An Irish Doctor recounts 9/11

In memory of 9/11

In memory of 9/11

On the 10th anniversary of this Global tragedy, we remember all who suffered that day and since as a result of the Twin Tower attack in New York.

Dr Muiris Houston recalls his own personal experience of 9/11, and how he was only 350 miles away on assignment in the city of Toronto, Canada, when the terrorists attacked.


It is an absolute given: the events of 9/11 irrevocably changed the course of world affairs since the terrorist atrocity took place 10 years ago this week.

As well as the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, one can relate the incredible debt problems presently affecting the US, at least in part, to the fiscal demands of fighting global terrorism.

Mind you, as a new book, Eleventh Day, by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan points out, Iran and Saudi Arabia were probably more culpable in the run up to 9/11 than Saddam Hussein was, but sin scéal eile.

For me personally, the events of that fateful morning are even more deeply etched in my brain cells because I was on assignment for The Irish Times in Toronto, Canada.

Former editor, Conor Brady, was keen to run a week-long series on the health service, with a particular emphasis on how Ireland compared with other countries, such as France, Germany, the UK and Canada.

I was delighted to take on the Canadian assignment; I had worked for three months in Newfoundland in the 1980s and was (and still am) a keen fan of the country’s egalitarian approach to health and social issues.

Earlier that week I looked in depth at cancer and cardiac services in a number of the city’s teaching hospitals, greatly facilitated by Dave McCutcheon, the former CEO of Tallaght Hospital who was running Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital at the time. I had also researched primary care and emergency services and now it was time to talk to the politicians and bureaucrats.

Ministerial cancellation
On September 11, I had an early-morning appointment with the Minister for Health for Ontario. When I arrived at the ministry I was asked to wait while officials raced around me in what can only be described as a controlled frenzy. Sensing something unusual was afoot, I sat in reception trying to figure out what was going on.

Eventually I was told the Minister couldn’t see me because of a developing situation in New York, which was likely to require the transfer of large numbers of burns patients to hospitals in Ontario. At this point I knew nothing about an aircraft flying into the first of the Twin Towers. So I left and wandered in to the nearest hotel to get a cup of tea and to reorganise my day. The Toronto International Film Festival was on at the time and so I joined a throng of people watching TV in the lounge.

On the television one of the Twin Towers was burning. Tuning in to the conversations around me, I learned that a large aircraft had flown into the building. Initially people spoke as if it had been an unfortunate air accident, but it was quickly pointed out by commentators that the flight path looked more deliberate than accidental.

Terror struck
More and more people arrived, and at one point I looked to my left and saw a famous actor beside me. His instantly recognisable trademark malevolent look was staring at the TV with absolute venom. In response to a number of comments on the TV indicating we were witnessing a terrorist attack on New York, and as we watched George Bush being told about the event in front of children at a school he was visiting, the actor snarled at the TV. “Nuke the b******s!,” he said, before marching from the room.

Of course, the situation got far worse with the aircraft hitting the Pentagon and the President being whisked off to Air Force One to ride out any further attacks. Fascination turned to fear; strangely, it was the closure of all North American airspace that shook me most. Here I was on the far side of the Atlantic, due to travel home in 48 hours, with some people openly speculating about World War 3. As I walked from the hotel, I wondered if the QE2 still did transatlantic trips.

That night found me curled up on a sofa, glued to the TV in the basement of a college classmate’s house in the Toronto suburbs. Staying with Frances and Paul was so much more bearable than a lonely hotel room on that apocalyptic night.

In the end, I was on the first British Airways flight to leave Toronto after the airspace was reopened that weekend. But the new reality hit home when we got to Heathrow. Armed police officers questioned us individually as we emerged from the plane. And the luggage I had checked through to Shannon had now to be picked up in a Heathrow car park and rechecked in person onto the Aer Lingus flight.
The post 9/11 world order had commenced.

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