An Interview with Hans Kunnen, WTC 3 Survivor, Eyewitness to Second WTC Plane

by Hammer. Italian translation is available here.

Every account of the survivors of 9/11 has something that makes it unique and worthy of being reported, and there is no better way to preserve that memory than reading the words of someone who experienced directly such an epochal event. For this reason, the Undicisettembre group is publishing an interview granted by one of those survivors, who has an especially touching story to tell: Hans Kunnen.

Mr Kunnen (quoted here with his permission) is an Australian citizen who on 9/11 was in the US on business and found himself stranded in a foreign land with few personal items and with no way to get home for several days.

His story also provides further refutation (if any is needed) of the wild conspiracy theories related to 9/11. In particular, as an eyewitness to the impact of United Airlines flight 175 against the South Tower of the World Trade Center, Kunnen's account fully dispels the so-called “no plane” theories.

We'd like to thank Hans Kunnen for his kindness and willingness to share his harrowing experience.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember, generally speaking, about that day? Can you give us a brief account of your experience?

Hans Kunnen: It was a very normal New York day, with fine weather and blue sky. It was the last day of a NABE [National Association for Business Economics, Nabe.com] conference I was attending. I was in the WTC Marriott hotel at a breakfast meeting, listening to a speaker from Morgan Stanley. When the first plane hit we heard a distant thud, like an explosion. Lights, chandeliers and tables shook. People started screaming, left all their belongings and ran for the exit. I remained seated, since there appeared to be no immediate danger. My mind was not on a terrorist attack because I had forgotten about the attack on the WTC in the 1990s.

Within a minute or two, there were only three of us left in the room. We wandered out to see what had happened. People were coming in from the Plaza to escape falling debris and – apparently – burning jet fuel. I tried to go upstairs to my room to get my suitcases so I would be in a position to fly out in the afternoon. I was not allowed to go upstairs. We were told to exit the hotel at the far end – through the Tall Ships Bar and Grill – in order to avoid debris.

Standing at the door I saw cars on fire and rubble in the street. The air was filled with burning paper. I left the hotel and ran across and along Liberty Street towards what is now Pumphouse Park on Liberty Street. There was a walkway between the two buildings and that’s where I first stopped to look back. As I looked upwards I saw the smoke billowing from Tower 1.

As I stood there wondering what had happened, I saw a low-flying plane over the New York ‘harbour area’. It accelerated and banked before slamming into the south tower. The noise was extreme, the sound of an airplane accelerating. Orange flame, black smoke, blue sky, screams of terror, tears, confusion.

At that moment it became apparent to me that it was no accident and that it was time to leave in case there were more coming.

I decided to head for the Staten Island ferry. My plan was to go to Staten Island, knock on the door of a church and ask for help and shelter. So I meandered with a feeling of purpose, dread and anxiety the 1 km or so to the ferry terminal. While waiting inside the ferry terminal there was a very loud noise. The building shook, people screamed, there was the sound of ongoing explosions, like the sound of a broadside from a World War II battleship. It was the sound of the floors of the South Tower collapsing upon each other. There was screaming and fear within the crowd of several thousand in and around the ferry terminal. I thought I would die.

At roughly the same time the gates to the ferry slid open and people made their way onto the ferry. There was no panic but people did move briskly onto the ferry. As we boarded the ferry the cloud of yellow grey dust billowed over us. We had to breathe through handkerchiefs and shirt tails. As we took our seats or stood, the cloud of dust from Tower 2 swept over us. This created some fear and anxiety among those around us; I, too, put my shirt tails to my mouth. People were putting on life jackets as the ferry was still stationary at the wharf.

I offered my seat to a lady, but she declined. The same lady then tried to put on a life jacket and knocked off her earring. I picked it up and gave it back to her. We got talking. She had seen my name tag from the conference – Hans Kunnen, Sydney, Australia – and asked where I was going. I told her of my plan to seek refuge at a church and she offered to put me up with her family. The lady was Leslie Castelucci DeFreitas. Leslie had a work colleague with her and offered to assist the young man sitting next to me.

After about 20 minutes the ferry departed and after a few hundred meters it cleared the cloud of dust that had enshrouded the ferry terminal and much of the harbour. At the other end we alighted and caught the train to Dongan Hills and then walked to Leslie’s home in Cromwell Street. At Leslie’s home we tried to contact my wife in Sydney, but the lines were not working. After about 4 hours we got through, much to Suzanne’s relief – she had seen the second plane hit the towers on TV and knew I was directly underneath. It was a very bad time for her. Friends came round to sit and pray with her.

Undicisettembre: After 9/11, you had to stay one more week in New York before being able to get back to Australia. What happened to you in those days and how were the city and its citizens in the days after the tragedy?

Hans Kunnen: Good question! I was on Staten Island for the first three days and in a hotel in mid-town for the last four days (Hilton Hotel).

Leslie and Rod put me up. They fed and clothed me and tried to keep activity as ‘normal’ as possible. We visted parks with their young son John, we ate out at a diner – very USA – the King's Arms in a park on Staten Island. I visited Rod’s work – he’s a plumber.

The weather was warm and we sat around talking about our families, our hopes and our dreams. I did notice a rise in US nationalism. Some of the younger people on the street were talking about signing up for the armed forces. Others just had hopes of going to college and getting jobs in the future. When I first arrived in Cromwell Street, where Leslie and Rod lived there were maybe 5 US flags showing per 10 houses. By the time I left there were 15 to 20 flags displayed per ten houses. Flags were going up everywhere. All over construction sites, in Manhattan, at Times Square – just everywhere.

The police were very jumpy. As I was on a bus heading for New York City from Staten Island, we ran into a traffic jam. The driver told us to get off the bus as there was a problem. Apparently a terrorist had just run a road block and was heading into Staten Island. As a result all the bridges onto and off the Island were closed until further notice. Hence the traffic jam. I was with a friend of Leslie and we walked to find a phone and organise a lift home. As we walked a car sped towards us, and a police car and a police helicopter. They all stopped 30 m from where we were standing. The police pulled the driver out of the car, drew their guns, forced the male driver onto the bonnet of his car and searched him. It was straight out of a cop show. The helicopter made a terrible racket flying just overhead and spitting up dust. I thought we might get hit by a spray of gunfire so we crouched down behind a large Chevy. It was all an innocent mistake. The guy didn’t realise it was a road block, they let him go. He looked like a construction worker on a lunch break!

Later that day I did catch a bus and train into Grand Central. As the train doors pulled open a policeman with a megaphone told me there was a bomb scare and myself and several thousand other people needed to make our way upstairs and outside. There was no bomb, but better safe than sorry. An hour later that same bomb scare reached the Australian High Commission and the alarms were set off once again – as I sat immediately underneath it while filling in a form.

We agreed that it was a good idea to move closer to the Australian High Commission [pictured right] which was in mid-town, so that I could organise a new passport, airline tickets, buy clothes and so on. Leslie was exceedingly competent at getting me a room at the Hilton Hotel and finding the various contact numbers. I moved to the Hilton Hotel on Thursday.

Prior to the NABE economics conference I was attending, I had purchased several ties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They had American craft motifs on them. I thought they were nice. They were packed in my suitcase ready for the next stage of my journey. When the South Tower collapsed, my hotel was crushed along with my belongings. I was determined to replace what was lost – and with my boss’s permission set about buying one or two things – including shirts from Jos A Bank! I purchased my ties from the ‘Met’ – now version II – and still wear them proudly – though they are suffering a little from wear and tear.

One habit I have is to buy a coffee mug at places I visit (it drives my wife nuts – we have too many mugs in our kitchen!). I had purchased one after going to the top of the Empire State building on my first Saturday in New York. Having been to the Met to buy my ties, I went to the Empire State Building. By now the security to get in the building was extreme. I placed my bag of shopping on the conveyor belt and moved into the shop, totally forgetting about my bag. When I noticed it was missing I simply could not cope. I sat on the floor in the shop at the Empire State Building and started crying! I eventually composed myself after a few people had asked if I was OK. I eventually realised what I had done and somewhat embarrassed, found my bag at the security check in. I was on edge and very fragile. I had not been sleeping well and missed the comfort and conversation of Leslie, Rod, their family and friends. In some respects it was a mistake to have moved away from them and into the hotel – but it did seem like a good idea at the time.

I bought some new clothes at shops that seemed fairly deserted. Few people seemed to be in the mid-town area.

A good thing did happen. After refusing to pay 200 dollars for a leather belt, I moved a few blocks away from 5th Avenue and came across a JoS A. Banks men’s clothing store. They make the best, easiest to iron white business shirts on the planet. I later bought some online from Australia!

Having moved into the Hilton hotel in mid-town, I had time to kill. There were no flights leaving the US at this stage. There had been appeals on TV for blood donations, so on Friday, having picked up my new passport, I headed for the nearest blood donation centre, which turned out to be the auditorium of the Martin Luther King Jr high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The collection and interviews were done on the stage using what looked like brought-in emergency equipment. This was not a regular blood donation centre. What struck me most was the quiet determination of the people who turned up to give blood. It was heavily dominated by women in their 30s who just seemed to want to help. Joggers, soccer mums, gym girls. They all wanted to play their part – and they did. I was impressed.

The process was similar to donating blood in Australia. You wait your turn, you fill out forms, you answer questions, they test your blood pressure and a few other things and then you donate several hundred mls of blood. Afterwards you rest as you munch on donated muesli bars and drink orange or berry juice.

During the donation process it was mentioned that blood donors could gain free entry to the famous and fabulous Frick Collection of artworks on East 70th Street. I had no idea at the time what it held but it was worth a look. It was really good! There were works by Constable, Gainsborough, Holbein, Rembrandt and many others. It was a feast for the eyes in a tranquil setting. The horrors of the past few days were drowned in a sea of colour and culture. The mood at the collection was restrained and reflective. Few spoke. We looked and pondered. I bought a few postcards as mementos and moved on. I had a treasured memory.

Close to the hotel was a shop that caught my eye as I wandered the streets. It was called the American Craftsman. Excuse me if I’m sounding gushing in my praise, but the works there were outstanding. There were pictures, carvings, sculptures, furniture and glasswork. I was looking for something to take home to the kids and some wonderfully crafted ‘boxes’ caught my eye. On the lids were carved words. I bought three. One said Kindness, another said Courage and the third said Hope. In a way they reflected a message I wanted my kids to grasp after the turmoil of September 11. Nothing expensive, nothing flash, a simple box with a word on the lid! They still have them on their desks or beside their beds.

I walked in Central Park. It felt like a crime to laugh. People were playing games with kids but it was very sombre. It was a sad place to be. We wanted to be normal but were all still in shock and mourning.

Having purchased a disposable camera I wandered the streets. From time to time I came across fire stations. It was from these places that men had rushed to the towers to put out fires and rescue the trapped. Many stations had lost men. There were floral tributes along the pavements outside. There were also pictures of people who were lost, with phone numbers written beneath them so that you could contact someone if you had seen them.

Let me be fair. The Hilton Hotel is a very good hotel. Its room are top notch, the service was excellent and the TV had 43 channels. The problem was me. Upon reflection I was still somewhat stressed by what had just happened. Part of me wanted to talk and interact, yet another part of me wanted to sit alone in my room. The TV was mournful. TV shows had banners running across the bottom with missing person queries. I don’t recall any comedy shows at all. I wanted to laugh but I’m not sure anything could have made me laugh in those days.

The room had a Gideon’s Bible in it, which was a great comfort. I remember reflecting on Psalm 25, having heard George Bush quote Psalm 23 in his speech to the nation. I wanted to read what was beyond Psalm 23 – after passing through the valley of the shadow of death, what was next? Psalm 25 gave me that answer. Verses 15-17 read: “My eyes are ever on the LORD, for only he will release my feet from the snare. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish”. Words like snare, lonely, afflicted, troubles and anguish were part of my life and the life of New York at that time.

I booked a large people mover from the hotel to go to the airport. It seated about 8 people and their luggage. I had seen Leslie and Rod the day before to say goodbye to them. I had a duffle bag with a few clothes in it – not a lot to search at the airport. I swear it was the safest flight in the history of the world. We had maybe 10 soldiers check us over as we boarded the plane. They all carried guns – presumably with live ammunition. It was a great flight home.

How were the people of New York? Kind, helpful, sorrowful, determined, hurt, confused, angry, practical. They pulled together when under attack and when they saw need. I was the fortunate recipient of their kindness and generosity – for which I shall always remain grateful.

Undicisettembre: Let's go back to 9/11. After the first plane crashed into Tower 1, did you think it was a terrible accident, or did you realize immediately it had to be a terrorist attack? And what was the opinion of the people in the streets?

Hans Kunnen: I heard the word ‘plane’ mentioned while standing on the street and thought ‘Cessna’ – it did not cross my mind that it was a large plane, despite the size of the hole in the building and the amount of damage. It was an irrational thought. In the minutes after the evacuation, surrounded by people from the hotel, no-one seemed to know anything. The feeling where I stood was ‘the firemen and police will sort it out’. There were numerous sirens sounding. The notion of a terrorist attack simply did not cross my mind.

Undicisettembre: I know this is a pretty weird question, but some crazy people on the Internet say the planes that hit the Trade Center were fake. They claim the towers were hit by missiles or that bombs exploded inside and that the planes shown on TV were just holograms. Since you directly saw with your own eyes the second plane slam into the South Tower, I guess you can rule out this crazy idea once and for all, right?

Hans Kunnen: I saw the second plane approach from over the river. I thought it was a strange place to fly a plane. Maybe it was a university prank or a TV shoot for an airline advertisement. At no time did I think the plane was a fake. I’ve travelled a lot and been in and around planes for years. It was a very real plane. It made real plane noise. The sound of a plane accelerating is very loud. One of my enduring memories is the noise just before the explosion. It was a real plane; I could almost see the people behind the windows. It then melted into the building and created the fireball. To say that it was not a real plane is absurd. I saw it, I heard it, I felt the aftermath of its impact.

Undicisettembre: Can you describe what you saw and heard of that second impact? For example, did you notice the plane's United Airlines markings? Did you observe any details of its trajectory? Are there any other details that struck you?

Hans Kunnen: I was standing about 150-200 m from the South Tower in Liberty Street. I heard and saw a plane flying low over the harbour. It accelerated and banked towards the South Tower. The noise was very loud as the plane accelerated. I do not recall the markings but I will never forget the fireball, noise and smoke as it melted into the South Tower.

Undicisettembre: How did people react after the South Tower collapsed?

Hans Kunnen: I was at the Staten Island Ferry terminal by then. They were screams as the entire terminal shook. I thought it was mortars or shells or cruise missiles exploding nearby. At about the same time the gates to the ferry opened and we were allowed on. The movement was orderly but tense. I remember seeing lots of ladies' shoes being abandoned so they could walk more quickly. There were shouts of “Don’t panic. We don’t want a stampede”.

Undicisettembre: How would you describe downtown New York after the first collapse? Seeing the images on the TV, it looked like it was enshrouded in a cloud of dust and smoke, but we believe it was nothing compared to what the eyewitnesses saw directly. How do you recall the city after the first collapse?

Hans Kunnen: I was on the Staten Island Ferry. I did not see the collapse; I just heard it but didn’t know what it was for some time. On the ferry people were putting on life-vests as the cloud of dust spilled over us.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim 9/11 was an inside job? Most conspiracy theorists believe the Towers were intentionally demolished with explosives. Some of them even claim, as mentioned before, that no aircraft ever crashed into the towers and all the videos that show them are fake. What's your opinion?

Hans Kunnen: The conspiracies are all implausible. When two fuel laden planes hit the towers, the impact was always going to be catastrophic – and it was.

Undicisettembre: As far as you know, are these kinds of conspiracy theories popular in Australia?

Hans Kunnen: Conspiracy theories are well-known in Australia but are generally disregarded. Most people accept the view that planes flew into the towers and the sheer bulk of jet fuel created temperatures that weakened the frame and led to the collapse. When I give talks about my experience every now and then someone raises the conspiracy theories but they are only a small minority.

Undicisettembre: Have you met any conspiracy theorists and tried to debate them?

Hans Kunnen: No. They generally have asked if I believe in them and I reply “No”. I stick to what I directly experienced. Footage I have seen of the first plane suggests it was real enough to make the building shake like it did. The sight and sound of the second plane was as real as any aircraft I have ever seen or heard.

Undicisettembre: How did Australia as a country and as a people react to 9/11? I mean, being Australia one of the staunchest allies of the USA, did your people feel like they, too, had been attacked?

Hans Kunnen: When I returned to work in the city of Sydney I was flabbergasted and emotionally touched by the floral tributes outside the US Consulate [pictured right], which was near where I worked. Martin Place was covered in flowers. It made me cry! I had seen similar floral tributes outside fire stations in New York. Offended, shocked, outraged, hurt would best describe the feelings. There was enormous sympathy for New York and its people.

Undicisettembre: We heard from other survivors that sharing their stories with other survivors helped them a lot to recover. Since you live so far away from the US, maybe you didn't get much of a chance to hold meetings with other 9/11 survivors, so how did you recover from such a shock and tragedy?

Hans Kunnen: By sharing my story with others I was able to share the burden. I give talks to people about my experience – reminding them of their mortality and their need to be prepared for death – especially in a spiritual sense. In the months after 9/11 I was constantly asked my story and was happy to share it with anyone who had plenty of time.

Even now there are parts of the story telling that make me cry. The sight of a lady being blown out of the South Tower and cartwheeling across my line of sight. The extreme kindness of Leslie DeFreitas Castelucci and her family. The clothes given to me, a stranger. The sadness of Central Park. The lack of laughter on TV. The mournful scrolling messages on TV as people sought to contact loved ones. Later on, the many funerals each week that people attended. There was such a loss of life – people who were just going about their normal peaceful business.

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 affect your everyday life? Did you manage to get back to normalcy?

Hans Kunnen: I survived. I had a job to do, kids to raise, income to earn, clients to serve, a church to be part of. I was not confronted daily by the ongoing grief of New York. I had deadlines and responsibilities to fulfil and these brought focus and direction to daily life. They provided a positive distraction from the dark thoughts that may otherwise have overwhelmed me.

For a while I was nervous of loud noises. I was a bit on edge. I now take fire drills very seriously. I’m very reflective on days when the sky is blue, I’m surrounded by office towers and a plane flies high overhead. I then see it all over again.