‘I could see dark objects that fell from the top of the tower... they were people’

On September 11, 2001 former Yorkshire Post photographer Paul Berriff was in New York making a television documentary with one of the city’s animal charities. Ten years on from the attacks on the World Trade Center, he recalls for the first time that fateful morning in Manhattan.

“Hold the ferry! Hold the ferry!” Two paramedics raced their stretcher trolley down the ramp towards the departing boat. Securely battened down on the trolley with thick leather straps and a neck brace lay their patient. It was early afternoon on September 11, 2001 in Lower Manhattan. The patient was me.

I had arrived in New York in the February to make a documentary series about the work of the American equivalent of the RSPCA and, along with my wife, Hilary, had been renting a luxury apartment overlooking the Hudson river and the Statue of Liberty two blocks away from the World Trade Center. Not long after we moved in we were joined in our Battery Park apartment by Muffin, a kitten who I had come across during filming. We were settled and life seemed good.

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As September approached Hilary, known to everyone as Micky, was planning a family get together over a long weekend. My daughter was to fly out with her friend and my son John-Paul was to come over from Yorkshire with some of his work colleagues.

Initially we hoped they would stay from September 8 to 12 and a highlight was going to be a trip up to the roof of the World Trade Center early on the morning of September 11 – morning was always the best time of day for the views. As it turned out work interfered with our best-laid plans. My daughter had to leave earlier than expected and my son, a police officer in Leeds, was need for an extra shift and couldn’t fly out until the 11th.

The day before we dropped my daughter back at JFK airport and drove to our local supermarket near Brooklyn Bridge. Micky wanted to stock up on food for the boys’ arrival the next morning. A group of firefighters from Station 10 came into the shop for their meal that night. Outside a terrific thunderstorm raged and their Battalion Chief turned to me and remarked how dramatic the lightning was. For some of those men that would be their last supper.

Next morning I was out of bed around 6.15am. The storm clouds had been replaced by blue skies and two hours later I was at the offices of the animal charity, preparing for that day’s filming. The plan was to cover the arrest of a woman who had been mistreating her pet and I was busy checking the camera and sound gear when someone came in and said a plane had hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was around 8.45am and I called Micky at the apartment to ask if she could see anything. She couldn’t, but she could hear lots of sirens.

I decided to drive back in the direction of my apartment and take a look. Traffic was slow, but as I emerged from a tunnel, in the distance I could see black smoke as it poured across the East River. Micky meanwhile had picked up Muffin, put him in his carrier and taken him down the fire escape and into the street. There people were panicking, pushing past her into the safety of Battery Park. Clutching Muffin in his carrier, she went with the flow.

Looking up Washington Street she had a clear view of the South Tower. Above the sound of sirens, she heard the roaring sound of an approaching aircraft. It banked to its right to miss our apartment block and slammed into the 78th floor.

Inside our jeep I told my assistant Becky to take the wheel so I could start filming. The two towers suddenly came into view and both were now on fire. Approaching Brooklyn Bridge a police officer waved us down. “British TV,” I said and to my amazement he let us through.

The restaurant 1,355ft up on the top floor of the North Tower had always been a favourite spot of ours. Just looking down from the windows made you feel dizzy. Now I could see black objects falling from up there. As we got closer I realised they were people.

Unable to get any further by car, we abandoned the jeep at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, a few hundred yards away from my apartment. A man in a dark blue suit wearing a pale blue tie carrying a briefcase appeared in front of us and seeing the camera started to scream out, “A plane has just crashed into my building.....then you could see the whole thing just explode. It was horrible, just horrible”. His every reaction was captured on camera.

The police were trying to prevent people getting close to the buildings, but this was my neighbourhood, I knew the alleyways and back streets that would take us to a spot near the base of the towers.

I had two cameras. I gave one to Becky and told her to start filming, but to stay near my other assistant Lou Lou and I. Within a minute or two we were in West Street, almost directly below the South Tower, witnessing a chaotic scene as scores of firefighters, medics and ambulances hurtled to help those already injured.

In front of me a firefighter in a white helmet was bent over a clipboard and numerous charts. It was assistant fire commissioner Steve Gregory, who was busy setting up his command post on the boot of his car. Next to him was FDNY safety officer, Chief Arthur Lakiotes, and alongside him two chief medics.

Despite the obvious activity, the whole area was surrounded in an eerie silence, one punctuated only by the sirens and the sound of those jumping from above as they hit the ground. Teams of firefighters approached Steve, asking for instructions. He noted each fire company on his clipboard and directed them across the road into the lobbies of the World Trade Center towers.

For 20 minutes we stood alongside and listened as the fire control room dispatcher read over the list of units being sent to the scene, “You have engines 240, 241, 249, 278, 281 trucks 102, 119,114 and 113 assigned to your location,” they said. Steve acknowledged the message and went back to his charts.

Without warning, a deafening explosion made me swing my camera away from Steve and towards the top of the South Tower. Leaning as back far as I could go, I looked with my right eye through the small viewfinder and saw the top floors as they started to collapse. Debris peeled away and fanned out like an opening umbrella.

In its slipstream, great clouds of dust spurted out as if from a severed artery. It was all coming our way. To my right was Steve who yelled at us to run. To my left was Lou Lou, attached to me by the sound cable, and we kept on filming.

The towers were so high it took time for the debris to arrive and the delay gave us a false sense of security. As the reality of the danger hit, Lou Lou and I ran down the street and the roar above and behind got louder.

Every second we ran, the cloud gained on us. The firefighters were 50 yards ahead, scattering radio log notes as they ran. I couldn’t see the scene unfolding behind, but I had my camera pointing back over my shoulder and kept it rolling.

The tsunami of debris caught us. The camera left my hand in slow motion and I was pushed to the ground as if by a giant fly swat.

Next thing I found myself crawling through a thick smog. It seemed to have happened in an instant. In fact I had been knocked unconscious in the maelstrom for around 25 minutes. It was during that time the North Tower had come down, but I have no recollection of its collapse.

What I also didn’t know was that I was only a few hundred yards from Micky and Muffin. They had been standing in a crowd in Battery Park and as the massive debris cloud headed towards them they ran towards Brooklyn Bridge.

I tried to get my bearings, but visibility was still zero. I flailed my arms around, hoping I suppose to touch something which would give me a sense of what was going on and where I was.

I was blind in a silent world. My mouth, eyes, nose and ears were full of gunge, a cement-like paste. Firefighters had taught me that there’s always air a few inches from the ground, but where was it that day when I wanted it?

Pure panic swept over me. I was convinced that within a few seconds I would be dead and in my head a voice kept saying, “You’ve done it this time Paul, you’ve done it this time”.

My knees hurt as I crawled. My right hand found a line of cars. I ran my hand down one of the doors and felt the tunic of a firefighter. I yelled out, asking to use his air bottle. There was no reply. I continued crawling. There was still no sound, yet stuff was falling all around me. It must have been papers from the hundreds of offices that had just been obliterated. As the cloud cleared slightly, I stood up. The world had turned to monochrome. Thick ash was everywhere. Trees were bent over with the weight of the debris. It felt like I had wandered onto the set of a horror film.

An awful thought gripped me. What had happened to Lou Lou? I started to shake. I screamed her name and began retracing my footsteps back up the street. At the top I found her sound mixer and my camera, completely smashed. When I looked north up West Street, what I saw can only be described as apocalyptic. Flames licked a 30-storey building from top to bottom, fire trucks and ambulances burned and beyond, the skeletal frame of what once had been offices lay embedded in the road.

There was no-one to be seen. I turned around and walked towards our apartment block at the other end of West Street. In the lobby, a group was gathered around the concierge desk and I heard a familiar voice call out, “Hello Paul where have you been?” It was Lou Lou. She gave me a bottle of water and told me both towers had collapsed. I couldn’t comprehend it.

The management refused to let anyone go above the ground floor. I needed to get through to our office in England, but none of the landline phones were working in the lobby and there was no signal on our cell phones. I walked back out into the street. Ten yards away was a telephone booth. I picked up the handset and to my amazement I heard a dialing tone. I called my mother’s number in Leeds and told her I was okay.

Meanwhile Micky, still clutching Muffin in his carrier, had fled the area with the rest of the crowds after the towers had collapsed. She had been going north for more than an hour when she decided to turn back and go against the flow. Approaching Battery Park she recognised familiar faces watching someone being placed on a stretcher.

It was me. As I was lifted into an ambulance, Micky and Muffin came too. I was placed in a neck brace, told the wound to my head would need stitches and, surrounded by doctors and nurses, I was informed that like the rest of the casualties I was to be taken to University Hospital on Staten Island.

The next thing I knew I was in the hospital’s car park, which had been turned into a make-shift reception area for casualties and their family and friends. From one corner, I could hear water running and a voice saying it was too hot and another saying it was too cold. A nurse with a big smile explained that I was in the hospital decontamination unit.

They told me it had now been established that New York had been the victim of a terrorist attack and with fears there may have been anthrax or chemical weapons on board the aircraft, no-one was prepared to take any chances.

The nurses cut off all my clothes off and lifted me naked into the tepid water. They scrubbed me down, put me back on the stretcher and wheeled me into the main emergency department. Afterwards in a side room a nurse gave me a white paper suit with matching socks. I had been sitting there for ten minutes looking like a crime scene investigator when another nurse came in.

I couldn’t believe it. She was carrying a tray of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes, but after what had happened I really couldn’t face eating anything at all. After giving a statement to a police officer, I was discharged and as I made my way outside, I found Micky sitting on a wooden school chair with Muffin in her carrier beside her. I sat down next to them still in my paper suit.

I no longer had my wallet with my US driving licence, credit and bank cards and my ID, nor my mobile phone. The FBI had confiscated all documentation and identity papers. They thought there may be terrorists amongst the stricken, a couple of injured police officers who came in after me even had their guns confiscated.

We sat there alone with Muffin on our knees. Micky turned to me and said, “What are we going to do now with no ID money or communications?”

The only thing I could think to say in reply was, “But we are alive.”

Paul Berriff’s story and the footage he recorded will also feature in the I Survived... 9/11 documentary being screened on The Biography Channel on September 8 at 8pm.