On the morning of September 11, 2001, Eamon, my 46-year-old husband, had a sudden attack of vertigo as he prepared to go to work. Such attacks weren’t unprecedented, but Eamon hadn’t had one for more than a year.
I wanted him to stay home, but characteristically he wouldn’t. A determined and dutiful man, he pressed on, pausing only to say ‘see you later’ before heading out to begin the two-hour dawn commute he so hated from our home in Connecticut to downtown New York.
Eamon worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services conglomerate, on Floor 105 of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. Neither I nor our four adored and adoring children would ever see him again.
But even in the immediate aftermath of his death, I was plagued by questions. Why did he have vertigo on that particular day? Why was he so determined to go to work? What if I had convinced him to stay at home?
These ‘what if’ questions kept running around my brain, not least because the vertigo suddenly began to fit with the strange behaviour that my otherwise healthy and creative husband had been exhibiting for some months.
Looking back, it seems clear: Eamon had a series of premonitions of his death. he had always believed he would die young. He predicted he would not survive the Millennium and reminded me time and again that the new Millennium technically began in 2001, not 2000.
As September arrived, his anxiety was clearly growing. He spent a family gathering discussing the possibility of another terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre (the North Tower had been bombed in 1993) and debating escape routes with his brother.
Should he lead his employees up to the roof or down the 100-plus flights of stairs, as he had done in ’93? Eventually they agreed on the roof, where they were confident there would be helicopters to rescue people.
Two days later, Eamon displayed more signs of unease.
‘Bonnie,’ he announced, ‘you’d better start applying more discipline to the children because when I’m gone you’re going to have a hard time.’
‘But you’re the disciplinarian,’ I answered. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but I’m not going to be here that long . . . You’ll find out.’
With hindsight, there’s no question in my mind that Eamon knew his death was imminent. But who was guiding him? Where was he getting his information and spiritual strength?
In the aftermath of 2001, I asked myself those sorts of questions a million times. But I was also getting to know many of the other families bereaved on 9/11 and was curious whether anybody else had experienced premonitions like Eamon’s.
What I started to learn was astonishing. Not only had many victims and their surviving relatives experienced extraordinary premonitions, but many grieving relatives reported physical signs of their loved ones’ continuing presence.
Some stories were immensely moving, like that of the grieving family who went to Ground Zero for the first time three years after the attacks on the very day that the remains of their lost loved one, 39-year-old James Kelly, another Cantor employee, were finally identified. Quite some coincidence.
By then I had experienced something almost as unexpected, when a New York City police officer arrived at our front door and handed me a velvet box. In it was Eamon’s wedding ring. It’s a fragile puzzle ring made of four interlocking gold bands. To this day, I can’t understand how it could possibly have survived, let alone been found in the mountain of still-burning rubble at Ground Zero.
To me, having this ring back was a miracle and I viewed it as a sign from my husband – a message that everything would be OK.
Before researching this book, I’d have been pretty sceptical about such things but now – well, I can no longer question the existence of a spiritual, possibly divine, component to all of this.
Taken singly, many of these things could be dismissed as coincidence or a side-effect of immense grief, but the fact that so many 9/11 families were experiencing similar phenomena made it all more difficult to dismiss.
Take for example Michael Iken, who died in the South Tower and who had met Monica, his wife-to-be, on September 11, 1999. They were married a year later, but their wedding service had to pause for a moment when a jet zoomed over so loudly they couldn’t hear their own vows.
‘We’re jinxed,’ said Michael. Like Eamon, his anxiety seemed to increase in September 2001. In the days before the 11th, he and Monica drove to Boston for the weekend, where they booked themselves into a hotel near the airport. But Michael’s strange behaviour continued. he refused to let Monica take any photos of him and was clearly ill at ease.
In the end, he snapped. ‘We have to get out of here right now.’ They left a day early. Only later would it emerge that the hijackers were in Boston that same weekend.
On Monday, September 10, Monica wanted to go to New York City to visit a sick relative, but Michael became very upset. ‘No,’ he told her, ‘don’t come to New York. I don’t want you in the city. I don’t want to worry about you all day.’
Monica did speak to her husband after the first tower was hit, when everyone assumed it was some sort of freak accident, but when she called back later all she got was the busy signal.
That night, she fell asleep, still hoping her husband was alive. In the morning, she woke to see what she thought was Michael standing at the door. ‘I’m OK; everything is fine,’ he said.
Monica could see the light around him. ‘I knew he was gone; I felt the finality of what he was saying.’ To this day, she isn’t sure whether this was a dream or some kind of physical manifestation, but it felt very real.
Other relatives had similar experiences in the chaos and confusion of the immediate aftermath – either a vision of their loved one or a strong feeling of their presence that would reassure and then disappear with what many described as a ‘whoosh’.
Whatever those visions were, many have talked of the deep sense of peace that settled on them afterwards. Their loved ones had come to say goodbye. Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old equity trader, was one of the heroes of September 11. When the towers collapsed, he was among those brave souls heading back up the stairs to rescue others.
But in the weeks before the attack, Welles, normally a glass-half-full kind of guy, had seemed, if not depressed, then certainly restless. he told his father he was thinking of giving up equity trading and joining the New York Fire Department. Both men were already volunteer firemen.
Looking over some old college photos just days before the attack, Welles said: ‘Mom, I don’t know what this means. But I do know this: I’m meant to be part of something really big.’
From here on, it was his mother who grew progressively more anxious, not her son. By the end of Monday, September 10, she was convinced something was dreadfully wrong and could barely control her panic.
On getting home, she tried to turn on her computer, but it short circuited and died. She went to bed, was unable to sleep and got up at 6am the next day to go to the gym.
Walking over a bridge, she suddenly realised what everything that happened the day before all meant. ‘I’m going to die today,’ she thought.
But it wasn’t her – it was her son. Like thousands of others, she and her husband spent the next few days calling hospitals and praying. But she was also beating herself up for not having done something to save Welles. Why hadn’t she realised what her panic and alarming sense of being blown apart had meant?
She fell into the habit of calling hospitals, desperately trying to find her son, in the middle of the night, when it was quieter. It was on the third night that she suddenly felt Welles was there with her.
I was suddenly surrounded by a feeling of peace. I could almost hear him saying: “It’s OK, Mom – it’s OK.” I knew then that Welles was dead, and I knew I wouldn’t find him in hospital.
His body was eventually found in March 2002, alongside firefighters and emergency workers who had been running a command centre in the lobby of the South Tower.
One of the most harrowing stories to emerge from 9/11 is that of Ruth McCourt, who died with her four-year-old daughter Juliana, when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.
In the cruellest of twists, Ruth’s best friend and Juliana’s godmother, Paige, had decided to go with them but ended up on a different flight. She was on American Airlines flight 11, which hit the North Tower.
Like Eamon and Michael, Ruth’s mood had changed as 2001 went on.
David, her husband of seven years, felt she was distancing herself from him. One day she turned to him and said: ‘If anything happens to me, put my ashes in Ireland.’
Only after her death did David learn that Ruth had told several people that she thought something catastrophic was going to happen.
On the night before their flight, with Ruth and Juliana staying with her godmother Paige to be nearer to the airport, David spoke to his wife on the telephone for the last time.
‘We said goodbye and I started to put the phone down. Then I saw an explosion, like a big light going off in my head. It was so monumental I had to sit down. I was stunned and silent and frozen for about 30 seconds.
‘I remember thinking to myself: “My God, what was that?” I was debating whether to call Ruth back, and I was experiencing a feeling of total composure, a feeling of comfort. So I just went on with what I was doing. The rest is history.’
I don’t pretend to understand the cause of some of the extraordinary phenomena I’ve encountered. But I do believe that somehow, even in death, my husband Eamon was able to offer me signs of reassurance, guidance and love.
There was the huge blue heron that suddenly appeared in 2002 as our pastor drove me into the local cemetery. Just such a bird had patrolled the waterside at my father’s Florida home. So when I saw it – a very unusual sight in Connecticut in February – I took it as a good sign.
Weeks later when I returned to the cemetery, to pick the spot for Eamon’s grave, I couldn’t find anywhere I thought was right. I shut my eyes and felt a new warmth flow through my body as the sun broke through. When I looked up, there it was again. The great blue heron. We’d found the spot where Eamon would be buried.
Some 2,000 people had come to Eamon’s memorial service. But, months earlier, he’d already said a quiet goodbye of his own. It came a couple of days after 9/11, when I was staring out at the wonderful garden he had created. It just didn’t seem possible he could be dead.
Without thinking about it, I yelled: ‘Eamon, where are you?’
Everything around me was still – not a ripple in the air. Then I heard a gust of wind, building in intensity. It was making patterns though the leaves, swirling and turning as it came towards me. Then suddenly it stopped . . . cold . . . just like that. No sound. No breeze.
My question had been answered and I didn’t have any doubt about what I’d just experienced. ‘He’s gone,’ I thought, ‘it’s over.’
Messages: signs, Visits and Premonitions from Loved Ones Lost on 9/11 is published by William Morrow at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.99 (incp&p) call 0845 155 0720.