My 9/11

Our editor, Philip Letts, shares his experience of New York during the terrorist attack

This weekend marks the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US. The milestone is all the more poignant given the recent withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan. We asked our editor, Philip Letts, to talk about his first hand experience of the fateful day.


I flew into New York from London on the evening of September 10th 2001. I was due to speak at an investor conference. The message over the tannoy did not bode well as it warned of strong turbulence due to some mini-typhoons. It was a bumpy ride.

I got up early on the morning of 9/11, as I always did when I was in Manhattan. There's something about the energy of the place. Plus, I like to prepare for the day’s meetings. I headed to my then favourite haunt, the ‘Dean and Deluca’ at the Rockefeller Centre.

It was an important day. I was due to present to fifty of New Yorks top technology investors. We were headlining. Tradaq was one of Silicon Valleys most exciting Unicorns. In the days when Unicorns were rare. I was their CEO.

This was the company’s last private round before its much awaited IPO. An IPO that was supposed to set the price for b2b marketplaces. Tradaq’s board was a star studded cast of top Silicon Valley VC’s. There was Bill Draper III, the original Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Gary Kalbach, the first ever investor in Sun Microsystems and Val Vaden, one of the founding partners at Benchmark, that had backed eBay.

The company's investor roster already read like a post IPO dream. The presentation at the Harvard Club was designed to kick off our roadshow. Given my previous company, Beenz, had a high profile in the city, this was going to be an exciting start. No pressure then.

I went over and over the presentation in the cafe. Dean and Deluca was always busy. Today, although early, was no different. I loved this place, not just for the coffee and buzz, but because it was positioned right next to a stretch of courtyard that hosted the Today Show. You got to see it live. And TV screens were everywhere.

I was due to present at 10am, so I had to be back at the hotel an hour before to gather my stuff and cab it over to the Harvard Club. I was preparing to head off when I noticed a crowd building around the cameras outside. The corner of my eye flicked to a TV screen that showed a small plane crashing into a tower. I thought it was some kind of a joke. I almost didn't give it another thought.

A few, confused seconds later the cafe emptied out and the crowd gathered noisily around the TV screens outside. Not wishing to be the last man standing in this strange ritual, I joined them and began to watch the images of the first plane that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre complex in Lower Manhattan. I remember thinking the plane was so small. People were still talking about it being a bad joke - some kind of April’s fool. But it was September.

The crowd began to get more animated. Some of the New Yorkers next to me pointed out that we should head to 5th Avenue to try and see what was happening with our own eyes. I went with them.

When I got to this famous street the gravity of what had happened started to sink in. Both sides of 5th Avenue were packed full of people. A number of them had climbed up street lights, looking to the south and pointing. My gaze followed their extended arms. In the distance, down 5th Avenue, you could clearly see the twin towers. One of them was burning. The plume of smoke billowing up into the Manhatten sky was beyond imagination. The crowd still believed it was just a terrible accident.

But my favourite city was sunder siege.

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I watched in disbelief until I could linger no longer and headed back to the hotel. In my room I switched on CNN. As I freshened up I watched some of the most hardened news presenters become vividly nervous and shaken as they took us through the sequence of new attacks in real time.

I watched as the World Trade Center's South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175. I watched as the rumours circulated that a plane had hit the Pentagon and another was downed heading for the White House. I watched as this trusted news channel feared the worse for America. But which country could be so bold as to attack the US. Russia, China or some rogue nation?

Was this the start of World War III?

I had run out of time. I grabbed my stuff, headed down the elevator and jumped into a cab for the short trip to my venue. It took an age - New York was gridlocked. People were everywhere, watching the terrifying show downtown in rapt horror. You could literally smell the fear and tension in the air. The cab driver and I listened feverishly to the radio - both unsettled, as though we were waiting for the bombs to hit.

I finally arrived at the Harvard Club. A safe haven from the bedlam below.

Once inside I was met by one of the hosts. Like so many people that morning, we quickly exchanged snippets of information. He told me that it was a terrorist attack and that the planes were hijacked by suicide bombers. Commercial airlines as the incendiary device. Passengers forced along for the suicide ride.

It had already become folklore that a hijacked plane intended for the White House was taken back by its passengers. They crashed it into a field and not the world's most famous address. Their last harrowing words recounted.

He shared the names of a couple of his friends who worked in the twin towers. He had no news of them.

I waited off stage as the warm up presentation concluded, poking my head around the curtain to see how empty the room was. To my shock it was packed - and no one was leaving. These all powerful Wall Street investors were quiet, stoic and as yet unmoved.

One of our investors, a senior partner from Generation Partners, took the microphone to introduce me. From then on things began to blur. I just remember him saying something about myself, this cool company and the fact that I had flown in from London the night before. I was waiting for an update about the crisis surrounding us. How could he act as though nothing had happened.

Someone walked up to the host and whispered in his ear. The crowd waited expectantly. It was just after 10am. He looked up slowly, and with a grave expression he told the audience that the twin towers had collapsed. The audience went silent. You could hear a pin drop.

He recomposed himself and practically in the same sentence told them that he would understand if anyone had to leave, but reminded them of the significance of the investment opportunity and once again reminded them that I had flown all the way from London. Ouch.

I expected them to leave. They tentatively looked like they would. But then, up stood an elderly man, dressed impeccably in a pin striped suit, waistcoat, crisp white shirt and a swanky tie that reeked of New York’s most important club. The room fell silent again.

“This young man has made the trip all the way from London and I think we should hear him out. If we leave now we just give into the terrorists. This is New York. I, for one, am staying.”

The rest of them bristled a little and shifted their feet. But no one left. I remember thinking that he must be a very important investor.

I took the stage. Feeling guilty like hell.

I started out by saying how sorry I was about the attacks and that I hoped there would as few victims as possible. I told them that I would keep my presentation short. I did.

As soon as I ended the room emptied. There were no questions and very few thank you’s. New York’s elite ran to the exit, to their mobile phones and blackberry devices.

The host bounced over to me and asked if I would be OK. I told him that I had a flight booked out of JFK that afternoon so I would be fine. How naive. He apologised, told me he had to head to the office given the crisis and before I knew it I was the last person left in the auditorium.

I switched on my mobile phone. There was no reception. I headed to the lobby to use one of the payphones. None of them worked. I shuffled over to the nice people at the entrance desk and they nervously told me they had no access to phone or email. It was like the outside world had closed the city. New York was an island under siege. Left to its fate.

There was a constant murmur of fear and the anxious wait for another attack. The next bomb. The next building to collapse.

I headed into the chaos outside - I just needed a phone connection or a functioning pay phone. Surely everything would start working again. After twenty minutes on the streets I gave up. The rumour was that the towers housed many of New York’s telecommunications satellites. They had become buried in the ashes of the twin towers along with its countless victims.

I only had one thought. To get to the hotel and catch a cab to JFK. For the first time in my life I could not wait to get out of this city.

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Once I got to the hotel and pushed my way to the customer service desk they hit me with a triple punch. It was likely that hundreds of people had died due to the collapse of the twin towers. Apparently JFK and Newark were closed and all flights were cancelled. Lastly, they sheepishly told me that the hotel was fully booked and they could not offer me a room. They urged me get to other hotels as quickly as possible, before they became booked out or closed up. I would have to do it on foot as all the phone and data lines were down.

It was not long before I was on the streets again, this time a little more desperate. I had no place to stay, no where to go and no one I could reach. My travails seemed trivial in comparison to the scene around me. New York was in chaos. Roads were grid locked, people were racing around manically. The word was out that we should leave the city - fearful of the next wave of attacks.

For the first time I felt utterly alone in this city of limitless people. A somewhat confused Englishman, a last man standing.

This feeling of being left behind would become a regular theme over the coming days. The days of terror.

‘My 9/11’ is a three part series. This is the first in series. Part two will be published next week.


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