Day the streets were empty in the city that never sleeps

First published in Memories of September 11, 2001

FOR Halliwell man Don Tonge, the memories of September 11, 2001, are “always there and always will be”.

The photographer was in New York on the day of the terror attacks and had planned to visit the World Trade Center that day.

“Had the attacks happened six hours later...,” said Mr Tonge, before trailing off as he recalled what could have been, remembering the chaos, confusion and panic of the aftermath which he found himself caught up in.

“We had planned to go to Coney Island before visiting the financial district and have a meal at the top of the World Trade Center, surrounded by the panoramic views,” said Mr Tonge, who still has the ticket to visit the iconic building.

“Thinking about it and talking about it is very emotional, it brings it back,”

said Mr Tonge, who fought back tears as he recalled the events of that day.

“I know that this year is the 10th anniversary and I would like to attend the service at Victoria Square, though I think I will find it quite emotional.

“When I returned from New York, I wanted to get back to normality but I did break down a few times.”

Mr Tonge, who lives in Halliwell, and has contributed pictures to The Bolton News, had travelled to New York with friend Darren Lowe, who also lives in Halliwell, to watch punk band Stiff Little Fingers.

The first the two heard of the attacks was as Mr Lowe watched the television and shouted to Mr Tonge: “That’s where we are going.”

Mr Tonge said: “At first I did not recognise the building, because the camera had just zoomed in on the top.

“All I could see was smoke and I thought it is a fire. I said we’ll just have to go up the other tower.

“The fire will be out by the time we visit. I never imagined what had actually happened.”

After learning of the true horror, the two went out into the streets.

“Everybody was in shock, they could not believe it, there was no crying or screaming just the sound of sirens from fire engines and police cars.

Nobody knew what was going to happen next. It was complete disbelief.

“It did not feel real, it was like being in a film, that’s how it felt.”

He told how people crowded around a car to listen to the radio to find out what was going on, a cafe owner put out drinks and food for people and Mr Tonge witnessed the “sickening" sight of people gathering dust released from the collapse of the twin towers as a “souvenir”. “One woman just scooped it up from a car,” he recalled, “yet on the other hand the owner of a cafe was handing out food and drinks.”

During the day, Mr Tonge tried desperately to get in touch with his daughter Vicky in Bolton.

He wanted to let her know he was fine but it was midnight before he finally reached her.

In the early hours of the next day the two were making their way back to the hotel in what were hauntingly quiet streets.

“There was nobody about, the streets were empty in a city which is said to never sleep,” said Mr Tonge.

“It was about 1am and this bus had stopped, it was a big commercial bus and was carrying firemen.

“They had their helmets on with their breathing apparatus still on, and covered in dust.

“They were sitting down, their heads down, they looked exhausted, ” said Mr Tonge, who praised fire chiefs in Bolton and the local authority for organising a day to remember those killed by terrorists.

“It is a fitting tribute, all firefighters are like brothers.

“They are in the same profession and face the same dangers.

“To see firefighters being stoned during the riots was unbelievable, they are performing a public service and are there to help and rescue people.”

He added: “I will never forget the moving image of the firefighters on the bus, who had been on the scene all day.”

* Tomorrow: The Big Apple says thank you to Bolton

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