The events of 9/11 shocked everyone in every corner of the world. Putting her thoughts into words for the first time in today’s The Northern Echo, American-born Darlington Mayor Cyndi Hughes recalls the awful events unfolding, her desperate attempts to find out if her loves ones were safe, and the outpouring of love she experienced this side of the Atlantic.

I TURNED 40 on September 10, 2001. We returned on the 10th from an unforgettable, long weekend of birthday revelry in Dublin with our two children. The next day, Tuesday, September 11, my husband, Stephen, caught the early flight from Newcastle to Brussels for meetings. That was his usual working pattern— out early Tuesday morning, back late Thursday night.

September 11, 2001 started normally for us. I dropped our daughter off at nursery, our son was with the childminder and I drove the 23 miles from our house to County Hall in Durham for meetings. It wasn’t until I was driving home after lunch that the news of events in New York started coming through on the radio—a plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

When I lived in New York City as a graduate student from 1983 to 1986,the Twin Towers were a spectacular part of the city’s iconic skyline. Once when my now husband visited me there in 1986, we went to the super posh cocktail bar within the Windows on the World restaurant on the top floor of the North Tower. As the news came through, I could visualise the scene and remembered seeing the seemingly limitless number of planes ascending and descending into or out of La Guardia, JFK and Newark airports.

I was incredibly shocked and tried to make sense of what I was hearing on the BBC. I felt like I just needed to know if it was done on purpose or whether it was just a terrible accident. I told myself it could be an accident with all those planes flying about. I compare it to the December night in 1980 when I heard that John Lennon had been shot. I remember needing to know if he had been a victim of a random act of violence, like many New Yorkers that year, or if my favourite Beatle had been shot because he was John Lennon. For me, intent somehow made all the difference.

After the second plane hit, news filtered through that it was, in all likelihood, an elaborately planned attack. It was then that my thoughts turned to my dear friends and colleagues in Manhattan-- a place that I had called home until I moved to Darlington in May, 1986.

When I got home, I started trying to reach my best friend, Lori, who was studying for her PhD at The City University of New York. She was meant to be lecturing downtown at the Borough of Manhattan Community College that day, so I was particularly worried. All the phone lines and mobile signals were jammed. I couldn’t get through. At about that same time my husband rang me from Brussels to say that precautions were being taken at government buildings in London and Brussels in case any further attacks were directed at targets in Europe. Somehow it all seemed so close.

I managed to reach Lori’s mom in South Jersey who told me all was well with my friend, she was safe. I got emails from others who said they were shaken up but physically okay. Another saved by a twist of fate was my cousin Sean. He was due to attend a meeting at the bank he works for that morning in the North Tower – a meeting cancelled at the last minute. Sadly, many thousands of families received different, unimaginably awful news that day.

Over the years I have heard from dear ones about their experiences of that day. All the New Yorkers I know have spoken of the community spirit, neighbourliness and generosity they saw following the attacks. The vision of the quiet movement of dust covered people making their way on foot from the south end of Manhattan to the north still haunts them and me.

In Darlington I experienced an outpouring of kindness, love and support following the attack. Strangers and friends rang, posted notes of support through my door and the Grange Road School Crossing Guard, Ian, even came to my house to give me a hug! Despite having lived in the North East for 15 years, I realised that for many people, I was either the only American they knew or maybe just the one they knew best.

It was incredibly moving to have been the focus of so much emotion, so much love. I accepted it graciously knowing it wasn’t meant simply for me but for an entire nation.