Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Nine-Year Itch

Nine years ago today I woke up in my Californian apartment to strange news: at 6am I was up early to get ready for a trip to Amsterdam. I switched on CNN to see what was happening in the world, and was intrigued by reports of a plane - probably a light plane - hitting a building in New York. As I sat, eating my breakfast, I found myself being sucked into a story that would consume me for not only the following 12 hours, but would consume the world for the following decade.

I recall watching a ball of confusion roll itself tighter. Eyewitness accounts being relayed via television news anchors failed to clarify what kind of plane had hit what kind of building. In New York itself, however, the grim reality had already taken place. By the time I had woken up and switched on CNN, American Airlines Flight 11 had already crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower (at 8.46am EST), followed by United Airlines' Flight 175, crashing into the South Tower 17 minutes later.

Unsatisfied with CNN's lack of information on what was still being regarded as a "small plane" crashing into a building. I began to flip around the main networks, hoping the breakfast news shows of NBC, CBS and ABC could shed some light. Everyone was speculating, but in that first hour, the consensus seemed to be that it was probably still just a light plane, or one of the tourist sight-seeing flights that criss-cross Manhattan like flies. What was unfolding was a fog of war as thick as any peasouper that had ever been. The confusion fuelled the intensity of my interest in the story.

That remained the pattern for the rest of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. For more or less 12 hours straight, I remained glued to the TV, fixated by a tragedy of unprecedented brutality.

Somewhere in that first hour I received a call from my boss in New York, who worked in one of the towers of the Rockerfeller Center, saying that they had been ordered to immediately evacuate, and that henceforth I would become the point of contact for all calls coming into our North American corporate headquarters. Without any time to explain, that was it. Click. There was no chance of ringing back to have it clarified, either, as mobile phone networks in Manhattan had descended into meltdown.

The horrific possibility that the plane crash in New York was in fact two, and that both were airliners, was just becoming apparent on the news when, at 9.37am EST, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Within half-an-hour or so, rumours were circulating that a fourth plane was unaccounted for. United Flight 93.

Even though today we know the exact chronology of that morning, it still doesn't play out in real time in my mind. I've now seen the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, and of the twin towers collapsing, so many times that I can't remember whether I watched it live or not. All I remember was, getting to around 6pm in the evening, having spent exactly half the day channel-surfing, and deciding it was time to get out of my pyjamas and get some fresh air. It was that kind of day. I had been flipping from channel to channel, hoping that each different TV station would carry better or more information than the previous. Time, frankly, became irrelevant. Every TV channel had suspended normal programming, and all were running 'zip strips' along the bottom of the screen to provide what information - if any - was known.

I got dressed, got into my car and drove north. I didn't have any real idea where I was going, I just needed to get out of the house and get some perspective on the day. As I drove up Highway 101 towards San Francisco, I was struck by two things: firstly, the Californian blue sky seemed strangely reminiscent of the sky in New York that had been so savagely penetrated earlier in the day by burning kerosene and falling steel. The second thing was how quiet it was. The San Francisco Bay Area is served by three large airports - San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose - and the daily soundtrack in the region is of planes flying overhead. But now - there was none. People were still going about their business, but there were fewer cars on the road, even though it was now what should have been the thick of the evening commute. Thinking about this silence, I drove to a spot in San Bruno overlooking San Francisco International Airport: it looked like a child's playset that had been abandoned for dinner - motionless planes seemed to be scattered all over the airport's taxiways, aprons and dispersal points, halted before they could reach the sky by the fact American airspace had been closed.

It was such a peaceful, placid scene: a complete contrast to the carnage on the streets of lower Manhattan and Washington, and in a Pennsylvania field. And the carnage that has since followed. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. On the London Underground. In Madrid.

9/11 changed the world in so many ways. For America, it represented something of a loss of innocence, that terror could be exported there. Travel, would never be the same again: the apparent freedom with which air travel in the US resembled getting on and off a bus would come to an end. The inconvenience, however, of having to go through increased airport security, will always be relative.

Nine years on, the events of the day seem no less brutal. The 3000 people who died that day, no less tragic than the tens of thousands who have since died in the 'war on terror'.  But to me, every time I look up into the azure sky on a sunny September morning, it's impossible for me not to think of that Tuesday morning in 2001.

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