Twenty years ago, I was executive assistant to the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Deputy Permanent Representative at the Australian Mission to the United Nations in New York. The government’s offices sit on the 33rd and 34th floors of the landmarked Socony-Mobil building on East 42nd Street at the corner of Lexington Avenue, and back then offered a direct view of the downtown skyline.
At the time of the attacks, I lived in the East Village’s Alphabet City, and I remember commuting to work that day and taking in the perfect blue sky of early September as I walked towards the office. It was the start of our work day and I will never forget standing at the office windows with my Australian workmates as we watched massive flames blast out from gapping metal holes in the twin towers, and looked on in absolute horror as the huge infernos later crashed to the ground.
In the days that followed the attacks, we manned an emergency call center at the Consulate-General on the 34th Floor, taking messages from Australians back home anxious for news about their family members. In the city’s downtown avenues, people began pinning messages along fences and construction-site walls asking if anyone had seen or heard from their missing loved ones. NYC’s firefighters closed off the city below 14th Street and converted Second Avenue into an emergency thoroughfare with sirens blasting. Unable to return to my East Village apartment, I stayed temporarily at the Ambassador’s residence and had nightmares about what I had seen and heard.
For months afterwards, our subway entrances and platforms were manned by members of the military carrying sub-machine guns, which I found as frightening as it was reassuring. Later that fall, the Consulate-General held a memorial service at one of the churches on Second Avenue in Gramercy Park for the ten Australians who lost their lives that day. I cried for them and their grieving families, for the thousands of others who had died, and for the city and our way of life that had been so brutally attacked.
Many volunteers went down to the site to help in the days following the attacks to help look for survivors. I remained in a functioning state of shock for sometime afterwards and had a deep pit in my stomach as I passed the smoldering, twisted wreckage as I left Manhattan on the BM1 bus to stay with friends in Brooklyn, where I would later set up home. I will be forever grateful for the way my Australian colleagues and fellow New Yorkers banded together and the kindness and generosity we extended to one another as we healed. Such bravery and dedication was shown by the city’s firefighters. We will never forget their sacrifices. They were true heroes.