Written by Emma Cillekens
Twenty years ago, when two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers, the face of New York City changed forever.
What some might not know is that 10 Australians (according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, DFAT) lost their lives that day. And for the Aussie expat community who lived in the city and later moved to the city, the day remains firmly burned in their brains.
Despite the horrors of 9/11, New York’s Australian community has endured.
They’ve shown tremendous resilience and hope, and continued to thrive—no matter the challenges.
Recollections of an Australian expat 20 years on
Australian Women in New York (AWNY) community committee lead Robyn Sunderland was working for DFAT on the 33rd floor of 150 East 42nd Street at the time of the attacks in 2001.
For her, the events of 9/11 remain a vivid and traumatic memory.
“I will never forget watching the towers explode and fall that day with my Aussie workmates. We watched in horror as the attacks unfolded,” she said.
“In the days that followed 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.”
After the attacks she couldn’t return to her apartment in the East Village, so stayed temporarily at the Ambassador’s residence in Beekman Place.
She recalls that it took some time for New York to recover from the attacks. “I will be forever thankful for the support and kindness strangers showed towards one another.”
Click here for more on Robyn’s reflection of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
A life cut short: AWNY’s first newsletter editor Lesley Thomas
AWNY’s first newsletter editor Lesley Thomas was one of the 10 Australians who lost her life on September 11, 2001.
She worked with the financial services firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, which occupied floors 101 to 105 of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
At a memorial service in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Lesley lived prior to her death, a letter by Ann Snyder, one of the original founding members of AWNY, was read.
“If Lesley was in a group you remembered not just that she was beautiful, you remembered her spirit.”
Former co-lead of our communications team Joanna Hishon honors Lesley’s contribution to AWNY here.
AWNY wasn’t just touched by the events of 9/11 through the loss of Lesley—many of its volunteers were also directly involved in the days following the event.
Only a new organization at the time (it formed in 1999), a number of volunteers went to the American Australian Association (AAA) headquarters and called the list members in the U.S. to see if they were ok.
Remembering the Australians who lost their lives on September 11, 2001
Ten Australians are recognized by DFAT as having lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks.
Today, we honor them.
*Leanne Whiteside, 31, from Melbourne
*Peter Gyulavary, 44, from Geelong, Victoria
*Craig Neil Gibson, 37, from Randwick in Sydney*Steve Tompsett, 39, from Merrylands, NSW
*Elisa Ferraina, 27, from Sydney.
*Lesley Anne Thomas, 41, from NSW
*Andrew Knox, 29, from Adelaide
*Kevin Dennis, 43, originally from the Gold Coast
*Alberto Dominguez, 66, from Lidcombe, Sydney on board American Airlines Flight 11 which crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York.
*Yvonne Kennedy, 62, from Sydney, who was on American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon in Washington.
Moving to New York after 9/11
Prior to relocating to New York City 15 years ago, past AWNY president, and current vice president Belinda Jackson (BJ), lived in Australia.
When the events of on September 11, 2001 unfolded in the U.S., she had just turned in for the night (Australian time) when her flatmate knocked loudly at her door to get her attention.
That moment is still burned in her brain.
“You’ve got to get up,” he yelled.
“A plane has just flown into one of the World Trade Center”.
She remembers the two of them, sitting, glued to the news for hours. At first her flat mate had thought the plane flying into the building was a scene from West Wing. And the realization it wasn’t, was stark.
“We just cried together, watching those towers fall,” she said.
For BJ the experience was further heightened because she had visited New York City in 1995 to see her brother who lived in the U.S.
During her trip she stayed with friends in Battery Park and went up the Twin Towers.
Five years later she relocated to New York City.
She recalls what it was like to see the five year anniversary of 9/11 and see the big holes where the towers had once stood.
“I remember looking down on Ground Zero from a client’s apartment who overlooked the site,” she said.
“It was incredibly somber.”
During the past 15 years BJ has watched Ground Zero take shape into what it is today.
She’s seen the construction lights, the pools being built, One World Trade Center arise, and the museum open.
Now 20 years on from the attacks, she says “It still sickens me and saddens me to this day”.
Australian flag found at Ground Zero on display at the Australian Consulate
The Australian flag uncovered in the rubble of the World Trade Center is on display at the Australian Consulate for the month of September.
It is on loan from the National Museum of Australia, where it normally resides.
At a ceremony at the Consulate on September 1, retired Detective Patrick McGee, who brought the flag to the Consulate almost 20 years ago, said the flag was found in the rubble after the attacks.
“They had a ring around the north tower where they would fly the flags of different nations during the week,” he said.
“When the recovery effort got down to a point where the flags were found, flags were recovered. The Australian flag was certainly received with quite a bit of honor.”
Nick Greiner, Australia’s Consul General in New York, read out the names of 10 Australians who died as a result of the terror attacks.
He also unveiled the flag and the Book of Remembrance
“On behalf of the Australian Government and all of us who are here, let us remember them and all they left behind,” he said.
“We wanted to find something that was a symbol of the broader Australian community’s support. We think the flag is a physical manifestation of the very strong bond between our countries.”
If you want to view the flag and/or write in the Book of Remembrance, you can register here.
The flag will be on display in September and return to Australia in October.
Read more on the flag in The Australian here.
If you want to attend a local ceremony to honor the Australian’s who died on 9/11, read more here.