September has always been one of my favourite months, as leaves begin to slowly transform into bright reds and yellows. The need for a jacket and the anticipation of a new season brings finality to summer, but unfortunately for me, and many others, this much-loved time of year was changed to horrific terror, 19 years ago, last week.
Each one of us will remember where we were on that terrifying morning in 2001, but for some of us the loss was closer to home. I vividly remember September the tenth, as I drove to the airport for a flight to Phoenix to meet some friends. I have always enjoyed Phoenix, especially in the autumn, as the weather is warm and the air is dry. I arrived without incident and checked into the beautiful Legacy Resort.
Jet lagged and tired, I spent a few hours photographing the countryside and decided to turn in early. I woke up around 5:30 (jet lag will do that to you), turned the TV on, and saw the now immortalized image of the World Trade Centre with smoke rising from it. I remember Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s anchor, speculating that a small plane had hit the tower. Suddenly, directly before my eyes, I watched as a second plane, a jetliner, crashed into the second tower.
Events unfolded and the word terror was used for the first time. I was stunned, and slowly began to realize the impact of the event. One of the people I was to meet in Phoenix, worked in the Trade Centre, along with another good friend, Bernard from Toronto. I tried to telephone, but nothing in New York was working. I showered and dressed, and made my way to the lobby for some breakfast and further news.
The hotel was nearly empty, and when I realized all air traffic had been halted and planes in the air were rerouted back to their points of origin, I knew it would be a very different trip than what I had anticipated. I met two people from South Africa and Chile, and, being the only non-Americans there, we chatted about the only topic in anyone’s mind that day. Not since the first invasion of Iraq had CNN covered a live news event of this magnitude. The sensationalism and repet-itiveness was depressing.
We were told no one else would arrive that day and, as we, along with Mike Tyson, who was also staying there, would be the only guests, were kindly upgraded to multi room suites.
The day unfolded and the shock of the catastrophic events was in the foreground of every thought, conversation and action. I was able to get through to New York, only to learn my friend Bernard had been on the 97th floor of the Trade Centre at the wrong time. I was devastated and the surrealness of the situation had not registered. I then found out, my other friend, Chuck, instead of heading to the airport, stopped at his office in the Trade Centre before heading to LaGuardia. He never made it out.
There was nowhere to turn without hearing the repetition of the morning’s events. I wanted to get back to Toronto, and recalled, looking up at the skies in one of the south-west’s busiest cities, not seeing so much as one airplane. The next morning I received a call from the car rental company asking if I would be willing to return the rental car, and they would pay me a bonus. People were trying to get back to wherever they came from and the rental companies were out of cars. I declined, for I had no idea of how long I might be stranded in Arizona, and the thought of me driving north to Calgary had not been ruled out.
The next day, in an attempt to get away from the repetitious news, I decided to take the rental north to the Grand Canyon. The beauty of the mountains and desert landscape made me appreciate my surroundings. The splendour of the vastness of the canyon was mind blowing. I spent the night in Sedona, but the constant cloud of what had happened hung over everyone’s head.

I stayed in Phoenix for six days before I was able to leave, and found a unique kinship when I stepped on an Air Canada flight. All I had witnessed, about the tragic events of September 11th, had been through American media. As detailed and concise as it was, I did not feel I was getting a complete perspective. It was good to see Peter Mansbridge’s face on the aircraft monitor.
The airlines, of course, were hit hard, as they were the source of all the destruction. Ironically the knives on my flight had been replaced by plastic ones; however, the forks were still made of steel. The movie, one of the Mission Impossible instalments, had been replaced by Moulin Rouge, which somehow did not fit the mood.
Here we are, nineteen years later and boy has our world changed. Air travel is no longer fun, when we are able to do it; in fact, aside from the pandemic, travel in general is no longer what it used to be. We walk around suspicious of packages we see, or people dressed differently. We are being watched by cameras at every intersection and inside every building, and security has moved to the forefront of everyone’s mind.
The world is a different place and living with potential threats, or terrors as we call them, is commonplace for all of us; all except Bernard and Chuck, and the thousands of others, who unwillingly had their lives taken abruptly. For me and for many others, September will never be the same.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube. TV, the Standard Website or YouTube