Narrow escape for UCT alumnus on flight 26

09 September 2002
WHEN UCT alumnus Justin Forsyth boarded Virgin Atlantic flight 26 at 07h25 in New York on September 11 last year, he had no idea that it would be the last flight out of the city before the airports all around the US closed down.

Nor did he know that he would witness the unfolding attack on the World Trade Centre. Takeoff was at 08h25 and Forsyth was seated in window seat 50A. "Two to three minutes after takeoff we flew over the city and I saw smoke billowing from one of the towers," he recalled. He had been writing in his diary at the time. He called an airhostess and they both surveyed the scene, shocked. "I said to her: "This could be history we're looking at". Forsyth thought it was a fire and remembers wondering how the fire services would get their water canons to reach that height.

It was only on the tarmac at Heathrow hours later that he and the passengers of flight 26 learnt the truth. More hours would pass before he could reach his frantic family in South Africa and his girlfriend, UCT alumna and Fulbright scholar Esther Pan, whom he had been visiting in New York, to tell them he was okay.

"Looking back, it was a very strange flight," Forsyth added. "The pilot must have communicated with the flight crew to tell them what had happened because they went very quiet, probably worrying about their own friends or relatives. Not one of them breathed a word to the passengers about what had just happened."

Just 10 days before Forsyth had "walked onto" a domestic flight in the US, 10 minutes before departure without any security check. "No-one imagined terrorists would use people transport as a weapon."

Forsyth graduated from UCT with a BA (English) in 2000 and was a star volleyball player, making the South African students' team. He has spent much of the past two years abroad. Cutting his teeth as a filmmaker by working on SABC2's 50/50, he is presently filming a documentary for the Amy Biehl Foundation.

It was while he was working in the UK in 2001 that he took a three week holiday to see Pan in New York. The city was a delight to him. "I had a wonderful time. People were so friendly. It was the height of the boom and everyone was making so much money." Forsyth even planned to change his ticket to stay a while longer, but didn't "because of the hassle". "Part of me wishes I had, just so that I could have been there to see how the city pulled together afterwards." (Pan offered translation services to the families of Chinese victims, see

"In the aftermath, people really questioned what they were doing," he added. "Many young professionals in New York moved on to other things. Some got married. Esther's sister for example, who had worked for Merrill Lynch and in PR, took a job with Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders)."

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