In the world of September 11, 2001, people didn’t carry real-time news in their pockets or have answers to any question at a click on Google. At that time, most cell phones did not offer connection to the network. There was also no video call or social media.
If you wanted to find something out, you needed to check the internet on your computer. If I was on the street, I would run home and turn on the television or go into an appliance store to watch the news on one of the appliances for sale. Or call someone to ask—but who said cell phones were working now, after the biggest terrorist attack in US history?
That’s why I and most of the people who were on the streets of New York right after two planes collided with the World Trade Center towers experienced a blackout of unimaginable information today.
My friend Luiz, who worked at a bank very close to the towers, felt the building he was in shake when the second plane hit. There were TV sets in the bank, but he only realized the seriousness of the attack when he answered a phone call from a customer, ordering him to buy oil.
He ran down, jumped the building’s turnstile, which was locked, and began to walk quickly down the street, listening to the sound of fighter jets. When the second building collapsed and a cloud of smoke came, he thought it was a bomb. The cell phone didn’t work and no one had any idea that there were other planes.
He only understood that it was an attack two hours later, when a friend from Brazil finally managed to call.
My friend Patricia ran to buy groceries when she saw the news. She passed in front of an appliance store and was stunned watching the attack on lined TVs. I couldn’t understand if it was two planes or if it was a replay. Meanwhile, the smell of smoke increased, her phone didn’t work, and she couldn’t tell if her boyfriend, who worked near the WTC, was okay.
I watched the second plane crash into the second tower, live, on my home TV. I went to the roof of the building where I lived, and I could see the smoke in the distance. I ran towards southern Manhattan to cover.
As I walked down Broadway, I had no idea what was going on. Were there more planes? Is it true that one of them is targeting the Statue of Liberty? Is the subway safe? At 9:37 am, a plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington. I didn’t even imagine. I also didn’t know that there was another hijacked plane that, at 10:03 am, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. I called my mother, my father, to try to find out something, but the cell phones didn’t work.
Some TV commentators started talking about terrorism and al Qaeda, but we were standing in the middle of the street, lost, watching that crowd rising, sooty from the towers that had collapsed.
Were it today, we would all be “googling” Osama bin Laden and incessantly checking newspaper websites. That day, in addition to fear, there was doubt. We didn’t know if the attack was over. I remember a man screaming, telling us to flee, because another plane was going to hit the Stock Exchange.
At the time, I was doing a master’s degree at New York University. Every day, I got off at the World Trade Center subway station, crossed the street, and entered the building where the Wall Street Journal Americas Newsroom was located, where I was doing an internship. My internship had ended a few days earlier – so luckily I wasn’t at the subway station when the building was hit.
That day, I didn’t make it to the so-called Ground Zero—the police had already surrounded the place, and I stopped on Canal Street, about a kilometer from the towers. I began interviewing survivors, who arrived with horror on their faces and their bodies covered in white soot.
I kept trying to call my mother in Brazil, who would probably be in agony. I only heard the congested network signal. Hours later, I finally got it.
“Mother, it’s okay, relax, I’m fine.”
“It’s not okay, Aunt Madalena passed away, we’re here in her apartment, but we can’t find a doctor to release the body, no one answers the phone, I don’t know what’s happening, we’ve been here a long time.” My 87-year-old great-aunt had died.
“How sad… I can’t believe it… But mom, don’t you know what happened? There was a terrorist attack here in New York, they hit the World Trade Center.”
“Serious? I didn’t even turn on the TV today. Well, I need to take care of your aunt’s things here, we’ll talk later. I’ll see it on TV later.”
Were it today, my mother and all of us would be trying to digest and disprove endless conspiracy theories that would pour out uninterruptedly from social media.