Interview: Eyewitness account of 9/11

At this time I do not trust anyone with beard. To me they represent fanatics and extremists. Neither do I have any time for preachers. I have been fortunate to have good and sincere friends and they take me for what I am.

He was lucky to escape the horrendous attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 and got home safely but those 3,000 people were not fortunate enough who lost their lives on that fateful day.

Syed Hussain is a Pakistani American who was working in the basement of the Twin Towers on 9/11 as an air conditioning engineer. The World Trade Center included not just the two towers but six buildings including a hotel and administrative buildings and all of them came down as a result of the attack.

Syed Hussain has been living in New York with his family for the last 30 years. He left Pakistan in 1968 after completing a four-year apprenticeship training in Karachi and worked as a marine engineer on merchant ships in England. He stayed in England for 15 years before he moved to New York in 1980.

I met Hussain incidentally when I was visiting New York last June. We started talking about his profession and as soon he told me he was working in the Twin Towers on 9/11 my journalistic instinct all of a sudden woke up and we started a long discussion on his frightening memories of that day.

Here is an eyewitness account of his 9/11 ordeal:

What were your responsibilities working in the Twin Towers buildings and how long you worked there?

I joined the World Trade Center in 1983 and became an HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) engineer after taking a few tests and worked there for 19 years until that fateful day. I was part of a team of about 100 men who operated and maintained that complex. We ran the second largest air conditioning plant in the world; the largest one is in Saudi Arabia.

Please narrate what happened on 9/11 when the World Trade Center was attacked. How did you find out about the attack and how you managed to escape?

That day like the previous five years my duties included starting and maintaining the equipment in building 4 which was a smaller one but important because it housed the Mercantile Commodity Exchange that had offices of several trade companies. It would take me over an hour to start the equipment in the morning and then I would head back to my base which was located in the second basement of the Twin Tower 1. I heard a woman screaming that a plane hit the building as she came out of an elevator. At the same time I noticed the lights went out for a few seconds. I knew that my equipment was not running at this time because a transformer within the building might have caught fire and emergency power came on. So I ran down below where the equipment room was and started everything back again.

Then I went outside to see the plane the woman was yelling about. Sure enough there was a small hole in the tower and looked like something was stuck there. It was not clear because it was too high. I thought it might have been a small plane that ran into the tower, it happened once before. I came back in the building but I felt something was not right as there was smell of smoke and people were leaving instead of coming in but strangely they were all quiet.

I could not go against the crowd so I went out with them and walked to the East on Church Street where I saw the first signs of the devastation, body parts, plane parts, people jumping down from the windows, and the fire on the top floor. I was calling my co-workers over my walkie-talkie to get out of the building but no one answered. Later I ran into one of my co-worker Jerry and he told me to come with him to the pump station across the West Side Highway. That is where everyone was gathering for the headcount. We went to the Highway and then we saw the other plane flying in to the other tower.

The people gathered on the road were crying and streaming. I froze which seemed like an eternity but it was a few seconds because I joined the crowd running away from the clouds of dust that were coming towards us. A cop, Jerry and I ran toward the Hudson River and took refuge on one of those wooden piles below the street level and above the water till the thick cloud left us.

Jerry, another co-worker Hector and I later boarded the ferry to the Staten Island. Jerry lived there .His wife was gracious enough to wash our uniforms .We cleaned up, caught our breath then later at night Jerry drove us to Brooklyn from where I went to Long Island to my home.

I was able to call my wife from Jerry’s home. When I got home my wife was waiting at the door and we sat together and cried. I was thinking what had just happened. It seemed like a long time but the whole thing was like a movie in fast forward.  

There are several conspiracy theories about 9/11. Some people still think the towers were destroyed because of an internal explosion as they came down so quickly. As an engineer who was there at the time of attack did you notice any explosion inside the building?

Conspiracy theories, that’s exactly what they are. Towers were built with steel square columns held by steel beams called transoms screwed into the columns and concrete poured to form the floors. In short the towers fell exactly the way they were designed to like pancakes. That is the floors landed on top of each other. The explosions that were heard were caused by the burning jet fuel ending up in elevator shafts and blowing the elevators and/or shafts.

4. Were you investigated by intelligence or security people after the attack being a Muslim working in the building at the time of attack? If not why they left you alone?

I was interviewed by a few foreign film crews but never investigated by anyone for whatever reason. One has to remember that similar event happened in 1993 and the truck loaded with explosives blew up right outside our lunchroom in the basement 2 of the Tower1. So I believe my name was fairly known to the Port Authority Police because one police officer who had fell in the hole and I was among other people who helped pull him out.

5. Did the incident affect you psychologically? How did you manage to come out of the shock in the aftermath of the incident? How are you doing now?

So yes I am very much affected by the 9/11 event. I had to go for therapy for quite some time and for me it still feels like yesterday not ten years. I had a lot of rage in me. My faith in Islam in particular and in religion in general was badly shaken. I had to remind my self every moment that it was an act of hatred by some mad men and no my faith in humanity was not hijacked and it did not have any connection with Islam.

At this time I do not trust any one with beard. To me they represent fanatics and extremists. Neither do I have any time for preachers. I have been fortunate to have good and sincere friends and they take me for what I am.

6. In your opinion what was the impact of 9/11 on Muslims in the United States specifically and around the world generally? There are several million Muslims working in the U.S. as law abiding citizens who are not terrorists. How did it affect their social and professional life?

I feel bad for my sons and many others of this younger generation who have lost all trust in any and all religions. They have a tougher time coming to grips with this whole thing that people can actually kill each other in the name of their faith. For that I will never forgive those who were responsible for 9/11. I feel all Muslims in the non-Muslim world were adversely affected by 9/11.

7. Did you notice prejudice and discrimination personally after 9/11 as a Muslim in your professional or social life?

Our younger generation will be discriminated against for many years to come and economically and socially they will be at a great disadvantage. They might lose faith in humanity and in fairness. They might tend to form a separate society and that may create a larger gulf between them and the social norms as we know them at this time.

8. Did you go back to see Ground Zero again?  

Two years after the 9/11 attack, I went back to see Ground Zero and a former colleague of mine, who was still working for the Port Authority, showed me an amazing old train station under the World Trade Center, which was abandoned long before 9/11. The station was surprisingly intact with no damage.

I guess my colleague was trying to show me that some things can not be destroyed including high spirits and hope for a bright future!

  2 comments for “Interview: Eyewitness account of 9/11

    September 10, 2011 at 1:01 am

    Syed Hussain’s personal account well narrated. I have seen ground zero myself a couple of years back after start of the reconstruction work. Really devastating and sad… Truly a black day in the history of man kind… I should have been in Marriott Hotel Islamabad the evening when the truck bomb destroyed the building and made a big hole on the ground… Pakistanis have also suffered a lot after 9/11… We deserve a break now!

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