How I experienced 9/11

It took place far away, but oddly close by

The Friedel Chronicles
5 min readSep 11, 2023

It was twenty-two years ago, to the day. Wife Ingrid, who was at the dentists, suddenly rushed back home and said: “Quick, switch on the TV!” One of the doctors had told everyone in the practice that there was some very alarming news.

For the next six or eight hours we sat there, transfixed, watching the most horrific terrorist attack in history. During this coverage two things happened that have stuck in my mind. Our friend Birgit came over on a surprise visit. She watched in horror with us, and around midnight she said she wanted to stay over. There was no way she could go home, where she lived alone. The next day she spent many hours trying to contact a friend who worked in the World Trade Center. She found her. The friend had luckily taken the morning off. That had saved her life.

The second incident during the coverage on September 11 was a casual call I received from my friend Nigel, a world-class chess player. He started the call with a joke. “Nigel,” I interrupted, “switch on the TV!” He was baffled. He was in Argentina — how could I know what was on TV there? “Just switch it on,” I insisted. He reluctantly did. I heard him exclaim, “Holy sh**!”

The 9/11 attack captured by Flickr user Michael Foran

In New York my good friend Stepan, who lives in an apartment building on the banks of the Hudson, was wakened by a noise outside his bedroom window. He looked out and then grabbed his camera. Stepan shot the following set of pictures of the attack in progress:

Stepan watched it happen, all the way to the collapse of both buildings.

We learned all about what took place on September 11, 2001 in the days and weeks that followed. Four coordinated attacks had been staged by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda. They resulted in 2,977 fatalities, 25,000 injuries, and over $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage.

I had a special connection to the twin towers. I had visited them a number of times, because the company SciSys/Saitek, which manufactured chess playing computers, had their US office in one of the towers. I was considered an expert in Artificial Intelligence and was advising them. In 1995 Intel sponsored the world chess championship, a battle between Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand. The prize fund was 1.5 million US$. I was one of the organizers, and we decided to stage it on the Observation Deck on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, 400 meters above New York City’s financial center Wall Street. Here are some pictures I took during the event.

The legendary World Champion Garry Kasparov ponders a move
Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan explaining the position in the VIP room
Son Thomas Friedel feeling a bit queasy while looking down on Manhattan

I proposed two ideas to Intel: one was to stage a public relations game with each of the players on top of separate towers, within sight of each other; and secondly, during the match itself, to signal the winner of each game with a laser beam into the sky coming from the Kasparov or the Anand tower. Unfortunately, both ideas did not materialize, for technical reasons.

In any case I spent quite some time in the World Trade Center. I was back home in Hamburg, Germany, when disaster struck. I should mention that the above pictures are taken from a report on my company news page. The news page was launched on September 12th, 2001, and this was the very first report I posted with our brand new content management system.

I edited this news page for over 20 years, publishing an average of three reports per day. It is still going strong, run by an editorial team, with me listed as the “Editor-in-Chief emeritus” (= theoretically in retirement).

The attacks were perpetrated by nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers, who boarded four commercial flights. Some of them, “muscle hijackers”, used box cutters to physically force the passengers and crew of the four planes to comply with their demands. They took control of the cockpits, after which the hijackers with flight training took control of the planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The ringleader of the hijackers was Mohamed Atta, who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. When his identity and his background became known, there was a second shock waiting for us.

Atta, who was 33 years old, had studied civil engineering at the University of Cairo. In 1992, after graduating, he moved to Germany to pursue a master’s degree. He became involved in the Islamic fundamentalist movement, and in 1999 travelled to Afghanistan to meet Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. There he was recruited to carry out the September 11 attacks.

The shock for us: Atta had conducted his post-graduate studies at the Technical University of Hamburg Harburg, and had stayed in a flat close to it. Now both these places are in short walking distance from where we were (and still are) living. It is chilling to think that in the years that Atta spent here, we must have encountered him, seen him in the Harburg city center where people congregate, shop and eat, travelled on buses or on the underground with him. Once, when I had my passport refreshed, I asked the official in charge whether he had seen Atta. He sagged in his seat. “Yes, the guy was here, where you are currently sitting, a number of times.”

There was another consequence to the proximity of Atta to us in Hamburg. We had hosted an exchange teacher from the US in our house, and later Andrea came on visits, a couple of times. “When I arrive in Germany,” she said, “at immigration they take me away and put me into a room with brown men, for questioning.” The reason: in her visa she gave our address as the place where she would be staying. And the Atta proximity flagged her for investigation.

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The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.