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From our archives: ‘Horribly like being in a disaster movie’

11 September 2021

Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was close by when the terrorists struck New York and the World Trade Centre fell. In this interview, published in the Church Times on 14 September 2001, he told Pat Ashworth what it was like

©Stacy Walsh Rosenstock/Alamy

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001

DR ROWAN WILLIAMS, who had flown to New York on Monday for a series of speaking engagements in the diocese of New York, was preparing for a day’s videotaping session at the Trinity Institute, at around 9 a.m. Speaking from New York on Wednesday, he described seeing through a window the “nightmare sight” of the two planes crashing into the towers.

After the first impact, he was asked to pray. Then “everyone sat and waited,” Dr Williams said. “Next the lights went out, and there was this extraordinary subterranean rumble, which we thought might be a bomb in our own building.” Acrid, black smoke filled the corridors as the group donned smoke masks stored in the building, and headed downstairs towards the basement to seek a way out, and taking with them a group of very distressed pre-school children from Trinity Church’s childcare centre.

When the party emerged into the street, the Archbishop said, it was full of thick, grey, impenetrable stone-dust and debris, and looked like Beirut after the bombing. The second World Trade Center tower collapsed as the group was heading towards the ferry, and they had to take refuge in a Portakabin amid more smoke and debris.

Police commandeered buses, and they were driven to the east side of Manhattan. “We got off the buses looking like ghosts,” said Dr Williams. “It was sunny there, and people had no conception of the evacuation.”

Looking back across Fifth Avenue, all that was visible was the pall of black smoke. “People were talking about Pearl Harbor. It felt horribly like being in a disaster movie, with all the film clichés of people crowding into narrow streets in a dreadful thick dust that blotted everything out. Night would have been easier to cope with, but this was an eerie half-light of sulphurous clouds mixed with petrol fumes.”

Walking round at 6.30 the following morning, he says he experienced a range of emotions, but mostly “a mounting sense of ‘This is what it is like to live in Jerusalem or Baghdad every day.’ I’m obviously very glad to be alive, but I also feel deeply uncomfortable, and my mind shies away from the slaughter.”

Anger in America was growing, Dr Williams said. “The trouble is that there will soon be demands for retaliation against someone — anyone — long before we know who was responsible.”

The Archbishop had had breakfast with the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA, Frank Griswold, whose statement after the attacks was firmly against revenge. “We found ourselves very much of one mind,” said Dr Williams. “What must be discouraged is pressure to relieve the tension by being seen to be doing something.”

Of the jubilation at the news in some Palestinian quarters, he said: “They don’t know what it’s like here: to them, it’s distant, not humanly real. And they’ve been fed a story.”

Some of the headlines talking of war and apocalypse had seemed “a bit extravagant”, the Archbishop said. “This was a reminder that security systems are far from failsafe, and can be breached by a small but very dedicated and intelligent group.” He would get on the plane home, he said, with a little more trepidation than usual.

“I think what I’m grateful for is the sight of a number of people facing possible death with a measure of calm and generosity, including people looking after the children. They were collected and practical, and they put their own fear on hold.

“And secondly, I’m grateful for the sense of having been permitted to see a little of what it is like to live under bombardment and fear every day of one’s life.”

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