‘I thought to myself, that’s going to hit a building’ – Irish in Manhattan recall 9/11 terror attacks

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

Ciaran O'Reilly

Ciaran O'Reilly

Bridget Gormley

Bridget Gormley

Allison Bray

George Heslin considers himself “one of the lucky ones”.

The 51-year-old Limerick native and executive director of the New York Irish Center moved to New York City in 1994 after securing a green card by lottery. The graduate of Trinity College Dublin’s drama programme was an aspiring actor in New York City, having completed stints at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and in London’s West End.

He was living in the heart of the city’s trendy East Village, in a top-floor apartment at St Mark’s Place, when he woke up to the sound of a low-flying plane shortly before 8.46am on September 11, 2001.

"I thought to myself, that’s going to hit a building,” he recalled, adding that he went back to sleep. Five minutes later he was awoken by his roommate who told him that a plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in nearby lower Manhattan. Seventeen minutes later shortly after 9am, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the south tower of the World Trade Centre.

George and his roommate rushed to the roof of their building where a couple of other Irish emigrants and American residents of the building watched the horror unfold as they saw the first tower collapse.

"It wasn’t until the second plane hit that the fear escalated,” he told Independent.ie.

“It was a huge moment of shock. You could almost hear all of New York City screaming,” he said.

The day unfolded like a surreal nightmare.

George thought the best way he could help was by going to nearby St Vincent’s Hospital to donate blood.

"But within two hours we were told to leave,” he said, adding there was no need for blood donations because there were so few survivors.

He recalled walking around Manhattan, seeing people standing around cars listening to the news on the car radios.

By 9pm that night, he came across a middle-aged man who was covered in dust, looking disoriented.

"He said, ‘I’m lost. I’ve been walking around all day.’”

It turned out the man, who had an intellectual disability, worked in the mail room of the World Trade Centre. George brought him back to his apartment and rang the man’s elderly mother who was beside herself with worry.

"I said, ‘Your son is safe, he's alive’, and she let out the loudest scream I’ve ever heard,” he said.

George then brought the man to Grand Central Station where he managed to make his way home.

Twenty years on from the atrocity, George said he recalls how there was a sense of solidarity among New Yorkers despite the carnage. Yet the anniversary is a reminder of those who lost their lives, including his friend Hector, a fireman with the New York Fire Department who died that day, leaving behind a wife and five children.

"I suppose we were the lucky ones,” he said.

His colleague, theatre director Ciaran O’Reilly (62), who moved to New York from Virginia, Co Cavan in 1978, was staging an off-Broadway production of Frank McCourt’s The Irish... and How They Got That Way and living on 17th Street in Chelsea when he heard the horrifying news.

He grabbed a camera and ran out onto 6th Avenue just as one of the towers collapsed, which he caught on camera.

He recalled the “air filled with dust and ash and smoke” and an eerie silence descending on the streets.

Yet one image that stays with him is that of an Orthodox Jewish man who was pulling down the shutters of his camera store, yelling ‘Bastards. Bastards’, while someone else had planted an American flag at a nearby building site that reminded him of the iconic image of American soldiers erecting a flag at Iwo Jima during the Second World War.

In the midst of all of this, he learned that his wife was pregnant.

"The whole day was such a strange day,” he said. “With so much death and destruction, there was also life. It was a very surreal day.”

Fast forward 20 years and Ciaran, who co-founded the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan, is staging a special play, Bike Man, to mark the 20th anniversary of the atrocity.

It tells the remarkable story of Irish-American news producer Tom Flynn, of CBS, who rushed out on his bike when the Twin Towers were struck and hooked up a cameraman before they became entombed in rubble. Still covered in ash and dust, he conducted an iconic interview with legendary news anchor Dan Rather on the evening news.

For Irish-American film maker Bridget Gormley (30), who grew up in Brooklyn, 9/11 was the day her childhood ended.

In September 2001, her father Billy Gormley, whose family hails from Co Tyrone, was a firefighter with Ladder 174 in Brooklyn.

"He was coming over the Brooklyn Bridge when the second tower had just fallen,” she said.

He ended up walking the rest of the way when the fire truck got stuck on the bridge due to the volumes of people trying to flee.

“He said he felt like he was walking into The Twilight Zone,” she said. "It was eerily quiet, silent,” she said, adding the ash swirling around reminded him of the sensation of falling snow.

He was among the first responders who rushed to the World Trade Centre to rescue any survivors.

As the death toll mounted, he continued to do his job, cleaning up the aftermath for months afterwards – something that would end up costing him his life after he contracted bladder cancer and then lung cancer due to his exposure to the toxins from 9/11. He tragically died in June 2017.

Bridget has since made a documentary called Dust in honour of her father and the 10,000 other first responders, residents and workers who have developed cancer following exposure to the toxic dust emitted during and after 9/11. They are still living with the legacy of that day yet are still fighting for health benefits and compensation.

The documentary premiered last night in Manhattan with Hollywood actor Steve Buscemi, a former firefighter with the FDNY and patron of the Friends of the Firefighters charity, moderating a Q&A session afterwards.

While Bridget hopes the film will shed light on the terrible legacy of that day, for her it marked the end of innocence.

"It was like my last day of childhood, I felt I had to grow up very quickly,” she said. “At my school a lot of the Dads didn’t come home again.”

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