‘What’s happening? Is this Armageddon?’: In an extract from his book The Insider, PIERS MORGAN recalls watching 9/11 unfold and the desperate scramble to cover the story that shook the world
In the early afternoon of September 9, 2001, a 36-year-old Piers Morgan was sitting at home on leave from his job as Editor of the Daily Mirror when he was informed that planes had smashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
It was an event that rocked the British press and one which led to British forces joining the US in the war on terror that lasted for over a decade.
Now, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an excerpt from Piers’ best-selling book The Insider provides a first-hand account of the moment he was informed of the tragedy and a breakdown of how the subsequent days unfolded in real time.
On the 20th anniversary of the infamous 9/11 attacks, an excerpt from Piers’ best-selling book The Insider provides a first-hand account of the moment he was informed of the tragedy and a breakdown of how the subsequent days unfolded in real-time
‘Terrorists have bombed the World Trade Center with hijacked planes,’ I said, hardly able to believe what was happening’
TUESDAY, 11 SEPTEMBER, 2001
I’m recovering at my Sussex village home from back surgery – I had a slipped disc removed two weeks ago – and engineers arrived this morning to fix my TV for tonight’s big Arsenal match.
Just after 2pm, the Mirror newsdesk called and said the World Trade Center in New York had been hit by a plane. I switched on Sky News and saw a smallish plume of smoke coming out of one of the twin towers. Just seemed like a tragic accident. ‘Keep an eye on it, but it looks like a light aircraft to me, which is a tragedy but not a huge story over here.’
I carried on watching and about twenty minutes later the presenter Kay Burley said we were watching footage of the plane actually hitting the tower from Fox News.
Only we weren’t. She very quickly realised this was live, and we had just seen a second plane hit the other tower.
Stunned, I scrabbled to phone the newsdesk.
‘We saw it we saw it! That was a big plane, this isn’t an accident, it can’t be.’
I looked back at the screen. A huge ball of flame was coming out of the second tower, and Sky were already speculating about terrorism.
Dad came in to see how I was (my parents live in the other half of my house).
‘Terrorists have bombed the World Trade Center with hijacked planes,’ I said, hardly able to believe what was happening.
We both watched in utter horror.
Then one of the engineers asked if he could switch channels to test the football output.
‘No, no, can’t you see the twin towers have been hit?!!’ I exclaimed furiously. ‘Thousands of people work in there!’
The guy turned, said, ‘Oh yeah, right,’ then calmly got back to his work.
My phone started to ring and then carried on doing so every 30 seconds.
‘This is Osama bin Laden,’ I told me father. ‘It has to be. He’s tried to take those towers out before.’
I conveyed my thoughts to the newsdesk, and they said others were saying the same thing on TV.
It seemed that Al Qaeda, Bin Laden’s terrorist organisation, had struck the big one.
My grandmother arrived with a pizza for my lunch. ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go,’ I said, and hobbled slowly upstairs to find a suit.
Then I stumbled to the car and drove at high speed to Canary Wharf with the in-car TV on with live reports.
The newsdesk called again. ‘The Pentagon’s been hit by another plane.’
‘F*ck, what’s happening here?’ I shouted. ‘Is this f*cking Armageddon?’
Nobody had an answer; this was an ongoing news event of epically awful proportions and none of us knew how it would end.
I got lost three times on my journey, the last time when the newsdesk called and said, ‘The towers are collapsing.’ At one stage I was actually driving the wrong way round the M25 towards Heathrow, not east London.
I stopped the car so I could see the TV pictures, and there they were, those famous symbols of American economic power, disintegrating before my eyes.
It was appalling to watch.
The phone rang. It was my mother, incensed that I might cause further injury to my back.
‘What are you doing, Piers? You shouldn’t be driving,’ she shouted.
‘Mum, this is the biggest news story of my lifetime, I’m not missing this.’
‘Well, it’s ridiculous to risk permanently harming yourself like this, just stupid.’
My mother doesn’t get angry very often, but she had a point.
‘Look, it’s OK, I’ll sit down when I get to the office.’
‘You’re going to Canary Wharf? What if they attack that too?’
I hadn’t thought of that. I worked halfway up the UK equivalent of the World Trade Center. And this incident was obviously far from over.
I put the phone down and called the newsdesk.
‘Are we being evacuated?’
‘No, the TV are saying we are, but we’re not yet.’
Since the IRA bombed the Wharf, we’ve had a proper plan in place for producing the paper in the event of evacuation, and I actioned it. I finally got to the office about 4pm to find controlled mayhem.
I called an immediate conference and went through everything we knew.
Three planes had crashed, two into the towers and one into the Pentagon. A fourth had crashed into a Pennsylvania field with American military jets in hot pursuit.
Did President Bush order it to be shot down as some are suggesting?
It seems unconscionable that he would even consider that but apparently the plane was headed to the White House so he may have viewed it the lesser of two evils.
The towers were gone, crumbled to a layer of powdery dust now covering most of the tip of Manhattan. The Pentagon was burning.
It was just unbelievable horror. Fifty thousand people work in those towers, and nobody was sure how many were dead, but it would definitely be in the thousands.
It was one of those news days when only one image would make every front page that of both towers drenched in a fireball of flame. We wiped the front for it, with the simple headline WAR ON THE WORLD.
We didn’t go off stone until after midnight, four hours later than normal, but so much news was breaking every minute that it was worth waiting.
I went home exhausted, but watched American TV news until 3am, then fell asleep.
‘The scenes from New York are repellent. The south-west tip of Manhattan’s just gone. They’re calling the hole that was once the towers ”Ground Zero”
WEDNESDAY, 12 SEPTEMBER
Woke at 5.30am, wide awake and not feeling remotely tired. Got dressed and went to a local café for breakfast and a read of all the papers.
I called the newsdesk at 8am to find out what was developing.
They’d just had an ironic reader on, saying, ‘Why didn’t you lead on Posh Spice this morning? I’m very disappointed, you normally always f*ck it up.’ Amid all the horror, this made me laugh.
The scenes from New York are repellent. The south-west tip of Manhattan’s just gone. They’re calling the hole that was once the towers ‘Ground Zero’.
Anyone like me who has ever been to that part of New York will know how devastating the damage is from the overhead shots. Almost a square mile has disappeared. Terrifying.
There seems little doubt it’s Bin Laden now. And also little doubt that the Americans will be bombing the crap out of Afghanistan pretty soon.
President Bush looked and sounded completely stunned today, close to tears and almost foaming with anger. He is not the kind of man to take this lightly. ‘We will crush this new, deadly enemy,’ he said ominously.
The weirdest thing about this is that there are no pictures of anyone covered in blood, or any dead bodies. Everyone either survived intact or got pulverised. Freakish.
Got to bed at 2am, still not tired.
THURSDAY, 13 SEPTEMBER
Woke at 5am again with a start, and sat bolt upright, sweating. I was sure I’d heard a huge explosion outside like a nuclear bomb had gone off. But it was a nightmare of sorts. Weird. Couldn’t get back to sleep, so went back to my café and read the papers again.
Sales of all papers are through the roof. We were up 423,000 on day one alone.
An amazing photograph came in today of a New York fireman going up the towers after the planes had struck wide-eyed, frightened. I rang Andy Lines, our US correspondent over there, and told him to drop everything and find that guy if he is still alive.
Everyone looked a bit fried today, most of them are getting about as much sleep as me, and we’re a bit tetchy with each other. Lots of ‘No, you f*cked up page thirteen, you tw*t,’ going on. And the smoking room is jam-packed all the time.
Spencer (my eldest son, aged 8) wants me to have a parachute in my office. I revealed this in conference to laughter, but it seems a pretty good idea to me. The images of all those people jumping to their deaths are beyond haunting. For £500 a pop, army surplus, we could ensure everyone who jumped would probably live.
As we finished conference, a largish jet was spotted heading straight towards the tower. We all froze. Then remembered that City Airport is right next door to us, and these smaller planes come over us all the time. Not comforting, though. We are an obvious target.
I spoke to someone in Gordon Brown’s camp today, who said they deliberately stopped the evacuation of Canary Wharf to avoid scenes of panic sweeping the world’s TV screens. ‘All the planes were grounded anyway, so there was no real risk,’ said my source. Hmm.
‘Spencer (my eldest son, aged 8) wants me to have a parachute in my office. I revealed this in conference to laughter, but it seems a pretty good idea to me’
FRIDAY, 14 SEPTEMBER
Andy found the fireman. He’d traced his station from the number on his helmet, gone down there and gently asked if the man in the photo had made it. ‘Sure, Mike’s upstairs asleep,’ came the reply. Andy went up and found Mike Kehoe lying on the floor. He woke to tell us his amazing story of incredible heroism. ‘I just did my job,’ he said. Yeah, right.
I’m now very tired. Can’t sleep at all and keep having the same nightmare about a bomb going off. It seems so utterly real.
Bush is playing to type now, saying he wants Bin Laden’s ‘head on a platter’. Our leader article today urged a note of caution. These are scary times, and it worries me that we have this trigger-happy Texan in charge of our response. It really does.
MONDAY, 17 SEPTEMBER
Bush is out of control, declaring: ‘There’s an old poster out West that said: “Wanted, dead or alive” – Bin Laden’s the prime suspect and I want justice.’ He thinks he’s John Wayne.
THURSDAY, 4 OCTOBER
War drums have been beating for weeks since the attacks, both for military action in Afghanistan where Bin Laden trained his terrorists and in Iraq which has long been in US sights due to Saddam Hussein’s despotic leadership. As I drove back from the Labour Party Conference in Brighton today, Tony Blair’s communications chief Alastair Campbell rang. He said he understood the more sceptical tone we’ve been adopting. But added, ‘When all the right-wing hawks in Washington start saying we have to go after Saddam, that’s when we’re going to need you on our side, when we’re trying to restrain them.’
SUNDAY, 7 OCTOBER
Jon Moorhead, the Mirror’s night editor, called me at 2am to say we had started bombing Afghanistan. The first war has begun.
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