The Day That Changed The World
Marie Claire Australia|September 2021
Twenty years on from the world’s worst terrorist attack, three women who were caught up in the unprecedented disaster of 9/11 share their stories of horror, heartache and hope

On the brilliant, sunny morning of September 11, 2001, Port Authority executive Kayla Bergeron was sitting at her desk in her office on the 68th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower in Manhattan, when she felt the building heave forward. She looked out her window, to a postcard view of New York City, and saw debris raining down from above, like confetti. “I called the governor’s office,” Bergeron told marie claire. “I said, ‘I’m not sure, but I think a small plane must have veered into the building.’ I just thought there’d been a terrible accident.”

It wasn’t until Bergeron was on her way down the emergency stairwell that she learnt her country was under attack and her life was in peril: the twin towers of the World Trade Center had been hit by passenger jets, and the South Tower – the second building to be struck – was no longer there. In its place, half a million tonnes of rubble, melted steel and the remains of hundreds of human lives.

It is 20 years since 9/11, a catastrophic assault on the US that claimed the lives of an estimated 2996 people, including 10 Australians, and ushered in a new and more brazen age of terrorism. Playing out on live broadcasts across the world, in what was the most watched disaster in history, terrorists of the militant jihadist group Al Qaeda, led by its wealthy Saudi founder, Osama bin Laden, hijacked four domestic flights. Two were flown into the Twin Towers, both of which collapsed, one into the Pentagon, and a fourth was on its way to Washington’s Capitol Building before an intrepid band of passengers overran the cockpit and the United Airlines jet crashed into a field.

The meticulously organised attacks, which drastically transformed air travel security, sparked US President George W. Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror,” culminating in long-term invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here, three women who were directly affected that day – Emily Tompsett, who lost her Australian father, Helaina Hovitz and Bergeron – share with marie claire how 9/11 changed their lives forever.

KAYLA BERGERON, 58

Survivor from North Tower

About 15 minutes after Bergeron, then 38, sat down at her desk in the North Tower, five terrorists seized control of American Airlines Flight 11, out of Boston’s Logan Airport, and changed the plane’s course from Los Angeles to Manhattan.

In 2001, I was working for the Port Authority (PA) of New York and New Jersey as the Director of Public Affairs. The PA manages the states’ trade and transportation network. I had a corner office on the 68th floor with a view of the Statue of Liberty.

On September 11, the colour of the sky was a beautiful blue. I got my Starbucks and made my way to my office. I was just sitting at my desk, preparing for a meeting with my boss, when I felt the building lurch – it came forward about 10 feet [three metres], and then it came back. I looked out the window and paper and other debris was raining down from above. Then a security employee came in and said, “You need to evacuate. Your life is in danger.” As a result of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 [a terrorist attack that killed six people, including four PA employees, one of whom was pregnant], they had glow-in-the-dark strips in the emergency stairwell, so all we had to do was stay on the strips as we went down. It was very quiet, very orderly. No-one knew what was going on. As we’re going down, the cops and firefighters were going up.

I had a BlackBerry, and when I was on the 50th floor a friend sent me a news story that said terrorists had flown planes into the Twin Towers. I showed a colleague and we looked at each other and said, “Let’s get this line moving!” We heard and felt the South Tower come down. The sheer force of it twisted our building. And when we made it to the sixth floor, the stairwell was blocked. That’s when I thought, “This is my moment.” I didn’t think we were going to get out.

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