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Column: ‘The worst thing was the smell’ – an Irish man’s 9/11 experience

Bob Ó Mhurcú was asleep in New York when the first plane hit. Here he describes what happened next.

Bob Ó Mhurcú

IT WAS EARLY on a Tuesday morning.

I was still in bed, enjoying a bit of a lie in. I’d stayed up late the previous night, happily glued to the TV, as the New York Giants took on the Denver Broncos in the first Monday Night Football of the new NFL season. Since moving to New York in January of 2000, I’d developed a healthy interest in what my American friends referred to as “FUTbawwlll.” I usually had Mondays off from my Manhattan bartending job and it had become something of a tradition; Monday nights were for beer, friends and football.

But this was early on a Tuesday morning.

I should have sensed something was amiss when Dearbhail (my normally quite level-headed housemate) started pounding on my bedroom door.
“Bob! Get up; you’re not going to believe what’s happened! Someone’s just flown a fucking airplane into the World Trade Centre! It’s all over CNN!”
“Oh please,” I remember thinking at the time, “so some idiot in a Cessna two-seater went off course. Big deal.” I rolled over and snuggled up, determined not to let Dearbhail’s intrusion interrupt my beauty sleep.

But she was not to be deterred; bursting into my room, Dearbhail shook me awake. She was wild-eyed, white-faced and tearful, a far cry from her usual unfazeable self. Something was very badly wrong.

“Jesus, D! What is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” I said, instantly awake. She’d gotten my attention now.

“Just come downstairs.” She was gone.

I stumbled out of bed, fell into a dressing gown and clumped down the stairs to the sitting room. What I saw on the television that morning is still difficult to comprehend ten years later.

There in front of me, live on television, both towers of the World Trade Centre were enveloped in billowing black smoke. Flames belched from holes that had been smashed in their sides. What I assumed to be debris (and later found out was people) plummeted to the ground from over a hundred stories up.

‘I frantically dialled her number and was greeted with static’

At this point a gaggle of feelings rose to their feet and started arguing in my internal courtroom. Shock held the floor initially after beating off advances from Surprise, Curiosity and Awe. Before long, Fear and Anger had joined forces and were swaying the room. Hope, presumably, was stuck in traffic and wouldn’t be entering the debate for quite some time. Happiness had given it up as a bad job and had slunk away to get a drink somewhere.

I sank onto the couch and hardly moved for over an hour, watching as CNN played and replayed the tape of the second jetliner hitting the South Tower. I watched, dumbstruck, as one monolith after the other crumbled into dust less than three miles from where I sat. As the towers fell, a knife of ice sliced into me as I had a sudden realisation.

My cousin is down there somewhere.

My cousin worked in the World Financial Centre, a building so close to the South Tower that the two were linked by a raised walkway. I clambered over the back of the sofa and reached for the phone. I frantically dialled her number and was greeted with static. I felt fear wash over me; my heart was pounding in my ears. I dialled again. Nothing.

OhJesusOhJesusOhJesusOhJesusOhJesus.

I was starting to get a little hysterical until D reminded me that all of the cell phone companies had their masts on top of the North Tower – I couldn’t expect to get any signal in the area. That calmed me a bit, but still didn’t help me get a hold of my cousin. I chanced calling her family home in Cork to see if she’d been in touch. It was the only thing I could think of. My aunt told me that she was alive, had called home from a payphone and had gotten out of the area before the towers fell.

I felt the urge to reach out and make contact with everybody I knew; I called my American cousin at her home in rural New Jersey. She’s a gun-toting, meat-eating, Republican-voting patriot so I was expecting a fairly extreme reaction from her. But her vitriol scared me. Blazing with anger, she promised me through her tears that the US would “turn Afghanistan into a fucking parking lot.” I was shaking by the time I got off the phone.

‘Are you gonna come in at all today?’

Then work rang. “Are you gonna come in at all today? You’re a feckin’ half an hour late.” I didn’t know whether my manager Jimmy was having me on or being serious. Either way, it didn’t help. “Jimmy, Manhattan is locked down, no-one’s getting in or out and I’m in Queens. I can’t get into the city,” I managed to say. “Sure, José is after arriving down from the Bronx. They’re only saying that on the telly. Get in here, we’re mobbed!” He hung up.

I got to Manhattan at about 4pm. It was surreal. A constant stream of rescue vehicles screamed their way down Seventh Avenue. There was dust everywhere; the southern end of the city was engulfed in a massive black cloud of it. People walked the streets empty-eyed, seeing but not seeing. It was shock on an enormous scale. But the worst, the very worst part, the part you don’t often hear about, was the smell. New York reeked of burnt paper and singed hair.

I went to work.

Nothing could have prepared me for the scene in Mustang Sally’s when I walked in. As Jimmy had stated, the bar was packed to the rafters and every TV was tuned to CNN as new information was updated constantly. Many of the punters were covered in that now-familiar grey dust, having made the trek up from the Financial District. But nobody spoke a word. The bar was eerily silent. The usual friendly chatter that made up the background noise at work was conspicuous by its absence. And it frightened the crap out of me.

To this day, I do not remember a single thing about working that night in Sally’s. I remember arriving and leaving, but nothing of the ten-hour shift in between.

On the way home, a lot of subways were out of action because of damage to the tracks downtown, including the 1 train I usually took up to Times Square to catch the 7 out to Queens. I walked the fourteen-block journey instead. There’s always great life on the streets of Manhattan – no matter what time of the day or night, you’re guaranteed to be surrounded by bustling New Yorkers. I walked the busiest stretch of the busiest avenue in the city that night without seeing a single soul.

The 7 is the most used train in the entire New York Subway system, ferrying countless thousands every day and all through the night. Getting a seat is normally out of the question; I’d become used to standing for the forty-minute ride to Woodside. That night, I had the whole train to myself.

I trudged from the subway station over to 64th Street and let myself into the house. I managed to haul myself up the stairs and collapsed onto my bed. The tears came thick and fast, as they had been threatening to do for most of the day. At some stage, I fell asleep.

It was early on a Wednesday morning.

Bob Ó Mhurcú returned from New York in 2003. He is a Smedia-nominated writer and national cocktail champion, and works as the Head of the Disability Support Service at DIT. Follow him at @dcudramabob.

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Bob Ó Mhurcú

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