Features | 9/11 Survivor: ‘I thought it was the end of the world, that’s what it felt like’
Thirteen years on, the events surrounding the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center still affect us today. The Gryphon spoke to Ian Robb, Leeds Graduate and 9/11 survivor, about his experience.
On the evening of the 10th September, Robb had a meal with colleagues in the city, but the dinner didn’t finish until fairly late. He fell asleep in the taxi home to New Jersey, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. ‘I set the alarm, it went off in the morning and I had slept right through it,’ said Ian Robb. ‘I was always very fussy about getting to the office early, I’d like to get there at around 7.30am.’
After the late start, and a delayed train, Robb arrived at the World Trade Center over an hour later than usual. He narrowly missed catching an elevator to the 99th floor of the North Tower, where he worked at the time; this saved his life. ‘I waited for the next one and about six of us got into it, the doors closed and that’s when everything started to happen. There was a tremendous vibration, the whole lift was shaking wildly and there was a rushing of wind sound all around us.’
‘We were all pretty terrified,’ said Robb, ‘I thought it was the end of the world, that’s what it felt like. It stopped after what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably no more than 15 seconds. We were all down on the floor cowering at that point wondering what was going to happen next. We could hear things dropping onto the lift, and dust was coming in through the doors. After it stopped, we dusted ourselves off and could hear the alarm bells ringing, some of us thought there was something wrong with the lift.’ The passengers tried unsuccessfully to reach someone from the outside world. ‘We waited and waited, we kept yelling and banging on the door and pressing buttons but nothing happened at all.’
‘After an hour or so, the noise above was increasing. We could still hear all this rubble falling. As we were banging, rubble started falling from the top of the door and it seemed to be jamming the door mechanism, because we were able to get our fingers inbetween the doors and pull them apart. We were in the lobby again, we had no idea how we got there. We may have gone up or gone down, we’ll never know.’
The elevator passengers were told by security that there had been a terrorist attack, and that they had to evacuate the building immediately. ‘We had to run across the lobby to an escalator that took us up to the Plaza level. The plaza level was between the two towers, probably four or five storeys of marble and glass, quite a beautiful place. The windows were all red, I hadn’t realized that the red was blood. The outside was just a battlefield; bits of bodies, bits of everything lying around. We ran out of the building and heard this huge roar, I looked up it came from the fire on the top of the building where my office was.’
‘Then the South tower began to collapse. There was a dreadful rumble, dust and rubble falling everywhere so we ran. I was on my own, I didn’t know where everyone was at that point. I ran towards the ferry and jumped on just as it was leaving the dock. It pulled out into the river and I just watched this tower collapse behind us. Later I managed to watch it on television and think, “my goodness, that was where I was”’.
‘I lost a lot of friends and acquaintances, something like 360 people from the company that I was with, killed. Everybody above where the planes hit at around the 93rd floor was killed, including all the people who worked on my floor who were in the office that day. One of the fellows who I’d been out with for dinner the night before was also lost. I think about them still, I think about them rather than the incident, because they were very close friends and colleagues.
I think about them still, I think about them rather than the incident, because they were very close friends and colleagues.
‘The next day, I managed to get a hold of people in the main office, which was in midtown Manhattan, and they thought I was lost. I got to the office and there was a whole list of people who were dead, and my name was on it.’
When asked about the biggest change in post-9/11 America, Ian Robb had this to say, ‘The most lasting change has been much tighter security, on planes in particular. The events since have increased animosity towards those who might be likely to be terrorist. Immediately afterwards there was a dreadful backlash against Muslims which really irritated me, but I suppose people were just lashing out. But in New York itself, oddly enough, it was a great city to be in the weeks afterwards. People’s attitudes towards one another were ones of helpfulness, graciousness.
We asked Robb who he thought was to blame for the rise in Islamophobia after 9/11, the media, politicians or the general public? ‘I think the answer is yes to all those. My personal view for what it’s worth, I think if America and probably the West as a whole has been a little more forceful about trying to engage some of the more fractious Islamic countries in dialogue, it might not have come to that’.
Despite all he went through, Ian doesn’t see life any differently after escaping death, ‘I’m a spiritual person but not a religious person. I put my escape down to good fortune, but I don’t think it’s changed at all. In fact, one of my immediate responses to the tragedy was one of determination not to be negatively affected. People say to me ‘oh you probably won’t go on a plane again’, I say I’ll go on a plane as soon as possible. I’ll go in a lift as soon as possible. I am not to let the terrorists think they’ve won.’
Abla Klaa and Brigitte Phillips