9/11 terror attacks: Leeds Grammar School alumnus retells escape from World Trade Centre after planes hit

Ian Robb was inside the World Trade Centre on September 11. He first spoke to The Yorkshire Post a couple of days afterwards. Now, 20 years on, he talks again to Chris Bond.

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001 in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Ian Robb was running late.

He had been out for a meal the night before with a couple of friends and work colleagues and slept through his alarm at his New Jersey home.

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Normally he was up at six and would be sitting in his office on the 99th floor of the World Trade Centre, where he worked as head of professional development for international financial services firm Marsh McLennan, by 7.30am. So he was in a hurry to get to work.

Ian Robb and his partner Zosia.

“I ran to the station but I’d missed my usual train and the next one,” he says.

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There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as the usual throng of office workers poured onto the subways and streets of Manhattan for the start of another busy working day.

“I vividly remember the sky was crystal blue, it certainly wasn’t a bad start to the day,” says Ian.

Having dashed through the neighbouring World Financial Centre building, he reached the vast concourse of the World Trade Centre at about 8.40am.

He just missed one lift by a split second. “Some people in the lift waved at me and I waved back,” he says.

He and six others got into another one but as the doors closed nothing could have prepared him for what happened next.

“There was this tremendous noise and the whole lift started shaking. We could hear things falling on top and there was this awful whistling noise of air rushing down the sides of the lift.”

They tried pressing the alarm bells but nothing happened.

By this time the lift was full of smoke and dust and there was a growing sense of dread.

They were trapped inside for more than hour before they were finally able to prise open the doors, with help from fire crews.

“We had no idea what was going on, we didn’t know whether we’d gone up or down,” says Ian, a former Leeds Grammar School pupil.

As it turned out, they had barely moved an inch. They scrambled out to discover they were still on the ground floor.

Firefighters told them a plane had slammed into the tower and as they ran from the building they were greeted by a scene of complete devastation.

“The lobby of the World Trade Centre was massive – it was about four stories high – and as we ran up to the plaza level we noticed the windows were red with blood, although we didn’t realise it at the time.”

Outside they were greeted by yet more grisly sights.

“It was like a battlefield. There were bits of bodies lying around, it was horrific. I heard this huge roar and when I looked up I could see an inferno at the top of the building where my offices had been,” says Ian.

Police and firemen were yelling at people to run and as Ian joined the terrified crowds running for the ferry the south tower collapsed.

He tried calling his daughter, Alexis, who was living with him at the time, but the mobile phone networks were down so he had no way of letting her know that he was all right.

Once across the river, he was among the thousands of people who crammed onto the trains, desperate to get home.

“Most people I spoke to had been outside and seen the planes hit the towers and people jumping out of the burning buildings, whereas I’d been stuck in a lift so I was lucky in a way because I didn’t see all that.”

Finally when he reached Summit, the town where he lived, he was able to get through to his daughter.

“She was frantic and when she answered the phone. She just burst into tears and when I heard her voice I was in tears, too.”

Ian spent the following day desperately trying to find out who was alive and who was missing and later visited his firm’s head office in midtown Manhattan.

“There was a message board saying ‘have you seen this person?’ There was also another more formal company list with the names of those missing presumed dead, and my name was on it.

“That was a strange feeling, it’s a bit like seeing your own obituary.”

Marsh McLennan’s offices were between the 92nd and 100th floors of the north tower and the plane hit between 93rd and 94th floor. “Everybody above that was lost.”

The company lost 350 employees. “About 50 or 60 I knew very well and some were very close friends,” says Ian.

Among those killed were the people in the lift he had waved to, as well as Gary Lasko, one of the two friends he’d been out with the night before the attacks.

Not surprisingly he found the memorial services for his dead colleagues in the days and weeks that followed tough.

“There were no funerals because there were no bodies.”

He was already due to leave the company before the attack on the World Trade Centre and he took a brief sabbatical before getting a new job at the start of 2002.

Four years later, Ian, a mechanical engineering graduate from Leeds University, retired and the following year he returned to live in the UK.

Ian returned to the UK and now lives happily with his partner Zofia in Buckinghamshire.

Twenty years have passed since 9/11, so how does he look back on it now? “An event like that becomes part of the fabric of your memory, it stays there. It’s omnipresent and there never goes a day when I don’t think about it.

“I don’t dwell on it, it’s just there. Whether it’s the people, the event, or just my office.

“People ask me how it has affected me and I’d say if anything it hardened me a little. I’m not as empathetic or sympathetic to certain causes now as I was before.”

Ian, now 79, feels it’s important to talk about what happened and remember those whose lives were lost.

However, he still feels the military campaigns that followed were a mistake.

“My perspective on it hasn’t changed and what the Americans did in retaliation still angers me and it’s been brought home to us in recent weeks. I don’t think retaliation was the right approach,” he says.

“I think Western civilisation didn’t really give the Arab world a second thought prior to 9/11 and now we’re more conscious of it.

“Yes, we’ve been forced to become more conscious of it and we’re a little wiser, hopefully.”

As someone who survived those dreadful events two decades ago, perhaps the most lasting effect of 9/11 has been a desire to make the most of life.

“I try to enjoy life and make the most of it. You can’t let something like this deter you, you just have to get on with life.”

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