Lives changed in a moment: the voices of September 11

The 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks coincides with a second jihadist victory against America.Credit:Getty

On September 11, 2001, a group of 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States.

Two of the planes – American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 – were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City.

A third plane – American Airlines Flight 77 – hit the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defence in Arlington, Virginia.

And, as passengers attempted to subdue the hijackers, a fourth plane – United Airlines Flight 93 – crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Almost 3000 people were killed, including 10 Australians. It triggered a major US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, enmeshing other allies including Australia for a generation.

The September 11 attack left an indelible mark on the lives of millions of people worldwide. We asked nine of them to reflect on that eventful day.


Tania Mattei, now General Counsel at the Takeovers Panel, was a lawyer working in mergers and acquisitions in New York in 2001. She had moved into an apartment one-and-a-half blocks from the World Trade Centre only 10 days before the attack.

I was about to step into the bathroom that morning when I heard an extremely loud plane. Something wasn’t right. On my way to the windows, I heard the loudest bang I have ever heard. Not just a sound to your ears but a sound felt in the body. I looked out and saw a hole in the side of the North Tower.

Tania MatteiCredit:Fairfax Media

I didn’t have a landline or a TV, so I rushed for my Nokia mobile phone to call my partner and left a voicemail before the connection went dead.

I turned on the radio, but all I could get was [radio disc jockey] Howard Stern. I grabbed my camera, stood at the window and used up half my roll of film. As I snapped another photo, I felt the sound and the heat as a 50-storey fireball blew through the South Tower.

I threw on a shirt, jeans and open-toed shoes, the camera still around my neck. I slipped my useless mobile and keys into my pockets. When I got to the lobby the doorman ushered me through the front doors, I had to leave the building immediately.

I didn’t have my wallet. Where was I supposed to go?

My mind raced. If they were targeting NY symbols, I needed to move to the unsymbolic.

I ran east and north. I realised police were herding people over the Brooklyn Bridge, but I was panicked by the prospect of being a sitting target. I reversed course and found myself back in front of my building.

A confetti of silver debris floated down against the brilliant blue sky.

A shot taken by Tania Mattei as she left her apartment building on September 11, 2001.Credit:Tania Mattei

Both buildings streamed with smoke as black burning lines spread across the glass surfaces. Bodies fell from the gaping holes as people decided to stay or leap to their fate. They’re going to fall. I said it out loud.

I started running up Park Row. I could hear on the radios in the stationary cars that there were more planes in the air. The Pentagon had been hit. I kept going.

As I got to the next block, I heard a sound building behind me – I turned and saw the South Tower imploding.

I ran as fast as I could, moving north. Finally, I stopped. My feet were cut. I saw people covered in ash.

A group of men sitting around a small TV and a water cooler in a grimy electric motor workshop took me in – for a few hours it was my sanctuary. The owner, Vinny, told me that he knew I’d left in a rush as my shirt was buttoned up incorrectly.

I was eventually able to get a call through to my partner and family. It has been over five hours since the first plane hit.

People make their way amid debris near the World Trade Center in New York Tuesday Sept. 11, 2001. Credit:AP Photo/Gulnara Samoilova

It was a couple of weeks before we could access our apartment within the ground-zero perimeter. It was completely covered by the toxic ash. All our windows had been open slightly at the top. It was now a hazardous site like the smouldering wreckage visible from my window. I could no longer live there.

I knew my family wanted me home. But I was doing what I loved and I would not let that be taken away from me. And it did not feel right to walk away from a place to which I was now indelibly linked.

I had always dreamed of painting like the old masters. I enrolled in classes at New York’s historic Art Students League and attended when I could.

It was a struggle and my art wasn’t quite what I had hoped but I loved it. One day I walked into class and met my future husband.

After three years, I ambitiously applied to the Florence Academy of Art. It was a long shot, but it was a dream opportunity.

Once I was accepted, I was presented with the critical moment. Before September 11, I would never have contemplated an interruption to my legal career, but now a strict career path was less important to me.

Following the September terrorist attacks, Tania Mattei decided to take a break from her legal career and study painting. Credit:Eddie Jim

I informed my firm, accepted my spot at the Academy and made rush plans to move. I found a little apartment in the historic centre of Florence just down the street from a home once owned by Michelangelo.

I was invited to stay an additional year, but I had done what I wanted and was ready to return to the law. I reached out to my old firm and they welcomed me back. I returned to New York, refreshed and enriched and with another whole aspect to my life.

I still paint when I can.


Comedian Simon Kennedy, 46, was in Sydney when a plane carrying his mother, Yvonne Kennedy, 63, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon. She was one of 10 Australians killed in the attacks.

Simon KennedyCredit:Fairfax Media

I was at home with my girlfriend; we’d gone to bed around 9.30pm when I woke up to a phone call from my brother in London. The attacks were all over the morning news there.

Our mum was on holiday in America, so he wanted me to double-check her itinerary because she’d left it with me.

My first instinct was ‘let’s not jump to conclusions,’ but my confidence started to shake as the pieces fell into place: American Airlines Flight 77, Washington to Los Angeles.

Logic told me mum was on that plane, but I made as many phone calls as I could to try and reverse that reality and look for hope. Maybe she missed the flight? Maybe she changed her plans last minute?

For the 20th anniversary of his mother Yvonne Kennedy’s death, Simon says he will be with his family at home, having a simple and understated memorial, being grateful for his lot.

It took a long time for any official confirmation of her death. No one knew what was going on and everyone on the plane was considered a suspect, so information was hard to come by.

Four days after the fact, I got a call from a faceless government man who said, ‘I can’t tell you who I am, but I can tell you what you think has happened, has happened.’

Weeks later, I got a letter from American Airlines saying Yvonne Kennedy purchased the ticket, a boarding pass was issued on September 11, the flight crashed, and there were no survivors.

Not only was it hard to grieve, but it was hard to grieve quietly. Everyone in the world was talking about the event my mother had died in, so we decided to keep our family out of the media and try to process it normally.

There was a time when September 11, 2001, only represented pain – that was all it stood for. But 20 years on, I’ve addressed the damage it has done to my life. I now know you can go through something shocking and stay in good shape.

These days, I tend not to go back to the moment because there is no growth for me there.

I don’t think about how mum died; I think more about how she lived. I focus on how much I miss her, how much she’s missing here. She has four grandchildren that came after, and that’s sad for them, for her.

I know she’d be proud of my brother and me, the men we’ve become. She was boastful as a mother at the best of times.

An updated edition of Simon Kennedy’s book 9/11 And The Art Of Happiness is available at


Sandra Sully, 56, was the first journalist in Australia to cover the attacks, broadcasting live with Ten Late News. The veteran anchor has since redefined her relationship with the date.

Sandra SullyCredit:Fairfax Media

I was anchoring Ten Late News that night, and it was 10:45 [in Sydney] when word came through to the news desk that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre.

We assumed it was a light plane, a terrible aviation failure. But then the pictures flooded through of what was clearly a jetliner, and I knew we were looking at an act of terror.

There is no manual for an experience like that; it was just a feeling of horror and disbelief. Unfortunately for me, the newsroom was empty; nearly everyone had gone home. My executive producer had to marshal the troops, so I was on-air alone. Just keep talking, he said. You’ll be right.

People run from the collapse of World Trade Center Tower in this Sept. 11, 2001.Credit:AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett/FILE

It profoundly changed the world of broadcast television; we had to learn how to process these sorts of images and it hasn’t stopped: the Iraq war played out on television, so did the Lindt cafe siege and the Christchurch massacre. I was glad I got through it as a broadcaster. I did the best I could, though I was numb for a long time afterwards.

People who were watching live that night still come up to me and want to talk about it; we have a unique bond, living through the trauma of that initial shock.

I always approach the anniversary with a degree of apprehension because I can’t help but be taken back to that night. Ten years ago [in 2011], I deliberately chose to get married on September 10 to give me better memories of this time of year. But I will never forget that night, and I wouldn’t want to.

I happened to be the bunny in the headlights, as it were, but it was a privilege to have that opportunity to guide the viewers through it without inciting further fear, to find the right tone for a moment none of us was prepared for.


On September 11, Mike Morell was a CIA analyst responsible for delivering the president’s daily intelligence brief. He would later serve twice as acting director of the CIA. He is now head of geo-political risk at Beacon Global and a columnist at The Washington Post, Axios and CBS.

Mike MorellCredit:Fairfax Media

As president George W Bush’s daily intelligence briefer at the time, I was with him six days a week – wherever he was in the world. I briefed the president on the morning of 9/11 before any of the attacks. It was an uneventful briefing.

On the morning of September 11 we were in Sarasota, Florida, for a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School. As we pulled up to school [White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer’s phone rang. It was minutes after Flight 11 had hit the North Tower. Ari turned to me and asked if I had heard anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Centre. I hadn’t.

My assumption at that point was that the crash was an accident – perhaps a small plane that had lost its way in a storm or fog.

All of us were stunned when we heard that a second plane had hit the World Trade Centre.

Now we knew it was an act of terrorism. [White House chief-of-staff] Andy Card whispered in the president’s ear: “A second plane has hit the world trade centre. America is under attack.”

President George W. Bush gathers information about the terrorist attack from a classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Pictured second from left is CIA analyst  Michael Morell with other White House staff.

The president left the classroom and began making phone calls. I was becoming increasingly concerned about his safety. It was public knowledge that the president would be visiting Booker Elementary and I wondered if a plane might come crashing into the school.

At the school, the president addressed the nation. He promised to hunt down those behind the attack and said that “terrorism against our country will not stand”.

A few minutes after the president concluded his remarks, a plane carrying 64 passengers crashed into the Pentagon. For security reasons we were banned from making any cell phone calls, including to our family.

We then rushed to Air Force One to head to a military base in Louisiana. On the plane we watched TV reports of people jumping to their deaths from the towers.

A person falls from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Centre.Credit:SMH

When we were 15 minutes away from the base the president asked to see me. He looked focused and determined. He asked me who I thought was responsible for the attacks. I told him I had not seen any intelligence, and it was only my personal view, but I was sure the trail would lead to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It turned out analysts at CIA headquarters had already tied al-Qaeda to the attacks.

When I returned home to Virginia that night, I kissed my three children goodnight and thought of the thousands of children who would never see their parents again.

Almost 10 years later, Morell was deputy director of the CIA when Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, after a decade of work by the agency to track him down.

That was an incredible moment. And, you know, it wasn’t a locker room atmosphere, you know, at CIA. It was sombre, actually.

You know, there was – we were certainly happy that we were right about the intelligence. And we were certainly happy that we took off the battlefield America’s number one enemy and that we did it without losing a single man. But it wasn’t a locker room atmosphere.


Abbas Farasoo, 35, an academic at the University of Melbourne, was a student in the majority-Hazara district of Jaghori in Ghazni province in Afghanistan when al-Qaeda attacked on September 11, 2001.

Abbas FarasooCredit:Fairfax Media

There were very limited sources to know about what was going on beyond Afghanistan and within Afghanistan because there was no internet, no TV, nothing. TV was banned, music was banned.

But we actually had a radio at home. It was a Japanese radio from the 1960s, a Panasonic R-100, and most of the time I was listening to that. It was the only source [that] connected me to the outside by listening to BBC Persian.

We were listening to the radio when 9/11 happened, but we actually didn’t know much about its implications and what it would mean. I feel many people just like me did not know much about al-Qaeda and the international terrorists in Afghanistan and their relationship with the Taliban.

This 9/11 news was under the shadow of another news, the assassination of [Northern Alliance leader] Ahmad Shah Massoud by al-Qaeda on September 9. That had created a lot of frustration because that was the only hope to fight against the Taliban.

An aircraft at right about to fly into the the World Trade Center in New York in this screengrab from television. The aircraft was the second to fly into the towers. Credit:AP Photo/ABC

And quickly the BBC and other radio stations said the US will attack the Taliban. And that led to hope that the Taliban’s system of tyranny will be over.

I remember the Taliban came to our school and forced us to pray for them, and we’re asked to pray the Americans not attack Afghanistan. However, after that, everyone went to a small shop near our school, brought grapes to pray for an attack…

And then a few days later the attack happened. It was another chance to hope for a different future. In fact, people celebrate the new Afghanistan with the US attack in Afghanistan – basically, that was for many the beginning of a new history.

Young people like me went to university, established schools, established businesses, and Kabul city changed to one of the most vibrant cities in the region.

I went to Kabul … I went to university [and] I studied journalism … I worked at a newspaper for a long time called Hasht e Subh, where I was a columnist [he later joined the Foreign Ministry, rising to be a diplomat, including to Australia].

A Taliban soldier stands guard at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on September 5. Some domestic flights have resumed.Credit:AP

Although the war had not fully ended, the country found a new face and identity. Despite the fact that there was a fragile government that suffered from corruption, Afghanistan found the chance to build its institutions and improved a lot. Beyond the government institutions, the rest of the population worked so hard and did a lot to change their lives and change the country.

And now we see what is happening there. It tortures me, actually. The state is collapsed. Women are sent back home from the public domain, government offices, and business. Music is banned. Physical and cultural violence are the only things the Taliban has demonstrated to control a nation in the past few weeks. Although changes in the Taliban is an illusion, I hope they have learned from their mistakes in the past.


Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie was a student at the University of NSW studying philosophy and dreaming of a career in journalism when the events of September 11 changed his life.

Andrew Hastie Credit:Fairfax Media

I was sitting in my living room with my family watching Sandra Sully on Channel Ten. The cross came to New York, and we sat there watching the hole in the first tower, then the second plane struck, and I think I stayed up until 4am or 5am until the towers collapsed.

The world had fundamentally changed. War was coming. History had its hand at my back, and I thought: ‘OK, life is going to be different, I’m on a different path’.

But 9/11 also had a personal dimension. I went to Ashbury Public School, and my year two and three teacher was the late Mrs Giulia Ferraina. Her daughter Elisa perished in one of the towers. I knew her brother, Greg, who was a year below me.

So for us, 9/11 was on the screens, and then over the next few days it became clear that someone close to me in suburban Sydney had been deeply impacted through the death of her daughter.

New York City firefighters look at the destroyed facade of the World Trade Cente on September 13, 2001, two days after the twin towers were destroyed when two hit by two hijacked passenger jets. Credit:Chris Hondros/Getty Images

I was rattled over the week ahead. We lived under the Sydney flight path and I remember sitting bolt upright in bed as an early morning plane passed over.

Over the next few days after 9/11, I had philosophy class and we had a discussion, and there was a moral equivalence argument mounted by the other students a couple of times: ‘America had this coming, what did they expect?’ That’s OK, I have no problems with people making arguments that are contrary to my own, but I just didn’t want to sit around for the next couple of years in that sort of environment.

I had already felt like I was flailing a bit at university and it really crystallised in that moment: ‘This is all academic chitchat. I want to get out in the real world’. I joined the Army Reserves, I went away down to [the Australian Army training facility] Puckapunyal in early 2002, and then it just became clearer that full-time soldiering was the way ahead.

I transferred to the University of NSW at Australian Defence Force Academy and became an officer cadet. My trajectory in the army was set.

Andrew Hastie visiting the September 11 memorial in New York, standing at the plate that carries the name of Elisa Giselle.

Twenty years later – with the evacuation of Kabul, the amount of blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere – 9/11 has no doubt shaped the first two decades of the 21st century.

It was right to respond to al-Qaeda – I’ve learned that weakness is provocative. But we thought that we could go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and reorder societies.

But, as I saw with my own eyes, geography and culture are hard to overcome. And as we’ve seen lately, our attempt in Afghanistan ultimately failed.


Richard Woodward was a Boeing 767 pilot on a three-day stopover in Manila bound for Sydney when coverage of the terrorist attack came on the restaurant TV.

Richard WoodwardCredit:Fairfax Media

We went down to a lovely waterfront restaurant in Manila. The first officer and I were sitting there and the owner came over and said, ‘You need to see this right now.’ We walked over to the television and the first tower had been hit and was burning. He said, ‘an aeroplane flew into that’. We both said, ‘What!’ While we were standing there looking at the feed, a 767 which is the aeroplane we flew went smack into the second tower.

I will never forget it, I turned to the first officer and said, ‘That’s it. Aviation as we know it has changed forever’. He said, ‘What?’ and I said: ‘This is going to cause massive ramifications for security and will fundamentally change the way we do business’. And it did and it has.

A day later my sister rang as I was sitting in the hotel saying: ‘Please tell me you are OK?’ I said, ‘Yes, sure why?’ She said, ‘Apparently there’s a terrorist attack in Manila’. It turned out that a bunch of radical fundamentalists had apparently tried to attack the American consulate about two blocks away.

A couple of my crew expressed a few concerns about flying, and I said: ‘We are in the Philippines; they are not really related to this [9/11] and the company has extra screening in place here anyway’. They were all happy to go home and we went home.

A man pauses at a wall at Bellevue Hospital in New York that was covered in posters of people missing in the World Trade Centre disaster.Credit:REUTERS/Shaun Best

A lot of the security measures taken around the world were more of a public relations exercise than any effective changes to security. The passengers felt quite comfortable getting screened and seeing the crew screened too. I even had my nail clippers taken off me in Adelaide. The guy broke the nail file off and gave it back to me. I said, ‘Are you kidding. Am I going to stab myself?’ He said, ‘Aw captain, don’t give me a hard time’.

I’m an ex-military pilot and a former peacekeeper in the Middle East so I have seen more security-related problems than some. There were jurisdictions, including one very dear to our hearts where I know for a fact that a couple of those [airport] screeners were on the terrorist watch list. So here we were being screened by people who had much less requirement on them to be supervised and given background checks than we did, and yet they were giving us a hard time.”


Chris Creighton, from Townsville, was still at school when he watched the events of 9/11 unfold after his supermarket shift.

Chris CreightonCredit:Fairfax Media

Aged almost 15, I had just finished my four-hour Woolworths shift and was sitting at home with my mother watching TV. I was ready to go to bed when the breaking news came on. We both watched in horror.

I didn’t sleep too well and by morning both towers had collapsed. If this could happen in the US, where did we stand in Australia?

I made the decision that when old enough, I would join the military to serve my country. In July 2004, aged 17, I joined the Army, 3rd Brigade.

In 2006, I was in the first convoy into Innisfail after severe tropical cyclone Larry destroyed much of the region. I proudly helped save a baby’s life and dropped the father back home from the hospital in my army truck.

A few months later I deployed to Timor-Leste in the initial force to help our friendly neighbour stabilise their country in the middle of unrest. I felt like I was giving back.

I was deployed to Afghanistan from June 2011 to January 2012. The War on Terror had been going on for eight years. The very hour I touched down Sapper Rowan Robinson (a friend’s brother) had been killed in action. I knew this deployment would be like no other.

The biggest thing for me there was when the fuel truck I was driving was struck by an IED. I was one of the lucky ones. It felt like I had driven the truck into the side of a mountain at 100 kms an hour, but I was uninjured and fortunate enough to be able to get on with the job at hand. The next day I was up on the rear gun of a Bushmaster, once again part of a strong, professional and successful team.

Seeing what is happening in Afghanistan now is pretty rough. I know fellow veterans are doing it hard – but fellow vets must remember we did what was asked of us.

We all contributed to making the world a better place over 20 years ensuring the War On Terror was fought in their backyard and not ours, and gave a generation of Afghan’s hope. Be kind, stick together, stay strong for each other, and have your mates. Most importantly, never forget how precious life is, and how much we all have to be so grateful for.


Diane Davis, 57, was teaching at a primary school in Newfoundland when 38 diverted aircraft landed in her town.

Diane Davis

I was teaching grade three French immersion at Gander Academy, and I looked up the hallway a little after 10am, and a mother said: ‘A plane hit the Twin Towers – I’m here to pick up my son’, and I saw the two statements as completely unrelated. We didn’t have cellphones at the time, so we knew very little.

But we went to the airport in town, and the planes were already landing. From the angle of the runways it looked like the aircraft overlapped. I went to the Town Hall and they said they needed people to set up all the schools with places for people to sleep. We cleared all the furniture. Then bedding – dusty old gym mats – was set up on the floor. I put user-names and passwords on all the computer monitors, in case someone had email – remember, this is 20 years ago – or even knew how to use email away from work. Then we waited.

Food began pouring in. Locals turned up by the dozen. Just under 7000 guests from all over the world came to us, and they stayed for five days. And it was everything that I’d always been taught, about sharing and caring for people – clothing, feeding and reassuring them.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, center, and his wife Sophie Gregoire chat with some of the citizens from Gander, Newfoundland, after the Broadway musical “Come From Away” in New York.Credit:Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP

The whole experience was made into a musical, Come From Away, which has gone around the world. There’s a character in the show who carries my name. I’ve seen the show in Gander, and then they’ve flown us to Toronto to see it open, and Broadway. We’ve been to Seattle, Dublin, London and Melbourne. We would have been in Sydney except for COVID-19.

I still believe everything we did was within the means of any other group of people, but it’s incredible how people have responded. The ushers say everyone is trying to find their seat at the start – jostling, checking their watch – but on their way out it’s ‘After you, please’ and ‘No, you go first!’ The mood changes.

The big lesson I’ve learned is to say ‘Thank you’ when someone offers to do something for you, rather than telling them they don’t need to. Because I want them to feel that “helpers’ high”. If we don’t give people the opportunity to be kind to us – with big things and little things – we don’t give them the opportunity to know how good it feels to be kind.

As told to Thomas Mitchell, Tim Barlass, Bianca Hall, Konrad Marshall, Matthew Knott, Anthony Galloway, CBS News

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