At home in Chatham, New Jersey, a leafy suburb just 45 minutes drive from New York, Deena Gilbey, glances out of the window. ‘It was a day pretty much like today. Beautiful sunshine, perfect blue skies. Then my friend who lives along the road called me: A plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre’.
That was the beginning of the nightmare.
Paul Gilbey, her husband, and father of 7 year old Maxwell and 4 year old Mason, worked as a money broker for the London firm of Eurobrokers in the North Tower.
As the shock and chaos filled television screens across the world, the phone rang again. It was about ten to nine. Paul said. ‘Hi Deen – its me. A plane has just hit Trade Centre One ... we’re being asked to evacuate. I’m ok. I’ll call you when I get down’. She remembers telling him. ‘OK love, go! I’ll speak to you then’. She hesitates. ‘That was the last time I spoke to him.’
The Gilbeys would have been married ten years this September 5. Last year they had gone out to celebrate and Paul had sent her flowers. On September 11th, the blooms were still fresh and alive. She nods towards where she keeps them. ‘He was gone but I still had his flowers so I had them pressed.’
Paul and Deena first met in Hockley, Essex, when they were teenagers. ‘We’d been together since we were fourteen. We lived together for five years and been married nine when he died.’
Ten minutes after she spoke with him, she watched, helpless, as the second plane came around the back of Trade Centre Two and hit it. ‘I don’t think anyone believes they will ever see their husband’s death on tv, minutes after speaking with him. I knew from the location of where the plane hit that it was somewhere around Paul’s floor (it was the actual floor)’ She moves around the kitchen preparing fresh lemonade.
‘There had been a ten minute lapse since I’d spoken to him and he had told me he was evacuating so I felt strongly that there was a really good possibility he had made it out safely. I could see the huge hole in the side where the plane had hit, but I realised that people further below would probably be okay. Then everything went out. There was no communication to Manhattan at all. I sat outside there on the deck until Thursday because I was convinced that he would make it and I wanted to see him arrive. By Thursday I thought he could be in hospital, he could be concussed, he could be very seriously hurt. It was so chaotic maybe he had no ID on him. It could have been blown off him. All kinds of things could have happened. I spent a lot of time talking to my friend Lucy Thompson who lives in Summit (a neighbouring town) whose husband, Ian, worked with Paul. We would call each other in the early hours to see if there was any news of either of them. We pretty much decided that they were together because they were such good friends’ Deena’s is composed but her eyes give lie to that composure. ‘Lucy was still hopeful right until the Sunday that Ian would be found. ‘I’m not giving up hope.’ she would say ‘Are you hopeful?’ Deena gives a strange smile ‘ ‘Not anymore.’ I told her ‘He would have been home – it was now Friday – had he been able, he would have called. I just knew he hadn’t made it’
How did she cope during those early days? ‘I was numb really. A numbness sets in. A bit like looking in on a situation. I had a lot of people here. They kept swarming in with food and presents and things like that. Really it was wonderful – it was a distraction.’ She is calm. It is like is she talking about someone else. ‘ Then the kids would come home from school and they didn’t know.’ Three other children at Maxwell’s school had also lost their fathers and these children were not at school. ‘I knew their mums had chosen to tell the kids. I didn’t want to tell my sons because if there was any hope at all that Paul might make it, I didn’t want them to go through that. Then the Headmaster called me and told me that the children in the school knew what had happened. After all, this was the World Trade Centre and there was a chance that Max would hear about his father from the other children. I knew I had to tell him. He came off the school bus on the Friday and Mason, my four year old was here too, and I took them aside. ‘You’re probably wondering why there are so many people in the house ...’ she pauses, remembering ‘their little faces ... they knew it was not something good ... I told them there had been an accident, that a plane had hit Dad’s building and it had blown up and caused a big explosion and because of that the building had fallen down. I explained that a lot of people had got out but a lot of people had not and we didn’t know yet if Dad had got out. The police were still looking for him.’ She smiled sadly ‘and my 7 year old son, said ‘give me the phone, mum. I want to talk to the police. I want to know what they are doing to find my dad.’
Chatham Township police immediately drove to the house. They went up to
Max’s bedroom where they talked to him for a long time. Then they asked
permission to take Max and Mason to the police station so that they could
see all that was being done to try and find their dad. They took them off
with the sirens going. Of course there was not very much the police could
show these children but Deena was grateful. ‘It was a major distraction
for them and Max was able to see and believe that the police were doing
everything they could.’
‘Well it was hard to do anything but just be around me. Be hopeful.’ Her family was on the other side of the world. ‘My mother wasn’t able to get in because all the airports were closed but when she finally got in it was so upsetting to her, she had to go home again. Wasn’t much help really. You realise, talking to the other widows, that you have to do this on your own. People are very kind and they try their best but you are ultimately on your own.’
Had she cried? ‘Sometimes, yes. More because of the things Max and Mason say, more than about my feelings. I know Paul would want me to be strong and carry on and that’s what I am trying to do.’
When ‘Search and Rescue’ at Ground Zero moved to ‘Clean up’, Max asked his mother to take him there. ‘I know they are cleaning up the site’ he told her ‘but I know what dad looks like and I can stand at the barrier. I know Dad’s face – I don’t want the diggers to run over his face.’ Yes, she has cried. When her younger son demands ‘When is Daddy coming home, it’s been a long time now!’ Mason wants his Daddy to come home ‘cause my bike needs fixing’. How do you explain to a four year old that Daddy will not be coming home ever again to fix his bike? When the rains came in October, Max wanted to take a pillow and blanket to Ground Zero because his Dad was trapped there. He asked her with the innocence of his years. ‘Can people survive in all this rain, mum?’...
The complete interview was commissioned by the Sunday Express newspaper for the 911 First Anniversary issue.