Orleana's one last New York swim before terror, tragedy, and disaster

Just before leaving for their trip to New York in September 2001 Keith Cattell and his wife Orleana learned they had been given an upgrade.

Orleana Cattell of Wolverhampton during her New York trip in September 2001, with the twin towers in the background.
Orleana Cattell of Wolverhampton during her New York trip in September 2001, with the twin towers in the background.

For their four nights in the city, they would now stay at the Marriott Hotel, sitting between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

"We were quite excited at the prospect," recalls Keith, a retired architect from Wolverhampton.

Shortly before the couple left New York to continue their holiday, Orleana enjoyed one last swim in the hotel's rooftop pool. Hours later the hotel was turned to rubble.

Keith Cattell and his wife Orleana.

September 11 sees the 20th anniversary of the co-ordinated terrorist attacks in New York which brought down the twin towers and claimed thousands of lives.

"I thought I ought to jot down our experience of the event for our grandchildren," said Keith, who is now in his late 80s.

They were on a fortnight's tour combining a stay in America with a trip to Canada to visit Orleana's relatives.

"On our first full day in New York we decided that a trip to the top of the South Tower was a must with its viewing platforms and a cinema that would take us on a filmed helicopter trip around New York, enhanced by sitting on moving seats that replicated the movement of the helicopter. To add to the experience, they had also constructed an enormous model of the city on the top floor," says Keith.

Orleana Cattell of Wolverhampton during her New York trip in September 2001, with the twin towers in the background.

"The rest of our stay was spent seeing the sights of New York and before leaving the hotel Orleana had her last swim in the hotel pool that was on the top floor of the 22-storey hotel, a feature designed so that the hotel could be flooded in the event of a fire.

"We also left our postcards at the hotel reception desk for posting when we were leaving."

Their tour party then left by train for Albany, the capital of New York State. The day after leaving New York the couple were in Utica, where they saw a marble slab engraved with the names of fallen firemen, with space left for many more – a memorial to all those who had died on duty in the state.

"I remember wondering how long it might be before they filled it, but looking at the dates and the space left, I estimated it would be many years, perhaps 50. The following day 340 firefighters died at the World Trade Centre," says Keith.

They were at Albany railway station waiting for their train to Canada when they first knew something was amiss.

"I noticed a large television screen on the platform surrounded by a crowd of people, so wandered over to see what the attraction was and, to my amazement, saw a live report on the twin towers that we had left earlier. The picture was horrific with smoke and flames belching from the middle of both towers.

"The word had gone round the crowd that two planes had flown into the towers, so this was obviously no accident. Orleana was shouting at me because our train was about to leave so I had to drag myself away. As we boarded the train the news spread like wildfire.

"Our tour guide who lived in New York was continuously on his phone and relayed news to us. I could see the tears in his eyes as the situation worsened and we were informed that first the South Tower and then the North Tower had collapsed. We were all numbed by this dreadful news.

"We then learned that both towers had fallen onto the Marriott Hotel crushing it completely except for three storeys at one end.

9.58am, September 11, 2001, and the South Tower collapses onto the Marriott Hotel – the top windows lit the rooftop swimming pool where Orleana Cattell had enjoyed one last swim before leaving New York not long beforehand.

"I couldn’t help thinking that if this had happened earlier Orleana could have been in the swimming pool on the top floor, or we could both have been at the top of the South Tower and would not have escaped."

Their train stopped in a small station in Utica, and all the passengers were told to line up on the platform with their luggage, where they were checked, and there was a repeat check when sniffer dogs were taken along the carriages and along their luggage.

"We sat on the train for five hours not knowing what our ‘fate’ would be. Eventually we were told that we would be allowed to proceed but at only 30 miles per hour instead of the usual 75. To our great relief and many hours later we ultimately reached the Canadian border, where our IDs were checked again just before we crossed into Canada.

"We thought all would now be plain sailing, but we were again ordered off the train on the Canadian side where we were treated much worse than on the USA side. We were lined up and spaced out with our luggage where we stood for half an hour and were forbidden from going into the waiting room.

"We eventually reached our hotel at half past midnight after a 16-hour journey, all of us in a state of shock after the day’s events."

The crushed remains of the Marriott Hotel in New York.

They were then able to meet their relatives and friends in Canada. At the end of their Canada stay they flew to Newark airport, as by now the grounding of commercial flights had been lifted.

"As we landed we could see in the distance a plume of smoke still rising from the rubble of the World Trade Centre, a very depressing sight and the end of a holiday we would never forget."

Other buildings which had relevance to the couple were also destroyed. One was a little Greek restaurant and shop where they had enjoyed some meals. Another was a rather stark brick church building standing isolated in a car park.

The little Greek Orthodox Church with the South Tower left and the Marriott Hotel on the right.

"Once inside you were transported to Greece with an interior synonymous with the richness of an ancient Greek Orthodox Church, complete with its icons on the walls, candlesticks and the smell of incense. It was only 100 yards from the South Tower and was destroyed by the collapsing tower."

The glittering interior of the church, photographed just two days before it was destroyed.

On their return to England, the couple found that the postcards to friends and relatives they had left for posting at the reception desk of the Marriott had never arrived.

However, five weeks later the same friends and relatives did receive them, after they were retrieved from the surviving remnant of the hotel, accompanied by a message saying that they had been "retrieved by relief workers and we are sure the senders would have wished it to have been posted on."

Keith says: "The letter was very carefully worded because they did not know whether the sender was one of the 3,000 who died on 9/11."

He added: "We have a small insignificant souvenir of our stay at the Marriott Hotel. It is one of the little bars of chocolate that they leave on your pillow when making up your bed. I ate mine, but Orleana didn’t. This could be the only one remaining."

The Cattells' complimentary chocolate left on their pillows at New York's Marriott Hotel in September 2001 – just hours before the hotel was destroyed.

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