'I remember 9/11 like it were yesterday': New Plymouth woman recalls horror day in New York 20 years on

New Plymouth woman Julia Darling was in New York 20 years ago on September 11.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Stuff
New Plymouth woman Julia Darling was in New York 20 years ago on September 11.

An uneasy feeling washes over Taranaki woman Julia Darling every time she sees a jet roaring through the sky.

“There is just something I don’t like about seeing a plane in the sky,” she says.

And that feeling has sat with her for 20 years since she watched the second plane fly into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre buildings on September 11, 2001.

The plane had been hijacked by terrorists and was one of two flown into the skyscrapers that day. Another plane was flown into the Pentagon while a fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers wrestled control from the terrorists.

The attacks immediately killed nearly 3000 people and quickly became known as 9/11.

Within months the USA had launched its War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan to hunt down members of the terrorist Al Qaeda group, which had planned the attack.

That invasion turned into the country’s longest war, with US forces only pulling out days ago.

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Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Centre after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.
Richard Drew/AP
Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Centre after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

For Darling the attack on the towers, which became the enduring image of the wider attack, still feels awfully close despite 20 years since the day she watched the terror from her apartment window.

“I just remember the phone ringing. A lot. Which was unusual,” Darling recalls from a chair in her New Plymouth office.

She was in a Brooklyn apartment with a flatmate, having moved to New York in 1998 to pursue a music career.

On the phone was her mum, 14,000 kilometres away in New Zealand, who told her to turn on the TV.

A plane had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, just two subway stops or a 30-minute walk from Darling.

“I remember hearing the fear in my mum’s voice. It's the last thing you expect to happen to your kid from New Plymouth is to be in a war zone,” she says.

“I remember hearing the fear in my mum’s voice,” she says.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Stuff
“I remember hearing the fear in my mum’s voice,” she says.

“I remember telling her we were 100 per cent safe, no one we knew were in the towers, and I've got to go.”

She stood watching the TV for some time, but she felt safe being across the river from the carnage.

“And of course we thought that it was the end of it. But then we started realising they had other planes in the air that were unaccounted for.

“That’s when it got scary. You didn’t know what was going to happen next. It was an awful feeling.”

Rescue workers continue their search as smoke rises from the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Beth A. Keiser/AP
Rescue workers continue their search as smoke rises from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Moments later a second plane crashed into the South Tower.

“The second one hitting, how do you describe it? It’s like the bottom falls out of your breath. It's like a hole in your stomach appears,” she says.

“Then we started to smell it.”

Darling can still recall the smell of the burning buildings in which 2,606 people lost their lives.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Stuff
Darling can still recall the smell of the burning buildings in which 2,606 people lost their lives.

A breeze started to whip the smell of smoke through the streets of Brooklyn, and it wafted into their apartment.

“The smell, it didn’t feel safe. It didn’t feel like you’d ever have smelt that combination of toxins.”

Thousands began walking out of Manhattan towards Brooklyn and Darling joined them walking south away from the smoke.

“You’re out on the street with people you’ve never been on the street with and it was so awesome and so collective.

“It was like panic, but it wasn’t chaos. It was quite calm.”

The following day Darling returned to her apartment, which still stunk like chemicals, and watched from the window as military tanks rolled through the street below.

But Darling says it “strangely” didn’t change the way she lived in America. Americans are resilient, she says.

“There was this massive hole in the bottom of the island, there was a search site that they were still trying to rescue people from, yet life was just back to normal everywhere else.”

A friend of hers worked in the first tower, and his whereabouts were unknown for most of that day, but he’d managed to get away.

“It was great. But hearing about what he saw when he ran out, there were things falling from the sky which shouldn’t have been.”

She's often asked if she was in the city during 9/11, and it’s a bond you have with other New Yorkers, she said.

Darling moved home to New Plymouth with her young family in 2017, when Donald Trump was elected as president.

She now owns her own therapy business out of a small city office building, and despite no longer living in New York, or commemorating the day, it has always stuck with her.

“When I see planes in the sky now there is definitely a connection to that day and unpredictable nature.

“I remember 9/11 like it were yesterday.”