An ex-PM, diplomat, American and Muslim reflect on 9/11

  • Breaking
  • 12/09/2011

By Chris Whitworth

Everyone knows where they were the day the Twin Towers were hit.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was on a flight from Auckland to Hong Kong. New Zealand Ambassador Jim Bolger was having a business breakfast in downtown Washington. New Zealand-Muslim Tarik Al-Diery was in a PE class in Chicago, having just moved to America, and American-Kiwi Pietra Brettkelly was going from school to the hospital where her mother was in labour.

Ten years on from the 9/11 terror attacks I look at five different New Zealanders’ stories from that fateful day, and their reflections on a mad decade.


Helen Clark

New Zealand’s Prime Minister of the time Helen Clark was 30,000 feet up when the first plane slammed into the Twin Towers, but she didn’t hear about the attack until landing in Hong Kong.

“Our delegation was escorted to the transit lounge where we saw on the television screen strange images from New York, with very confused reporting as it was not clear what events were unfolding.”

It was still early morning in New Zealand so she had no contact from back home. She decided to board her next flight to Europe and was eventually contacted via a phone link by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet where she was briefed on the event – which she then found out was a terror attack.

As New Zealand woke to the news of the attack her phone began ringing and she decided to head back to New Zealand, having just arrived in Rome.

“By the time I returned home, it was after days of long haul travel during which I saw virtually no news bulletins.”

She says there was a sense of “unease and insecurity” in New Zealand in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, however, because of our distant location people were still unsure about the implications of the attacks.

Ms Clark says one of her first official actions was to up security across the country’s airports and seaports and bring in measures to screen passenger lists in planes due to depart from airports in other countries for New Zealand.

She remembers New Zealand tourism taking a hit for a while, but says it soon recovered.

The attacks would hit home in March the following year when she visited the site of the World Trade Centre.

“It had a profound emotional impact on me, especially when New York firefighters handed to me a tattered but largely intact New Zealand flag which had been excavated from the ruins of the centre.”

“I brought the flag back to our Parliament, where it was framed and hung on the wall by the main staircase in memory of those who died on September 11.”

Looking back now she says the events of 9/11 really helped New Zealand and America to grow closer and put aside its differences. She says the unstable time meant the two countries focused on their shared strengths.


Jim Bolger

Jim Bolger remembers sitting at breakfast with a dozen other ambassadors when they heard one of the Twin Towers had been hit. Rather ironically, the business breakfast was a briefing on the US economy at the time.

“There was still uncertainty at the time after the first plane hit, whether it was a big one, a small one. Nobody knew at that stage, we didn’t have blackberries and things [then] it was 10 years ago,” he says.

Upon leaving the meeting, Mr Bolger says it soon became clear the attack was not accidental.

“By the time I got down onto the street and talked to my driver he told me a second plane had hit and I recall saying to him ‘well that means it’s no accident doesn’t it’.”

The next few hours were filled with anxiety as new reports came in of a third plane hitting the Pentagon, just across the river.

And then later of a fourth plane still in the air – possibly heading for Washington. 

Mr Bolger says he knew, even at the time, that the attacks would provoke an intense reaction from the US.

“I knew that this was a horrendous attack on the US and that there would be a massive emotional reaction from the US - which there was.”

Three days later he was asked to speak at an interfaith church service in New York. The service was packed and he remembers a “very sombre” mood.

“The challenge is always, what do you say at times like that.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks Mr Bolger remembers a “total unity of faiths” in America and recalls President George W. Bush visiting a mosque to tell the congregation that he didn’t blame them for the attacks.

Ten years on Mr Bolger is more frank on his reflections about 9/11.

“From the distant heights of history, the attack on the World Trade Centre, which happened at approximately the same time as the collapse of the ‘dotcom’ bubble, will be seen to mark the beginning of the end of the dominance of US influence.”


Tarik Al-Diery

“At 9am on September 11, I was a 10-year-old kid in an American middle school,” says Tarik Al-Diery.

Tarik and his family had moved to Chicago from Auckland a month earlier, and he had just begun a new school year at the start of September.

He says an announcement came after his first class, PE, that one of the towers in New York had been hit. The class thought the plane had hit the building by accident and it wasn’t until the school secretary made a second announcement minutes later – and crying – that people started to panic.

“The class broke into silence before the teachers and girls broke into tears. It was a very tense moment,” he says.

A few hours later Tarik found out Muslim Arabs were suspected of the attacks.

“I recalled reading a book when I was a child about a Japanese boy in California who was forced with his family into internment camps because the US was at war with Japan, and had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. It was the only thing that I was thinking about all day, and I tried to avoid everyone.”

Tarik says he remembers being frustrated that he felt he wasn’t allowed to share in his classmates’ pain because he was Muslim.

His beliefs would invite many negative labels in the coming months. But he says in general his teachers, classmates and local community were very compassionate.

“Most of our teachers remained respectful to Arabs and Muslims. Occasionally, the ignorant people would say their racist remarks, especially to the Muslim girls and women who wore the hijab.”

He remembers hearing about mosques being attacked in America and Sikhs killed and he wasn’t surprised by this. But Tarik says what he never saw coming was the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ten years on, Tarik says misconceptions about Muslims are beginning to wane in America and the country has come a long way.

“That idea is slowly dying away as people have now been more exposed to Islam and have a better understanding of it than they did a decade ago.”

But when he moved back to New Zealand in 2009 he says attitudes were much different.

“In my opinion, very few Kiwis have understood Islam in the last decade; their views have changed very little.

“The majority of the people in this country continue to have extremely limited knowledge about Islam and very little is being done by the New Zealand Government to shed the negative views that the world’s governments have created.”


Pietra Brettkelly

September 11 is a day of conflicting emotion for Pietra Brettkelly. It was the day the Twin Towers were hit by terrorists and thousands of people died, and the day her brother was born.

She remembers leaving school early to be taken to the hospital and wondering why other kids were also leaving. Her aunt would explain in the car ride what had happened.

“I'd never been exposed to any acts of terror in real life, so this was the first time I realized that there were people in the world that actually had the capacity to cause so much horror.”

Pietra first saw footage of the attacks on the TV in her mother’s hospital room. She remembers her family doing a quick mental check of what friends and relatives may have been in New York at the time.

Although no one close to them was killed, she says at this moment the event really hit home.

“I pictured loved ones burning alive, or crushed beneath the collapsed rubble, which really scared me.

“After some discussion they decided not to talk about it anymore and turn the TV off, and focus on our newest family member and my exhausted mother.”

In the coming months Pietra remembers mass vigils, commemoration services, fundraisers and TV images of people mourning. But she says the unity soon turned ugly.

“This united force for inner support, soon turned to united retaliation and anger.”

Pietra says she couldn’t understand the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and because her uncle Joseph would go on to fight in it, she would again have conflicted emotions about the event.

She says she couldn’t understand how invading another country would bring peace to her own. Still, she says she was happy the day her uncle returned safely home from Afghanistan.

A decade later the events of 9/11 are no longer raw for Pietra. Today her brother turns 10 and most of her thoughts are around this.

She says it is time America, too, moved on from 9/11.

“I think America has other things that it should be preoccupied with and though we should not forget, let’s think about our future and present.”

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