Surviving Disaster: A couple of days after 9/11 we spoke to Yorkshireman Ian Robb, who worked on the 99th floor of the World Trade Centre in New York, Chris Bond caught up with him...
IT was a beautiful September morning. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as the usual throng of office workers poured onto the subways and streets of Manhattan for the start of another busy working day.
This particular morning Ian Robb was running late. He had been out for a meal the night before with a couple of work colleagues and slept through his alarm.
“I’d got a taxi back home to New Jersey where I lived but the driver missed the exit so it was gone 1.30 before I got home.”
Normally he was up at six and would be sitting in his office on the 99th floor of the World Trade Centre, where he worked as head of professional development for the international financial services firm Marsh and McLennan, by 7.30am. So he was in a hurry to get to work. “I ran to the station but I’d missed my usual train and the next one,” he says.
But even though he was an hour late he still had time to admire the view as he took the short ferry ride across the River Hudson.
“The view was delightful and I vividly remember the sky was crystal blue, it certainly wasn’t a bad start to the day.”
Having dashed through the neighbouring World Financial Centre building he reached the vast concourse of the World Trade Centre at about 8.40am. He just missed one lift by a split second. “Some people in the lift waved at me and I waved back,” he says.
He and six others got into another one but as the doors closed nothing could have prepared him for what happened next. “There was this tremendous noise and the whole lift started shaking. We could hear things falling on top and there was this awful whistling noise of air rushing down the sides of the lift.”
They tried pressing the alarm bells but nothing happened. By this time the lift was full of smoke and dust and there was a growing sense of dread.
They were trapped inside for more than hour before they were finally able to prise open the doors. “We had no idea what was going on, we didn’t know whether we’d gone up or down,” says Ian, a former Leeds Grammar School pupil.
As it turned out they’d barely moved an inch.
They scrambled out to discover they were still on the ground floor. Firefighters told them a plane had slammed into the tower and as they ran from the building they were greeted by a scene of complete devastation.
“The lobby of the World Trade Centre was massive, it was about four stories high and as we ran up to the plaza level we noticed the windows were red with blood, although we didn’t realise it at the time.”
Outside they were greeted by yet more grisly sights. “It was like a battlefield, there were bits of bodies lying around, it was horrific.
“I heard this huge roar and when I looked up I could see an inferno at the top of the building where my offices had been,” he says.
Police and firemen were yelling at people to run and as Ian joined the terrified crowds running for the ferry the south tower collapsed.
He tried calling his daughter, Alexis, who was living with him, but the mobile phone networks were down so he had no way of letting her know that he was all right.
Once across the river he was among the thousands of people who crammed onto the trains, desperate to get home.
“We were all standing cheek by jowl and everyone was exchanging stories. Most people I spoke to had been outside and seen the planes hit the towers and people jumping out of the burning buildings, whereas I’d been stuck in a lift so I was lucky in a way because I didn’t see all that.”
Finally when he reached his home town, Summit, he was able to get through to his daughter.
“She was frantic and when she answered the phone she just burst into tears and when I heard her voice I was in tears, too.”
He spent the following day desperately trying to find out who was alive and who was missing. On the Thursday he went to the firm’s head office in midtown Manhattan.
“There was a message board saying ‘have you seen this person?’ There was also another more formal company list with the names of those missing presumed dead, and my name was on it. That was a strange feeling, it’s a bit like seeing your own obituary.”
Everyone was desperate for information.
“We were all in a state of shock, people were talking about who was missing. But it must have been very difficult for those who worked in that office because they had wonderful views down towards Wall Street where the twin towers were and they’d seen it all unfolding - some of them had husbands and wives who worked there.”
Marsh and McLennan ‘s offices were between the 92nd and 100th floors of the north tower and the plane hit between 93rd and 94th floor. “Everybody above that was lost.”
The company lost 350 employees. “About 50 or 60 I knew very well and some were very close friends,” says Ian.
Among those killed were the people in the lift he had waved to, as well as Gary Lasko, one of the two friends he’d been out with the night before the attacks.
He found days and weeks that followed hard to deal with. “I would think about Gary and then I’d think ‘but what about John, or Bill or Mary?’ I felt guilty for not mourning them at the same time. I don’t think we can actually cope with losing more than one or two people at once, you can’t mourn everyone.”
Not surprisingly he found the services for his dead colleagues tough.
“There were no funerals because there weren’t any bodies, but there were a lot of memorial services. There was an horrendous sense of sadness permeating the air. I’m not an emotional person but I broke down during these services.”
Initially he struggled to come to terms with the enormity of what happened.
“To begin with I was annoyed in an irrational way, I felt as though Osama Bin Laden was coming after me personally. But I didn’t feel the need to go out and attack people of Muslim faith, which sadly is what some Americans did.”
Ian was already due to leave the company before the attack on the World Trade Centre and he took a brief sabbatical before getting a new job at the start of 2002 in Savannah, Georgia.
“This is part of the Bible Belt and when some people found what had happened to me they started asking what my religious perspective was and whether I thought God had saved me. I told them it may have been God but I just put it down to luck.”
In 2006, Ian, a mechanical engineering graduate from Leeds University, retired and the following year he returned to live in the UK having spent more than 40 years in Canada and the US.
He now lives happily with his partner Zofia who runs a B&B in Buckinghamshire.
Looking back, he doesn’t feel that 9/11 changed his life dramatically.
“There’s sadness at what happened and the horror of it all, but it’s not made a huge impact on me in the long term, it’s not changed my life,” he says. He returned to Ground Zero four years ago by which time work had started on the new ‘Freedom Tower’.
“I wasn’t sure how I would react but I was more interested in the construction work going on, I didn’t have any feelings of despair.”
At the same time he feels it’s important to talk about what happened.
“I was lucky enough to work with some really talented people and it’s good to have the opportunity to remember them and to pay homage to their friendship and the great loss we all suffered.”