Hard to believe it has been fifteen years since my family and I woke up on a beautiful New York morning and faced a day that would reshape our world.
After I dropped our young kids to the UN school, I recall glancing down Park Avenue and seeing a billowing grey cloud of dust. As Press Officer, I had the only TV in the Consulate so when I arrived the locally based colleagues were trying the three flickers to turn it on: something terrible had happened, the twin towers were mentioned.
We stood around the TV images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, all of us wrapt and confused. Minutes passed as we tried to make sense of what we were seeing. Then it happened, as if we were watching some event in nature like a chuck of rock sloughing off a cliff or a massive lump of ice shearing from a glacier: one of the towers sank in a haze of thick dust, implacable and indifferent to the people it had been sheltering.
Mobile phone networks were down but we got a call through to Dublin on a land line. We didn’t hang up for days and that phone on the table was our communications lifeline to HQ.
The Department cranked into high gear as the Secretary General, Dermot Gallagher created a crisis centre in the grand ballroom in Iveagh House and assembled a consular team of hand picked officers to fly to New York as soon as possible to strengthen the Consulate.
My wife called. Should she get the kids out of the school? I said no, it was miles from the Twin Towers. Rumours were rife: more planes were in the air about to strike DC: one of the staff wanted to leave because she had heard that two planes were hijacked and flying from Heathrow heading straight for NY like air-borne torpedoes. News reports came in about a plane hitting the Pentagon. I called Mary and told her to get the kids out of school.
What followed was a blur of activity, piecing together what was happening, reporting to HQ, dealing with the press from Ireland. We needed to figure out how many Irish were killed, injured or needing our help. The Irish media asked how many ‘Irish were among the dead?’
But in NY how do you define Irish? Irish born? Child of Irish born? Passport holder? And what of Irish Americans going back two, three generations?
Stairwell: Irish American firefighters going up meet Irish American financial traders going down. Story of the Irish. They died together when the tower collapsed.
As 9/11 unfolded, one of the biggest helps to the Consulate was the NY Police Department. Every other cop had an Irish name: the Irish pulling together.
Mary went to the UN School to get the kids. When she went in, one of the towers was still standing. She told the kids that bad men had flown planes into the towers. They would see one of the towers burning but they should not worry, she counselled. When she left the school she walked to a corner where people were crying. They pointed; the second tower was gone.
During the crisis and its long aftermath, it felt surreal. Clichéd but true, at times it felt like a movie, vivid, heightened reality but so abnormal to qualify as not quite real. Memories of that time have the same character, hived off from normal recall, a feedback loop that refreshes itself, never fading.
The Consulate was manned 24/7: a great team running on adrenaline. Old friends arrived as part of the consular group from Dublin. We had worked together on the Northern Ireland peace process and 911 was redolent of times like the Enniskilling and Omagh bombings, dislocating, violent events.
Our home was on East 37th St. My wife checked in when she could: kids home safe but confused by the news. People were streaming by on foot. Traffic stopped, evening fell, the air started to fill with a strange potent smell, burnt, unpleasant.
We worked long hours at the Consulate. The team from Dublin travelled around in NYPD cars following up on leads from home, checking to see who was still alive, who missing.
NY, city of spontaneous shrines in the days and weeks that followed. We pilgrimaged as a family to the nearby Armory Building, festooned with notes, photos of those hopefully just missing but most likely dead, lost somewhere in the gigantic heap of rubble that was ground zero.
9/11. We all changed that day.