September 5, 2011
9/11: Chronicle of A Catastrophe Foretold
By John Carlin –Independent, Ireland
It’s ten years since the twin towers collapased. John Carlin commemorates the disaster and the events that unfolded.
At 8.45am New York time on 11 September 2001, Stephen Mulderry, a young American with big dreams, was at work as usual at his office on the 88th floor of the World Trade Centre’s South Tower; Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, Saudi acolytes of Osama bin Laden, were in their seats aboard American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 that had taken off from Washington 25 minutes earlier; John O’Neill, the World Trade Centre’s brand new head of security, who had quit only two weeks earlier as head of the FBI‘s al-Qa’ida squad, was at his desk on the 34th floor of the North Tower, where the first aircraft struck at 8.46am.
They would all be dead, along with around 3,000 others, by 10.30am. Ten years later, the death toll from the most earth-shattering terrorist atrocity in history stands immeasurably higher. The four co-ordinated aircraft hijackings and suicide attacks carried out by Mihdhar, Hazmi and 17 other holy warriors on that infamous 9/11 triggered two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that have cost, at a conservative estimate, 250,000 lives. The number of overall casualties is impossible to know but if one calculates that for every one of the 6,000-plus American soldiers killed seven have been wounded, the number must stand at well over a million. To all that one can add the mental trauma inflicted on innumerable soldiers and civilians touched by those wars, the global frenzy sparked by the generalised perception – however simplistic – of a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West and, at a more mundane but far-reaching level, the impact on travellers everywhere of increasingly severe airport security measures. As to the financial cost, on an investment by al-Qa’ida generally calculated at no more than $500,000, the American outlay sparked by the events of 11 September has almost equalled the amount spent by the US, in real terms, during the Second World War. According to a recent study byBrownUniversity, the total figure stands at an unimaginable $4trn.
It could all have been avoided. One blunder, one failure of communication between the CIA and the FBI, one vital clue they failed to share, opened the way for the terrorists. At the centre of it were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, the two hijackers who boarded their aircraft in Washington. If the CIA had passed on critical information that they had collected early in 2000 regarding these two men to John O’Neill‘s al-Qa’ida squad, known internally as I-49, the mother of Stephen Mulderry and all the other mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, relatives and friends of the thousands upon thousands of people who have lost their lives as a consequence of the 11 September attacks might not have had cause to grieve.
Three former members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, all of whom occupied senior roles in O’Neill’s 150-strong counter-terrorism team, told me in interviews that there was good reason to believe that had the Central Intelligence Agency, America’s external spy service, not declined to share with them what they knew about the al-Qa’ida duo, the 11 September conspiracy would have been foiled at root. Most vehement of the three, but also the best informed as to the details of the alleged blunder, was Mark Rossini, right-hand man and close friend of the luckless John O’Neill, for five years America’s number-one al-Qa’ida pursuer. “I shall go to my grave convinced that it could have been avoided,” Rossini said. More measured was Mark Chidichimo, the al-Qa’ida unit’s senior intelligence analyst. “I believe we could have avoided 9/11 if we’d had better information-sharing,” he said. “Had we been told about these two guys, the FBI would have been all over them.” Pat D’Amuro, who was second in command to O’Neill and went on to become the FBI inspector leading the 9/11 investigation, said that from the vast body of official research conducted into whether the attacks might have been prevented, “the one thing – the only thing – that stands out is this particular piece of information regarding those two terrorists that the Agency did not tell us about”. “TheUS public”, D’Amuro added, “does not know how critically this played out.”
“I love you, brother”
Whether theUSpublic or – more particularly – the grieving relatives would want to know is another matter. Take Anne Mulderry, who for a long time shunned all media news of what happened on the day her son, aged 33, was killed and who, as the anniversary comes around, feels the pain of his absence, and her personal memories of that terrible morning, especially keenly.
As everybody who was in New York then recalls, the sky was especially bright and clear that morning, the haze that envelops the city in summer having magically lifted. Anne, now 75 years old, woke up early and left her home to go to yoga class struck by “the amazing light”, unaware how soon blackest night would descend on her life. Her son Stephen was her joy. Big and tall and athletic, a fanatical basketball player, exuberant and optimistic, Stephen was living the “American Dream”, making it big in the world’s toughest town. He started out as a milk delivery boy, moved on to a job as a long-distance telephone salesman and was now a financial broker making big money from his mighty perch near the top of the World Trade Centre.
After yoga, just before 9am, Anne went to the post office, where a woman told her that an aircraft had just hit the World Trade Centre’sNorthTower. “The stricken look on my face told her everything,” Anne said, “yet… yet… it was just the one plane, and it was not the SouthTower, where Stephen worked.” But between the post office and her return home, at 9.03am, the second aircraft struck, and this time it was theSouthTower. What Anne did not then know was that the aircraft had crashed into the building between floors 77 and 85, meaning her son was three floors above the point of impact. She got home and found a message from Stephen on her answering machine. He had said, in his confusion: “A building went into my plane.” But he also said:”I will be all right and you will too, and I’ll call you.”
But he did not call again. Instead, Anne’s daughter Amy did. This was an enormous relief. Amy’s office was right next to the World Trade Centre. She had got out safely – covered in ash and dust, and stumbling through broken glass and cement, but alive and unhurt. Swept along in a river of people marching north away from the scene of the holocaust, the two towers having already collapsed, she had been scouring the grey faces for her brother and screaming, over and over, to the dazed passers-by, “Is anybody here from the World Trade Centre?” Nobody was. Amy did not mention these details to her mother, who was simply overjoyed to learn she was alive. Then Anne asked her if she had seen Stephen. The line went silent for a moment. Amy knew what floor of the building Stephen worked on and she knew his tower had been the first to fall. She told her mother she could not say where Stephen was.
“I knew. That instant, I knew,” Anne said, tears falling at the recollection of her life’s most painful and wrenching moment. “Amy went quiet again and I let out a scream, a horrible scream, primal sounds, guttural. And I kept screaming and screaming.”
Anne, who at no moment that day dared to turn on the television (nor did she for weeks afterwards), found out later that Stephen had got through to another of her sons, his brother Peter. Stephen told him only one of his fellow office workers’ mobile phones was working and 18 of them on his floor were sharing it, making their last calls, for they saw no way out and no way down. “I’m not out of the building… People are jumping out of the windows,” Stephen said. “You should leave,” Peter replied. “I love you, brother,” Stephen said.