No one can forget that day – even those who weren’t in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. While the terrorists behind 9/11 wanted to tear apart a symbol of American power, their attack also had a profound impact on the lives of many communities living in New York – including the 80,000 French expats and the thousands of others visiting the city that week.
That Tuesday morning, Michel Orengo, then the development director for a new start-up at AIG, was supposed to arrive earlier than usual to welcome two new employees to the offices at 80 Pine Street, a few minutes from the World Trade Center. But his 34th birthday and a recent return from a vacation in Bermuda made it difficult to rush. “My wife and my two-year-old son had stuck a candle in a croissant,” says the Antibes native. “I blew it out and I left.”
Powerless in the Face of Disaster
When the first plane hit the north face of the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., Mireille Guiliano, then CEO of Veuve Clicquot in the United States (she published the bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat several years later), was about to have breakfast with her husband before taking a plane to Paris. “We saw the fire in the tower. No one on the radio knew what it was, so we turned on the television.” At that moment, from the immense picture window of their apartment on 14th Street overlooking Lower Manhattan, the couple watched, powerless, as the Boeing 767 on the United Airlines flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. It was 9:03 a.m. “It was horrible. I immediately though of all the company’s young sales representatives who were on business trips. I felt responsible. I decided to go to the office, which back then was on 55th Street.”
While passing through the Brooklyn Bridge station on the line 4 of the subway, Michel Orengo heard the sirens before the conductor announced that trains were no longer stopping at Fulton Street, at the foot of the World Trade Center, due to an emergency situation. “I left the subway at Wall Street around 9:20 a.m. and there were loads of burning computer listings flying around me,” he says. “When I looked up, I realized that one of the towers was on fire. I remember thinking how odd it was, given all the security systems in place.”
He calmly made his way to his office on the fourth floor, unaware that two commercial planes had already hit the Twin Towers until he saw his colleagues. The internet was down, so one of the new employees on a call with a friend asked him to put the telephone next to the television. “We had CNN on loudspeaker,” says Michel. “And I was on another line joking around with a friend. I just didn’t realize what had happened.”
As the minutes went by, the young father decided to go outside and assess the situation in order to give his team members directions. He walked up Maiden Lane toward Broadway to see the damage, but when he arrived at the Federal Reserve Bank, the first tower collapsed. “Everyone was shouting and we saw a huge cloud of black dust coming for us. I found shelter in the lobby of an office building just before they closed the doors to stop the smoke getting in.” The space was filled with people, some coughing, others crying. Michel then decided to leave, his shirt over his nose and mouth, and headed toward the East River. Big mistake.
The Collapse of the Second Tower
“I was walking on two inches of dust,” he later wrote in an email to his family and friends. “I tried to get into another building but all the doors were locked. So, just like everyone else, I walked north with the crowd in a cloud of smoke that was burning our eyes. I heard the second tower collapse when we reached Chinatown. I didn’t look back.”
After walking for an hour having been able to hail a cab, Mireille Guiliano finally arrived at her office. “There was hardly anyone there, and the people I was able to contact by telephone were shocked. It was a horrific day and I quickly understood that I would temporarily become a therapist to help my panicked colleagues. No one is ever prepared for this sort of thing.”
At the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue near Central Park where he had rented two rooms to set up a makeshift hair salon, Julien Farel saw the two planes hitting the towers on television. “My assistant and I canceled all our appointments for the day and tried to find out if our friends were OK.” After sending his business partner back home, he decided to drive around Manhattan on his motorbike. “It was all black. It was like everything had stopped and New York had lost its soul.”
To the north of the city on 87th Street, in a room at the Belnord Hotel, Aymeric Advinin and his two friends woke up to reports from shocked journalists on television. “We didn’t believe it at first; we thought it was the trailer for the Spider-Man movie.” The group of friends, all in their early twenties, had arrived from Lyon four days earlier for the trip of a lifetime. One of the first places they visited was the top floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “Like penniless tourists,” says Aymeric, “we snuck up to the Windows on the World restaurant [on the 106th and 107th floors] to admire the view.”
When the news brought them back to reality, the three journalism students prepared their camera, left the hotel and walked towards Lower Manhattan, against the tide of shocked crowds. “The further we went, the more security we saw,” says Aymeric, who now works for French daily Le Dauphiné Libéré in the Lyon region. “We knew what was happening thanks to the radios blaring from cabs that had left their doors open. Twenty streets from the towers, we saw huge mushroom clouds of smoke. I remember seeing a woman who had put out cups of apple juice on a folding chair for people arriving covered in ash.” After trying unsuccessfully to get past the police roadblocks, the trio decided to turn back. “We originally wanted to go watch a movie, but everything was closed. We bought postcards with the Twin Towers on them from Times Square, and it wasn’t until that evening that we truly realized the scale of the disaster.”
“Death Filled the Streets”
In the days that followed, everyone tried to deal with the trauma as best they could. Aymeric and his friends rented a car in New Jersey and left the next day for Montreal as planned, with a certain sense of relief. “We didn’t know how to cross the Hudson River, but we finally found a valiant cab driver. The customs agent at the Canadian border spoke French, which made us feel slightly at home and also far from the United States.” As they did not want to go back to New York, they did everything they could to fly back to France from Quebec – but in vain. They ended up boarding a plane at JFK on September 20. When they landed the following day, the were greeted by the news of the explosion at the AZF factory in Toulouse.
In Lower Manhattan, toxic dust clouds had become part of daily life. “We didn’t know what was going to become of New York,” says Julien Farel. “It was like a bomb had gone off. It felt like death had filled the streets. Every time we went out, we were hit with the stifling smell of burning.” “In our neighborhood, several small stores were unable to restock their shelves for a long time because the trucks couldn’t drive through to Manhattan,” says Mireille Guiliano. “Work became something of an outlet for a lot of people; no one wanted to stay at home.”
None of the four French citizens lost anyone in the tragedy, and those living in New York decided to stay. Twenty years on, life has returned to normal, aside from the annual memorial services. But when they talk about it, their voices are filled with a palpable emotion and tinged with an inescapable sadness. It took a long time for them to visit the “hole” at Ground Zero. Meanwhile, Michel Orengo, now the senior director of data solutions at Moody’s Analytics, has worked for a long time in an office at 7 World Trade Center overlooking the two memorial pools. This year he is trying, without much success, to enjoy his 54th birthday. “It makes me uncomfortable because everyone remembers my birthday but no one wants to celebrate it.”
A ceremony honoring the French victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001, will take place in front of the French Consulate in New York (934 Fifth Avenue) on September 12, 2021, from 9:30 to 10 am.