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Never to be forgotten

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Today is the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. We look back at that day and how Bermuda reacted to the events.

News of the 9/11 terrorist attacks arrived in Bermuda almost instantly.

Television image of an airliner as it approaches the towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. The aircraft crashed into Tower 2 (obscured) just instants later as Tower 1 burns after being hit minutes earlier by another hijacked airliner. Both towers collapsed to the ground a short time later. An aircraft was also crashed into the Pentagon near Washington and another airliner crashed near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Photograph by Reuters/Courtesy of NBC)
Smoke, flames and debris erupt from one of the World Trade Centre towers as an aircraft strikes it on September 11, 2001. The first tower was already burning after a terror attack minutes earlier. Terrorists crashed planes into the two buildings and collapsed both towers (Photograph by Chao Soi Cheong/AP)

Four separate terror attacks took place in the United States that morning. Hijackers used commercial aircraft to strike the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth hijacked passenger plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania before reaching its target.

Firefighters and rescue workers unfurl a large US flag near the damaged area of the Pentagon Building at the US Military Headquarters outside of Washington on September 12, 2001. The Pentagon and the World Trade Centre buildings in New York City were attacked on September 11 after terrorists hijacked commercial jetliners and crashed them into the buildings (Photograph by Larry Downing/Reuters)

A number of financial services companies with links to the island had offices at the World Trade Centre twin towers. Two Bermudians, Rhondelle Tankard and Boyd Gatton, and former Saltus student Robert Higley II, were working at offices in the South Tower and died in the attack. It was the second of the towers to be hit, but the first to collapse.

The New York City skyline is changed for ever after hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Centre towers (Photograph by Kathy Cacicedo/Newark Star Ledger/Reuters)

Another Bermudian, Kristi Foggo, had disembarked from a train at the World Trade Centre subway station and used an ATM at a bank a few floors up in one of the towers at about the time the terrorist attack began. She reached her workplace at the nearby American Stock Exchange and it was there that she watched the attack unfold on television screens above the trading floor.

Boyd Gatton is remembered at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York (Photograph supplied)

In Bermuda, residents and visitors heard about the unfolding events on news bulletins. Some were listening to radios on the beach, others tuned in to live television broadcasts. At the Pickled Onion, on Front Street, a TV was quickly installed at the restaurant so that customers could stay informed, and speakers were also placed at the bottom of the stairs where people could stand and listen.

Journalists at the offices of The Royal Gazette, on Par-la-Ville Road, initially gathered in the interview room to watch the breaking news on a small television. A reporter who was out on assignment at the Bermuda Biological Station was dispatched to the airport, and from there updated the newsroom on the situation as the airport rapidly became a hub for diverted passenger flights. The entire airspace of the United States and Canada had been ordered closed by the Federal Aviation Administration, and planes were told to land at the nearest available airport.

The Royal Gazette newsroom was a hive of activity, and the morning shift of five reporters was boosted when two evening-shift reporters were called in at 10am. Within an hour, Bill Zuill, the Editor, held a full editorial meeting and announced that a special eight-page edition of the newspaper would be printed that afternoon.

The newspaper’s journalists gathered reports from any Bermudians in the New York area or in the vicinity of the Pentagon. Bermudian-based businesses with staff and offices in the World Trade Centre buildings were contacted. In addition, reactions were collected from residents and visitors, and the island’s security services were questioned on what measures were being taken to protect Bermuda.

At the airport, displaced passenger planes continued to land. As many as 18 flights diverted to the island.

“It was a unique and continually evolving scenario. We persuaded the European airlines to refuel and turn back to Europe,” Mike Osborn, acting airport manager that day, later recalled.

Hotel accommodation had to be found for passengers on the flights from North America, and for visitors who were temporarily unable to leave the island. A co-ordinated response involved a variety of organisations, including the Bermuda Government’s Emergency Measures Organisation.

Mike Winfield, who was the director of the Bermuda Hotel Association at the time, had been on a conference call with the executive committee that morning. It was during the call that one of the participants reported a plane had struck the World Trade Centre.

The BHA quickly came together, helping those visitors already on the island who were stranded and could not get back to the US. Those people were given special rates for accommodation. Within hours, the BHA had identified 600 rooms available across the island to accommodate the hundreds of people who were stranded. Bermudian hospitality was extended far and wide as the number of people looking for accommodation swelled.

“The structure worked well. The airport was advising the hotel association of the needs and requirements of the passengers,” Mr Winfield later recalled.

The Royal Gazette’s special edition hit newsstands at 2.30pm. The cover featured the headline “Terror Across America” above a full-page photograph for the twin towers burning. It contained foreign and local reports of the day’s events. There were no advertisements. Twenty-two thousand copies were printed and they sold out in little more than an hour.

Journalists continued to gather stories for the next day’s newspaper, and this included interviews with guests checking-in late at the Fairmont Southampton, and a press conference by David Allen, the tourism minister.

Henry Adderley, who was The Royal Gazette’s assistant editor, later recalled: “We set a final deadline of midnight. That mainly affected copy [articles] from overseas where the Associated Press and Reuters were trying to substantiate rumours that had been circulating throughout the day.”

It was a number of days before commercial flights could resume from Bermuda. The airspace of the US and Canada was reopened to civilian flights on September 13.

Bermuda residents made donations of more than $50,000 to the Bermuda Red Cross, which was passed on to the American Red Cross to help families of the victims of the terrorist attacks. A coalition of organisations, called the Bermuda American Relief Fund, raised more funds to assist a handful of charities in New York. The bulk of the funds, some $495,000, went to the charity Safe Horizon.

The island continues to remember the victims of the attacks.

Saltus Grammar School has a memorial tree and plaques in memory of Mr Gatton and Mr Higley, who were former students at the school.

A September 11 memorial was placed in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens in September 2007 to honour the almost 3,000 victims of 9/11. The structure was built at Bermuda College and includes a piece of steel from the twin towers.

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Published September 11, 2021 at 7:59 am (Updated September 11, 2021 at 8:01 am)

Never to be forgotten

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