Eerie comment before disaster
"WE'RE so high, you can see the planes taking off at JFK airport!"
My face was pushed up against the floor-to-ceiling windows that surrounded Windows on the World, the renowned restaurant and bar complex atop the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center.
Just over 48 hours later on September 11, 2001, Windows on the World ceased to exist, as the North Tower collapsed to rubble at 10.28am, after American Airlines Flight 11 flew into it. The South Tour had collapsed 29 minutes earlier. In all, 2753 lives were lost.
My first visit to the Twin Towers was on the last Saturday they were still standing, late in the afternoon on September 8, 2001. It was also my final day in New York before leaving for London.
After seeing a Broadway show matinee, my friend Kath asked if I had ever been to the Twin Towers. When I responded I hadn't, we were soon in a taxi heading about as far downtown as you could get.
No one ever called the Twin Towers beautiful. In fact, when the complex first opened in 1973, they were described as "a monstrosity" for their brutal appearance on the Manhattan skyline. But the sight of them as I stepped out of the taxi, seeing the way they connected the ground with the sky at almost half a kilometre tall, was majestic.
Windows on the World was on the 107th floor, a complex of two restaurants and a bar. Getting there was an adventure in itself. There was an express elevator, but on our visit, it was out of order, so we were instead ushered into an elevator that took us to the 78th floor Sky Lobby. From there, we had to walk to the other side of the building and take another elevator up to Windows on the World.
Waiting to greet us at the Sky Lobby was a smiling attendant who escorted us to the next elevator.
He was, however, mighty proud of his corner of the building, and even though we were heading upstairs, wanted us to take a moment so he could show off his views.
"Look at it - the whole world is out there," he proclaimed as he signalled at the vista. And he was right - the sight of New York outside the tall windows was amazing.
Another elevator and another 23 stories up, arriving at the restaurant and bar was like entering another world. This was as high as you could get inside a New York building.
The first restaurant opened in 1976, and it was often said that the grandness of the sky-high dining experience changed many critic's opinion of the Twin Towers. The view of them might have been questionable, but there was nothing wrong with the view looking out.
Windows on the World was a step back in time to the 1970s, with a grand open area across several levels.
It was not kitsch, but it was definitely from another era. I exclaimed to Kath, "This looks like the bar at the top of the building in The Towering Inferno," as the Twin Towers opened a year after that 1975 movie.
That innocent comment would haunt me in light of the events of the coming days.
As we sat on high stools at the Greatest Bar on Earth, the view out of the giant windows turned on the best show in town, as the light and colours of the late afternoon faded to dusk.
It felt like a rarefied space, looking out upon the world from our sky-high perch. After a few hours of superb cocktails, however, it was time to bid farewell.
Again, we had to change lifts at the 78th floor, and again, the friendly attendant was waiting for us.
"Isn't it something up there, but it's still pretty good here - get a final look before the sunset slips away," he insisted. And with him by our side again, I found myself standing at the glass looking out at New York, one last time.
I thought of that man days later when, by this time sitting in my London hotel, I watched in horror on TV as the buildings I had been in just over 48 hours earlier were hit by planes and collapsed into dust. I wondered if he had been working that day, and if he got out in time. Flight 11 smashed into the 93rd floor, so there was every chance he made it out.
As for the barman who served our drinks and the waiters who delivered our meals, there was no hope for any of them if they were working that Tuesday morning, as the crash severed all elevator shafts and stairway exits.
Windows on the World was busy that morning with breakfast meetings.
Watching TV footage of the people hanging out of smashed windows of Windows on the World, desperately gasping for air amid the black smoke and trying to attract attention to be rescued, sent chills through me.
Some of them looked like they were wearing uniforms and some appeared to be waving tablecloths. Some of these were surely the same people I had been face-to-face with days before.
Approximately 170 men and women who were at Windows on the World at the time perished.
Jonathan Eric Briley, the man later identified as "The Falling Man" in the iconic picture of a man plunging to his death, was a restaurant employee.
One year later, I was back in New York. By this time, the ground zero clean-up was complete and in place of the two monumental towers I recalled so vividly was a gaping hole that looked like an open sore.
Across the road was the old Trinity Church, which even 12 months later, still had posters and
signs put up by loved ones in a desperate bid to find the thousands of people who had been lost in the carnage.
As I walked past the signs, there was one that caught my eye. It was a smiling picture of an older African-American man, stating he had worked in a Sky Lobby of the North Tower, requesting any information on his whereabouts.
My thoughts flashed back to that Saturday night of what seemed so very long ago. Could it have been the same man who so proudly showed off his turf within that landmark building? It's a question I still think about every time the 9/11 anniversary comes around.