On 11 September 2001, our colleague Monika Iwersen was sitting in the bus on her way to work shortly before 9 a.m. She was just starting out on what she thought was going to be a normal working day at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations in New York. Iwersen, a German diplomat, recounts her experiences of the terrorist attacks in New York and their aftermath as part of our series 'On the frontlines of history'.
The express bus that she takes each day to get to her office at the Deutsches Haus usually goes as far as Wall Street. Little does she know it, but the route is about to be changed.
Shortly before Iwersen gets off at her usual stop close to the UN headquarters, the first announcement is made; there has been an explosion in Lower Manhattan. “At first, I thought it was a gas explosion in a restaurant”, she recalls.
Posted from Bolivia to New York just two months previously, the political desk officer was already beginning to feel at home at the Permanent Mission by September 2001. Her primary focus was on African topics and the Federal Republic’s upcoming candidacy for a two-year membership of the UN Security Council.
Explosion in Lower Manhattan
Shortly after 9 a.m., Monika Iwersen reaches her office, 871 United Nations Plaza, on foot without too much worry. But then she sees what has happened: “A television was on in the entrance area to the Deutsches Haus and you could already see the smouldering towers on the screen.”
Her boss’s office also has a television, which stays on for the rest of the day. It quickly becomes apparent that this must be a terrorist attack.
Rumours abounded that a fourth plane was still in the sky. We were also worried about the UN headquarters as the building was very prominently located on the East River. We didn’t know whether the UN was going to be one of the terrorists’ targets.
Like many other buildings in New York, the headquarters of the United Nations is evacuated immediately. Even though the images broadcast live on television are coming from the same city, the events seem totally unreal to Monika Iwersen.
24‑hour telephone service
A normal day is no longer on the cards in the offices at the Deutsches Haus. At first, the normal telephones are still able to handle the volume of calls as the first concerned German citizens contact the consulate-general.
Together with colleagues from the German consulate-general, a crisis centre is set up that can be reached around the clock:
We had quite a few members of staff at the Permanent Mission, so we volunteered to help man the telephone hotline. We operated the phones 24 hours a day for several days until it became apparent that we had taken most of the calls – the number of callers began to drop.
Even though she only takes telephone calls and forwards them to Berlin where information about possible German victims is being collected, she knows that in some cases there is not much hope.
Quick decision at UN Security Council
Work resumes quickly at the United Nations, primarily behind the scenes: just hours after the attacks, the Security Council ambassadors met “practically in secret at a closed session” to discuss the UN’s initial reaction to the attacks on 12 September. “I found that quite remarkable.”
UN resolution 1368 of 12 September 2001 reaffirmed the self-defence clause, Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations – also after terrorist attacks. The resolution condemned the attacks as a threat to international peace and security and expressed sympathy for the victims. Moreover, resolution 1368 called on the international community to redouble its efforts to work together and fight against all forms of terrorism.
The German position in the United Nations
“We clearly expressed our solidarity with the Americans”, says Monika Iwersen. The attacks left a strong impact on the UN’s work, something which Iwersen experienced in her daily work at the time: “Because terrorism was focused on by a separate committee, and also because of the discussions that were held, of course – firstly about the operation in Afghanistan and then, much later on, with regard to American military involvement in Iraq.” The latter campaign caused a foreign policy rift within the EU and resentment in the USA:
The Americans were putting the Security Council under a great deal of pressure with the Iraq mandate and we, as Germany, had a different position – which we held firm to.
In her working contacts prior to the Iraq operation, she had noticed that the atmosphere with the Americans had soured slightly, relates Monika Iwersen. “The top‑level officials of the permanent mission felt this keenly and had to confront the Americans over the issue.” While the situation improved later on, “things were a little bit difficult for a time”.
A changed city
Of course, it is difficult to predict the political fallout from the terrorist attacks on the evening of 11 September as Monika Iwersen leaves the office after a long day’s work. It was clear to everyone, however, that this day would alter the course of politics dramatically in the coming years and that it was “a turning point”. Iwersen goes home by foot, heading north. The buses are not running as the stops are turned over to the search for missing persons in the days immediately following the attacks.
I vividly recall the signs after 11 September with the word “Missing” at the top, which hung on the bus stations for many days. But you just knew that people were hoping against hope. I found it very distressing. It was moving to see the many stories from the day and the people who were missing.
The streets around the Permanent Mission are deserted, but otherwise normal. Only the smell of something burning, of rubble and ash, reaches the buildings at the Deutsches Haus. A week goes by before Monika Iwersen heads to the vicinity of Ground Zero together with a colleague:
At first, you weren’t allowed in at all – residents had to show their ID. Lower Manhattan was closed south of 14th Street for days. A sea of candles was lit night after night on Union Square. We only managed to get within two or three blocks of the site, then the road was blocked. The smell was particularly intense here; you could virtually see the collapsed pile of rubble. We only went there because it was still unreal for us. We wanted to be able to process what had actually happened.
Monika Iwersen has been Deputy Ambassador at the German Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, since mid 2014.