus. France, Germany and New Zealand steadfastly opposed the invasion and Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it illegal. Millions around the world, including in the U.S., rallied against it.

The invasion went ahead and has reduced Iraq to tatters. Some have suggested that the real goal was Iraqi oil and the need to dominate the Middle East, in the process remove a dangerous challenge to U.S. allies, especially Israel. Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussain, who was an undoubted irritant, was captured, hastily tried and executed while the country was engulfed in sectarian and anti-American violence. U.S. troops on occasion responded with extreme brutality, as demonstrated by the Abu Graib photos.

The UN’s station chief, Sergio Vierra De Mello along with 19 UN staff, was killed in a bombing of the UN office. I was to have joined Sergio that week.

Over 4400 Americans have died in Iraq and a much larger number have been maimed. Some estimates suggest a civilian death toll exceeding 500,000. The Yasmin Sookas and Collum Macraes of this world are not seen wringing their hands in exaggerated agony and demanding justice for this carnage.

Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, has blamed the 2008 recession mainly on the Bush administration’s decision to wage war with borrowed funds rather than raised taxes. And the chaos generated by the invasion has not come to an end. While terrorism has prospered, a new extremist Islamic group, ISIL, has emerged to challenge Western interests. They even set up a Caliphate in the lands that they controlled which has required additional military action to subdue.

The invasion of Iraq was followed by NATO-led military action in Libya in 2011, another oil rich Arab country. The Libyan leader, Qaddafi, who had earlier surrendered his weapons of mass destruction to the UN, was ousted and brutally murdered in public. Today Libya is a splintered failed state, where terrorism flourishes and has become a jump off place for thousands of illegal immigrants to Europe.

In 2012 the U.S. intervened in the Syrian internal conflict along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar and later Turkey. That conflict has for the first time attracted direct Russian intervention on behalf of the Syrian leader Assad. Syria, which was a relatively liberal Arab state, has also been reduced to chaos and the ISIL’s caliphate extended to large areas within it. Syria is a major source of the thousands of refugees flooding into Europe.

Yemen has also followed the path to sectarian violence.

The 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, whether orchestrated by Al Qaeda or, as some conspiracy theorists suggest, by elements intent on provoking U.S. military intervention in the Middle East to advance their own interests, has had multiple consequences. Some may not even have been envisaged by the 19 Twin Tower jihadists.

Islamic terrorism has become widespread and does seem to abate. Volunteer jihadists have sprung from around the world. It has now engulfed a nervous Europe as never before and South East Asia, including Australia. A flood of refugees has engulfed Europe causing serious socio-economic challenges.

Border controls have become rigorous and oppressive. Surveillance of individuals has increased. Much of the Middle East region which was relatively stable, even under obnoxious rulers, is now in chaos. Pro-Western Arab regimes live with an uncertain future. The U.S. has become bogged down in a Middle Eastern quagmire, bleeding it of its wealth and young men and women, unable to extricate themselves. Ominously, a resurgent Russia has become a militarily active player in the region. If Al Qaeda, and its 19 Saudi born suicide bombers, sought to cause increased Islamic militancy and chaos and uncertainty in the Western world, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

*Dr Palitha Kohona is the former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York, Co-Chair of the UN Committee on Biological Diversity Beyond National Jurisdiction 2010 – 2015, President, of the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the UN General Assembly, 2014, Vice President, UN Oceans Regular Process 2014, President, UN Indian Ocean Commission 2010 – 2015. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 September 2017]

Photo: The Twin Towers ablaze after the second plane crashed in to the Twin Towers. Credit: Dr Palitha Kohona, former Sri Lankan Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

Second Photo: The Panic and Mass Exodus. Credit: Dr Palitha Kohona, former Sri Lankan Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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