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Remembering 9/11

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes at 9.03am in New York City.
Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes at 9.03am in New York City.  The crash of two airliners hijacked by terrorists loyal to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and subsequent collapse of the twin towers killed some 2,800 people.?Pic: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The day the world changed forever

Westport native Piaras Ó Raghallaigh was up very close and extremely personal to the historic events of September 11, 2001.

LIFE was good for myself and my now wife Mairéad in New York in 2001 but everything changed after 9/11. I worked with the Irish Echo in the middle of Manhattan at the time and was heading to work when the editor rang me and said ‘Piaras something is after happening at the World Trade Centre, will you go and cover it’?
So I switched routes and continued towards the World Trade Centre. If the subway had continued to the World Trade Centre, I wouldn’t be here today but it stopped at Union Square, a few blocks away. We were told we had to disembark there because there was a problem at the World Trade Centre.
I had a media pass so I was able to get through the area that was cordoned off, about two blocks from the World Trade Centre. I got to an area then where there were 10 or 12 journalists and two cameramen. By this stage the first tower had been hit and it was such a dramatic scene. Well-known Irish-American priest Fr Mychal Judge passed me on my left. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was also there. He wished the rescue crew and the brave priest well as they passed. “Take care lads,” he said, and then rushed up the dust covered side-streets. I subsequently heard that minutes later Fr Mychal whispered an act of contrition in an injured firefighter’s ear. Seconds later he was hit by swirling, flying steel which crushed his slight frame. Rushing to his side, his lifelong firefighter friends carried his body to a nearby chapel.
I saw the second building being hit and saw people jumping out the windows, falling to their deaths and when the building started to fall, we started to run. Life was more important than bylines. The cameramen waited there to try to capture more footage but I heard subsequently that they were killed there, that could have happened me too.
My first thought when the second tower started to crumble was to run home. You saw a lot of people walking out of Manhattan because public transport was down but it would have taken 20 hours to walk to the Bronx so I went to the office on Fifth Avenue and emailed people to say that I was there. One minute later I was getting phone calls. As well as working for the Echo I did reports for RTÉ TV and Radio and for a lot of papers, I did work for BBC and Sky as well. Later I went back to my office and then I went out onto Fifth Avenue at about 8pm and I was the only person on the street, the busiest street in the world’s best-known city. I remember looking out from Fifth Avenue at all the fighter jets over Manhattan and it felt like I was in Bosnia, not the capital of the free world. The towers fell at 9.10am and 10.10am and the street was like a ghost town on the ground. It was so strange.
Then after I had finished, I went back down to Ground Zero that night. I could hear mobile phones going off belonging to people that were trapped and possibly dead and to think of the anguish of the person on the other end of the line … The faces of people there was mind boggling. It was an unreal feeling, it really is quite hard to talk about it. I don’t remember how I got home, it might have been in a taxi.
Then there was the whole personal element. All the mobile networks were down. Mairéad was in an awful situation. She knew I would have gone down to the World Trade Centre to cover it for work and so she would have been very worried. She was at home on a day off in our apartment in the Bronx but couldn’t get in touch with me. It wasn’t until I walked in the door of the apartment that night that she knew I was safe. When the phone was back on I had 137 missed calls from her.
There were so many emotions. It changed my life and certainly changed things forever for America. For the next two weeks I’d say I was working nearly every single hour of the day for newspapers, radio stations and TV stations. I was doing all the coverage for RTÉ TV for three days because their own journalists had trouble getting into New York. If I hadn’t worked as hard as I had for the next month, it definitely would have had an effect on me emotionally. I witnessed so much and I find it difficult to talk about it generally now. As a consequence of 9/11 we decided to leave New York. It changed my life. We left six months later purely on the basis of 9/11. We had a great life there.
We were almost two years there and were very much settled. We had no intention of coming home at all. We had a great lifestyle, going away for weekends in Florida, the money was fantastic and life was great. I was an Associate Editor and Sports Editor with the Irish Echo, the most established Irish paper in the USA but 9/11 changed everything and we decided to come home.
I was doing so much work for different media organisations that I was getting in trouble with the Irish Echo - they paid my wages after all! But it made my career. People when they see me still say ‘Piaras, I remember you from 9/11’. I made contacts with RTÉ and when I came home I was getting work with them.
As a journalist it is all about being in the right place at the right time and I was but I am very mindful that I could have been in the right place at the wrong time and I wouldn’t be here today.

Piaras Ó Raghallaigh was talking to Edwin McGreal.