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NI restaurateur tells how he ran for his life when the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11

Ahead of the 18th anniversary of the atrocity on Wednesday, we talk to a Co Down chef who had to run for his life as the Twin Towers collapsed and, overleaf, to a New York pastor who cared for the survivors and who brings his message of hope to Belfast next week

Day of horror: a plane about to slam into the second tower
Day of horror: a plane about to slam into the second tower
Conor and Bernie McClelland in New York
The Twin Towers explode
Back home: Conor McClelland in Holywood
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

It may have been 18 years ago, but the horrific scenes Co Down man Conor McClelland witnessed at the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 have not faded from his memory.

Over 3,000 people died when hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 were intentionally crashed into the north and south towers of the centre in New York's Lower Manhattan. The victims ranged in age from two to 85 years.

Conor, now a 49-year-old father-of-three, was walking to work near the World Trade Center when the second plane hit.

He recalls the horrific sight of people jumping and falling from windows and had to run for his life and the towers fell.

"My wife, Bernie, and I went out to America in 1994," says Conor, who now runs the award-winning boutique guest house and restaurant, Rayanne House, in Holywood. "I was a chef in a New York Irish restaurant - the Irish Punt - which was next door to the Stock Exchange, around two blocks away from the World Trade Center.

"We lived in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx. On the morning of September 11, as I drove to work, I heard on the radio that there had been an accident and a plane had gone into the World Trade Center.

"I was still of the opinion that it was an accident. And then I looked up and I could see a second plane coming. And, in my own naivety, I thought that it was a plane just coming to have a look.

"It was strange, as you would never have seen a plane over Manhattan. And I just watched it plough straight into the second tower. And then there was this incredible explosion."

Conor adds: "At that point, I knew this wasn't an accident. I just stood at the corner and watched in disbelief. The first tower to be hit was on fire and the smoke was billowing out of it and the second plane went into the second tower much lower.

"I remember thinking that I had to get to work quickly, because there were a lot of staff in there who had poor English and I knew I had to get to them.

"Police were blocking off roads, so I had to take a loop around and I ended up getting really close to the Twin Towers to get into work.

"I was about a block away and I stopped again and watched both the towers on fire. It was the most surreal sight I ever witnessed.

"For me, the horrible vision of that day was watching people jump out of the windows from the towers. The sound of people hitting the ground with the most sickening thud was just horrific. Seeing people hanging out the windows and then falling was the most traumatic thing for me.

"As I was standing looking up at the second tower, I saw it wobble and I thought to myself that it was going to fall and that I needed to run, so I took off. I ran around one corner and I could hear it behind me, falling. It was the loudest sound.

"I could hear all the metal snapping as it was going down, floor by floor. It felt almost like a train was running over my head. There was an old newspaper kiosk on the street in front of me that was closed. I climbed in under that to take cover. I lay there on the ground for 15 minutes as dust covered me and the street and everything.

"After a time, I came out and I couldn't see anything. The dust was so thick I actually had to scoop it out of my mouth.

"I got two blocks from the towers and I went into a deli and asked to use the phone to contact my wife.

"As we spoke, the second tower fell. The deli man ran out and pulled the metal shutters down, but didn't close the door.

"I remember the vacuum, the air being sucked out of the atmosphere as the tower went down and then pushing itself out again along the streets. The metal shutters were buckling in and out. There were five of us in the shop and we all just lay flat on the floor and listened to this unearthly, crazy noise for about 20 minutes.

"And then it went deathly quiet. The deli man opened the shutters again and we all left."

Conor says he managed to reach his restaurant, which had turned into a mini-hospital for victims. He spent the next few hours helping the injured, washing glass from people's eyes and helping people to call their loved ones on one of the only working pay phones left in Manhattan.

"For a period of time, we were in complete fear that there would be another attack," Conor says.

"We were led to believe that there were more planes in the air and we were hearing about the plane that went down in Pennsylvania and another into the Pentagon.

"And there were people coming in with rumours that there were more planes coming for the Stock Exchange, which we were right beside.

"We closed up and got out of there. We went and sat at a bar, not really knowing what to do.

"We lost about 10 friends in the attack who worked up on the 104th floor of the first WTC building. It was just heartbreaking, an awful day and one I will never, ever forget."

Conor says he and Bernie had planned to open a restaurant in New York, but came home to Holywood after the atrocity and set up Rayanne House instead.

"Bernie and I were in the process of buying a New York midtown restaurant when 9/11 happened," he says.

"We were hoping to sign (the lease) on an old Irish bar that we were going to revamp. The 9/11 attack just didn't give us the confidence to go for it.

"It would have been a great site, but it was a little pub sandwiched between loads of skyscrapers.

"And there was this awful fear, especially in the immediate weeks afterwards, and there were continuous scares and panic. That went on for months," Conor adds.

"So, we made the decision to come home. There were a number things that swayed that decision and one of them was the peace process was kicking in and we were reading all this stuff about it being a good time to come home. It just seemed like the right time."

And Conor admits they have never looked back.

"In hindsight, it was the right move for us. We have had three kids now since we've come home. Even just for raising a family, it is good," he says.

"I am married and have three great kids and have a good business. Holywood is a lovely place to live. Something very positive came out of something very dark - that's the only way to look at it."

  • For more information on Rayanne House, go to

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