Witness to Twin Towers collapse


Mr Sri Ganesh is not an early riser. But the time difference between Singapore and New York City (NYC) made him get up at 6am on Sept 11, 2001.

The Singaporean, who was working for the technology department of a multinational bank, was in NYC to attend an office workshop connected to a transformation initiative for one of its key businesses.

"As I opened the curtains in my 25th-floor room at the Millennium Hilton Hotel, I had a beautiful view of the two towers of the World Trade Centre (WTC) trying hard to reach the skies," he told tabla! on Wednesday. "It was a clear, sunny day. Everything augured well."

The workshop, involving 20 colleagues, was initially supposed to be held at a meeting room on the 55th floor of the WTC North Tower. But it was moved to the bank's Harborside offices in Jersey City a few days earlier because it wanted to save money.

At 8.15am, Mr Sri Ganesh and his boss boarded a train at the station right under the WTC to go to Harborside - a ride of about five minutes.

"We had an uneventful stroll to the office premises except that we were admiring the beautiful Manhattan skyline from across the river," said Mr Sri Ganesh.

"We entered the office and settled down and I was just about to open the presentation for the workshop when someone came running in and said that a plane had slammed into one of the WTC towers.

"My immediate reaction was that it was not a cloudy day for the plane to miss the towers - as there were stories about how small planes often miss the towers due to cloud cover.

"As we ran downstairs and looked at the WTC towers, it was one of horror. Even from a mile away, it was clear that it was not an accident.

"The fire and smoke could be seen and the rumble could be heard where we were standing.

"As we were transfixed by the sight, the second plane hit the second tower. The impact, the loud cracking sound and the flying of debris could all be seen, felt and heard from across the river. We literally ran a few blocks out of sheer fear."

According to Mr Sri Ganesh, the mobile phones were already jammed. There was no signal.

"After what seemed like an eternity, we went into the office, gathered our stuff quickly and left," he said.

"But, before logging off, I sent a quick one liner to our Singapore office manager that we were safe - thankfully the company Intranet was still working."

Mr Sri Ganesh recounted that there was chaos on the streets. "People were talking about about other planes hitting the Pentagon and other buildings," he said.

"At around 10am, the WTC South Tower collapsed with a huge roar. We again ran about a block away worried that the impact would affect the buildings close to us.

"The North Tower, which was bellowing smoke and fire, collapsed around 10.30am. We were scared and ran further and further away from the river - probably for about a mile or so."

The group then decided to go to a colleague's house, which was nearby, for lunch.

"We trooped in to the house in shock and settled down in front of the television set," said Mr Sri Ganesh. "We then watched the close-up shots of the hits and people falling and the debris flying and the collapse of the towers. It was heart rending.

"I do not know whether it was luck or providence to have escaped the fate of thousands by a proverbial whisker."

Around noon, Mr Sri Ganesh got a line through to Singapore and talked to his family.

"Naturally my wife was very worried and told me to 'come back, even if you have to swim'," he said. "I had to remind her that I did not know how to swim."

That night, he and his manager stayed at a colleague's sister's house in Bridgewater, about 30 minutes drive away.

"We had lost all our luggage and belongings," said Mr Sri Ganesh.

"My passport (he was an Indian national then) and a few other valuables were in the hotel locker which was only about 50 metres away from Ground Zero. There was no way that we could go there to collect them."

The next day, as they stepped out to buy some basic necessities, they saw a young Sikh man being attacked by a group of youths.

"There were some indistinct shouts, but one could guess what they were trying to tell the Sikh (as he had a beard)," said Mr Sri Ganesh.

"Eventually, better sense prevailed and the young man was able to walk off, though he was thoroughly shaken."

"I was really scared because I did not want to be shot by a mad man because of my colour or perceived religion. We quickly went back to the house and decided not to venture out again."

The next day, however, Mr Sri Ganesh had to go to the Indian High Commission in New York to get a new passport issued.

"Instead of the Indian High Commission, the cab driver, an African-American, dropped us outside the Pakistan High Commission," said Mr Sri Ganesh.

"We then learnt that the Indian High Commission was just round the corner. We probably laughed for the first time in three days."

The High Commission staff wanted a police report made before a new passport could be issued.

"We trundled to the nearest precinct and lodged a complaint," said Mr Sri Ganesh.

"The only form of identification on us was the Singapore blue IC, which worked like a magic. The officer filled out the form and in one particular column - race/equivalent - he wrote: American Indians. We were too tired and exhausted to correct him."

Then, on Sept 14, 2001, lugging their new passports, they took a Singapore Airlines flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC to Singapore.

"It was a great relief to be back in Singapore, to be back among friends and family," said Mr Sri Ganesh, 54 who is currently an executive director with Standard Chartered Bank.

"To recount the escapades, to just be in the embrace of loved ones, it was a big relief."

He moved to Singapore in 1995 from Chennai in India and became a Singapore citizen in 2010.

"Two years later, when I went again to NYC, I was able to retrieve all my lost luggage, including the lost passport, two cartons of microwaveable popcorn which my son wanted and the books I had bought… Amazing!"

The 20th anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks was observed with ceremonies in NYC last Saturday. Said Mr Sri Ganesh: "The main lesson for me was that never take anything for granted. Bad things will happen and be always prepared for it. If it takes an extra minute for an additional security check, so be it.

"I cannot forget that sight or the sound. The two loud thunders that day, when years of imagination, toil and engineering work collapsed in less than ten seconds."


"As we ran downstairs and looked at the WTC towers, it was one of horror. Even from a mile away, it was clear that it was not an accident. The fire and smoke could be seen and the rumble could be heard where we were standing... We literally ran a few blocks out of sheer fear."

- Mr Sri Ganesh, executive director, Standard Chartered Bank


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