The noise was 'like 50 jumbo jets' says Leeds 9/11 survivor caught in World Trade Center attack

He survived the twin towers' collapse, crawling to freedom, but years on Leeds-born Paul Berriff's most vivid memory of 9/11 remains a brief moment the previous night.

Tuesday, 11th September 2018, 3:54 pm
Updated Tuesday, 11th September 2018, 3:57 pm
Paul Beriff, a filmmaker caught up in the 9/11 attacks

This article originally ran in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 2011

That night the British documentary-maker and his wife Hilary were at a supermarket near their apartment, just two blocks from the centre, when they bumped into a group of firefighters shopping for their evening meal.

-> There was an inferno and every floor above me was gone - Leeds survivor's first hand account of 9/11 terror attack“We all went through the checkouts together and as we came out there was a massive thunderstorm. You could see lightning striking the top of the World Trade Center,” he said.

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The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center

“We laughed and joked with them as they radioed for a firetruck to pick them up so they wouldn’t get soaked.

“Those three crews were the first on the scene that morning, we later found out. They were laughing and joking with us that night, but for most of them that was their last supper.”

Mr Berriff was filming documentary series Animal Cops in New York when he heard about the first plane hitting the North Tower on September 11, 2001.

He and his wife had lived in America for about six years and owned a house in Florida, but were based in Manhattan for the documentary filming.

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center

When they first heard about a plane hitting one of the towers, he assumed it was an accident but realised otherwise as he and his crew got closer.

“We could see little black dots coming from the building - as we got nearer we realised it was people jumping,” Mr Berriff said.

“The road was flooded with people, shocked and screaming.”

At the base of the towers they filmed rescue efforts until they heard a “massive bang”.

“I turned the camera and saw the three floors of the tower just peeling away like a big umbrella,” Mr Berriff said.

“I think I stood there for about five seconds as this tsunami, a wave of debris, came towards us. We just ran.

“The noise was like 50 jumbo jets chasing you down the runway.

-> How this homeless veteran used his army discipline to cope on the streets of Leeds“I remember the camera leaving me in slow motion, and the next thing I remember I’m crawling through the debris, everything is black.

“There was cement dust everywhere, my mouth was clogged, my nose, my eyes, my ears. I had to pull cement gunge out of my mouth to breathe.”

The 65-year-old, who has faced several “near death experiences” in his life - a helicopter crash in the Cairngorms, a volcano eruption in Nicaragua, and a sinking ship in the North Sea - said at that moment he thought: “This is it, I’ve done it now.”

He crawled back down the street looking for his camera crew, but found them later by chance at his own apartment block.

“It was totally silent. Everything had gone from colour to black and white. To my right a building was on fire, cars around me were on fire, everything was hazy with a thick layer of fog.”

He had spoken to his wife when news of the first plane hitting broke, and she told him she was leaving the apartment, along with their cat Muffin.

“She came into the street with the cat and went into Battery Park but was only there a few minutes when she heard this noise, the second plane.

“It came over her head, banked towards the South Tower and went straight into it.”

The couple were united in Battery Park several hours later when Mrs Berriff spotted the film crew and a man on a stretcher - her husband.

The couple were taken, along with Muffin, to a triage centre on Staten Island where Mr Berriff was decontaminated and treated for a head injury.

Without identification or a phone and no ferries back to Manhattan, they were stranded until a nurse offered them a bed for the night.

They later flew to their house in Florida and then back to the UK: “After three near-death experiences, it was the last straw. My family suggested it was time for me to stop,” Mr Berriff said.

“But within two weeks I was back in New York with the firemen I survived the collapse with and spent a year making a film on how they were coping.”

Mr Berriff said he had coped with the horrors of that day because he was “conditioned” to dramatic situations.

“Being in this job all my life, I had been in lots of dramas and disaster. I was conditioned to a lot of things.”

But in the aftermath, he and his wife found the country they had called home was changing.

“America after 9/11 changed immensely. Anyone who did not speak with an American accent was regarded, certainly by the authorities, as a potential terrorist.

“I think she (his wife) never really came to terms with it. After 9/11 she had a different view of American and Americans so we decided we should come back to the UK.”

After a stint running the Neptune inn and restaurant in Old Hunstanton, Norfolk, they moved to Bedale, North Yorkshire, where Mr Berriff returned to work in television.

But 10 years on, he still remembers every detail: “I can still remember it vividly. That day will stay with me forever.”