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A spirit of resilience – a personal reflection 20 years on from 9/11

Meantime’s CEO Emma reflects back 20 years on reporting from New York after 9/11.

A decade ago I reflected back on my time as a young editor on assignment at the Miami Air Cargo Conference in September 2001.

I was asked by my publisher to come home via New York so that I could interview Jim Larson from the Port of New York and new Jersey Authority  ten weeks after the 9/11 attack.

A well-loved figure in the air freight community he had been at his desk on the 65thfloor of the World Trade centre when the first plane hit.

He told me his incredible story of survival and how he got his staff out of the building safely on that fateful day.

After he dropped me at a still smouldering Ground Zero (his first time back since the attack), I walked through Manhattan streets teaming with New Yorkers determined to show the world that is was business as usual in the city that never sleeps.

It is an experience I will never forget.

Here is my editorial comment for HLPFI September 2011:

Ten weeks after the 9/11 attacks, there was still a thickness to the air around Ground Zero that hit the back of your throat well before the charred remains of the World Trade Centre came into view. I know because I was there, ten years ago, dispatched by a well-known shipping daily to interview survivor Jim Larsen from the Port of New York and New Jersey Authority. I cannot pretend I did not think twice before boarding that plane in London on my way to the Air Cargo Americas Conference in Miami before my flying visit to NYC. Perhaps it was only new Mum nerves as I left my firstborn behind for the first time. Perhaps I was picking up on the jitters of the business community at large, many of whom were forbidden to take to the skies at all as the world worked out exactly what the extent of the danger was, and how to react.

I remember shambolic security at Miami airport, with random piles of suitcases scanned erratically and furious passengers trying to reunite themselves with their dispersed luggage. I know I almost missed my flight to the Big Apple after my shoes set off the security machine three times – taking your shoes off at an airport was still a novelty. I know I was deeply moved, when, after interviewing Jim, he dropped me off at Ground Zero, the first time he had been back since his dramatic escape ten weeks earlier. A well-loved figure in the air freight industry, with, at that stage, 12 years’ service with the authority under his belt, he had been at his desk on the 65th floor when the first plane hit.

“There was an incredible thud, the building swayed, and it felt just like when you push your chair backwards and reach that point when you feel as if you will fall,” he told me at the time. He focused on getting his and his staff’s feet “firmly on the ground”, a mission that took them 45 minutes, and during which, although they did not know it at the time, they felt the impact of the second plane hit. “Downstairs we saw the plaza covered in debris and bits of body, and from that point on it was like watching a movie,” he told me. “We walked up to the city and we were about three blocks away from the towers when the first one collapsed.”

He fell understandably silent as we pulled up to the site and I got out of his car to witness the rubble smouldering on, leaving a fug of grit, which had driven some New Yorkers to don breathing masks. At the time visitors lined the perimeter fence, perched precariously on dustbins to get a better snap, and bought T-shirts from the inevitable gaggle of side walk entrepreneurs. But there was prevailing sense of normality elsewhere in a city, admittedly bristling with American flags.

Two months on in downtown Manhattan, the streets were teaming with New Yorkers determined to show the world that it was business as usual in the city that never sleeps. Jim and fellow authority survivors were no exception. Scattered in temporary accommodation across New York and New Jersey, they were tough talking and optimistic about the future. “People had a great deal of pride in that building, it was our building, our home,” said Jim. “One thing is for sure, this is not September 10th.”

He was right, of course, the world would never be the same again. The terrorist attacks have led to a slew of security regulations slowly tightening their costly grip on our ports and airports. We have seen wars, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the collapse of the banking world as we knew it. But I also believe that some things will never change. In over 15 years of reporting on the freight and transport industry, what has struck me is the resilience and get-up and go of the people in it. I can feel it when I look back at my interview with Jim, and I am glad to say I can see it on the pages of this magazine.

Emma Murray Editor, HLPFI

September 2011

About the author

Emma Murray

Emma was born in the year the Beatles broke up. She set up Meantime in 2008 after a 15 year career reporting on the supply chain and logistics industries. She is an NCTJ-trained reporter and an award-winning editor. She studied Middle Eastern Archaeology and Akkadian, although she has to admit her cuneiform is probably a little rusty these days. She was once an archaeologist working in Syria and Jordan, and has been an English language teacher. She has lived at one time or another in Jerusalem and Aleppo, as well as Paris and Brussels, where she went to school and learnt to speak French.