Remembering 9/11: 'A plane crashed into the Pentagon on my first day at work'

Diplomat Bakhtiyor Ibragimov was driving to the Uzbek embassy as emergency vehicles rushed to the scene of the crash

Bakhtiyor Ibragimov, Uzbekistan Ambassador to the UAE, at the embassy in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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Diplomat Bakhtiyor Ibragimov flew to America with his family on September 7, 2001.

The flight from Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, passed by the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on its final descent into New York.

Like everyone else who saw the glittering skyline of one of the world’s famous cities, the family gazed out of the windows at the skyscrapers.

Mr Ibragimov's wife and two young daughters had never been to the US.

Through the plane’s windows, he pointed to the towers that dominated the city’s iconic skyline.

We saw military on the streets. No one knew what was going to happen next. That was my first working day in the US
Bakhtiyor Ibragimov

“As we were landing, I was showing my family and telling them 'these are the Twin Towers',” said Mr Ibragimov, who was then 28.

“And I promised to take them there. They saw the towers just four days before it happened.”

Twenty years have passed since the events of September 11, 2001 and now Mr Ibragimov serves as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the UAE.

But that day remains forever etched on his mind.

In 2001, Uzbekistan had been independent from the Soviet Union for just ten years and Mr Ibragimov was tasked with bolstering trade relations with America, serving at his country's embassy in Washington DC.

September 11 was his first day on duty as a councillor for trade and economic affairs. His wife did not speak English and mobile phones and communications were nothing like today.

Mr Ibragimov left for work that day.

“I said to my wife, see you tonight,” he said.

He was taken to the embassy in Washington, crossing from the Virginia side across the Potomac River in to the city. It was just after 9.30am.

“Towards the right something had happened," he said. Smoke and flames were visible. "I asked my colleague what was going on. He said maybe a fire or something and we saw the fire engines racing past.”

At the embassy it became clearer. America was under attack.

Hijackers had flown two planes into the World Trade Centre and another into the Pentagon, which Mr Ibragimov had just passed, while a fourth would come down in a field in Pennsylvania.

It was a day of terror that would cause the deaths of thousands of Americans and bring down the Twin Towers.

A state of emergency was declared in the capital, the National Guard was deployed and America closed its airspace. Across the country and world, people’s lives would never be the same again.

“We had a meeting and were told we had to be on duty. No one knew how the situation would develop,” said Mr Ibragimov.

“One of the impressions for me was that it was the first time we saw the military on the streets. No one knew what was going to happen next.”

He called his parents in Tashkent, where it was around 1am.

“They didn’t sleep. I told them everything was under control, although I hadn’t seen my family yet.”

Back at his family’s apartment, its ten-floor vantage point had given his wife a view of the Pentagon and the flames after the plane crashed into it.

“She [only spoke basic] English and asked what had happened. She said there was a fire and many fire engines went up there.”

Another issue was the fact 100 Uzbek musicians were at that moment on a plane bound for America to participate in concerts to mark Uzbekistan’s independence day that fell on September 1.

When the US closed its airspace, the aircraft did not have enough fuel to return to Uzbekistan and was forced to land at a military airbase in Newfoundland, Canada.

Stuck there for a week, they even performed a few shows for people there before eventually returning to Uzbekistan.

The situation remained fraught and busy at the Uzbekistan embassy for the rest of the year with America swiftly planning its campaign in Afghanistan and talking to Central Asian countries in advance.

“They started to talk with all [of Afghanistan's] neighbouring countries,” he said.

“Uzbekistan hosted an airbase at that time for the United States and provided logistical support.”

By the following year, Uzbekistan’s then president Islam Karimov visited the US and met President George W Bush. Things slowly returned to normal.

Twenty years on, Mr Ibragimov is now helping to boost ties between Uzbekistan and the UAE. But those memories of a fateful day are never too far from the surface.

“Yes,” recalls Mr Ibragimov. “That was my first working day in the US.”

Bakhtiyor Ibragimov outside the White House in 2001. Mr Ibragimov was working to boost trade between Uzbekistan and America at the time. Photo: Bakhtiyor Ibragimov

Updated: September 09, 2021, 12:44 PM