Growing up, I heard my mother’s JFK assassination story frequently. She’d been working at the time it happened, and as she was making her way home, every television in every storefront was showing footage of Dallas. I probably could’ve recounted her story as vividly as she. I had little idea then that I’d one day have a story of my own.
My best friend and I were in graduate school in Scotland on 9/11. I was in the finishing stages, just weeks away from submitting my thesis and already thinking about how to get my belongings back home to Pennsylvania. Most of my days by that point had started to be carbon copies of one another: get up, have breakfast, make some edits, attempt to print, make a phone call to an international mover for a quote, eat lunch, run up to college and come home. This routine was only ever disrupted by a phone call from my mother, updating me on my grandmother’s condition. Grandma had terminal cancer, and as with most cancer patients I have ever known, was one day perfectly fine and the next day hours from the end. She’d been steadily declining for a bit, but only the day before had rallied. I took it as a sign of good news. I’d been hoping that she’d last until the 30th at least, because I was holding a ticket home for that day. I wanted to see her one last time.
So it was with a head full of plans and permutations that I went to bedÃ¢â‚¬â€yes, went to bedÃ¢â‚¬â€the morning of the 11th. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been up until 6:30 in the morning editing the introduction to my thesis, having worked straight through the night after having already spent seven hours the evening before editing my best friendÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s entire paper. I was scheduled to meet with one of my professors on campus at 10:00, so I lay down and slept until 8:30, grabbed the quickest breakfast I could and headed to the meeting. I remember next to nothing about it; to be honest, I had to look in my journal to see if anything of note even transpired during that time, as I was only focused on one thing, and that was whether or not my mobile phone was going to ring during my talk with the professor.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no surprise that I was starving by the time I left his office. Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter, had insomnia or was otherwise sleep deprived knows that the body craves calories in order to stay awake. I wanted the quickest meal I could muster, and I wanted it right there and then. Unfortunately, there wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t much food in the house, and I remember having to stop at the grocery store and pick up a few things so that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be able to cook. This wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be much of a memorable detail were it not for the fact that I was ecstatic that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d for once be carrying back groceries in sunshine, rather than one of GlasgowÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s notorious, sideways downpours. Invariably, every trip to the grocery store meant limiting purchases in order to be able to hold an umbrella in one of oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s two hands, so this was a bit of a novelty. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember what I bought, just that I knew I could buy a lot more.
It was close to 2:00 in the afternoon GMT, and my best friend and I were finishing up our lunches in the common room. Suddenly, our flatmate Kris, another American, burst through the door and ran down the hallway, shouting at us. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Did you see? Did you see it? Something terrible is happening back home, something huge!Ã¢â‚¬Â We looked at each other and then back at her. She couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even speak.
Moments later, Ruth, our other flatmate and a media studies major, came home. She asked if weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d heard what was going on, so we told her all we knew at that point: that there was apparently an incident in New York, that it might have been a bomb in one of the buildings and that the reports were coming in fast and furious. She went to her room and hauled her television out to the common area so we could find out. We turned the set on in time to see the worst of it.
It was only seconds before we were all glued to the BBC, horrified and shocked. I began to panic as my mental geography failed me; how close were the Twin Towers to the museum where a close friend of mine was working? Was he okay? The BBC anchors, always the pinnacle of broadcast standards, were themselves shaken up and discombobulated, watching as we were, wide-eyed and silent, the footage as it replayed over and over again. It wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a bomb after all, but a planeÃ¢â‚¬â€planes, two of them. They were cutting to local coverage, to New York 1 and CNN, in an effort to keep us viewers in real time. During one of their live shots, the first tower fell. Kris gasped. My hands flew to my mouth. It started to feel as though every worse case scenario was coming true.
At some point, we heard that there were other planes in the air that werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t responding to calls, and surely one of those was the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. The barage of updates, bulletins and on-the-ground reporting was becoming mired in its abundance, and the anchors couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t keep up with it all. We found ourselves switching from the BBC to ITV, who were also carrying the events as they were unfolding. One of the stations cut to images of Palestinians in Jerusalem, cheering and waving Palestinian flags. I remember feeling outraged at thatÃ¢â‚¬â€that someone would dare celebrate another nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pain. I think I still feel that to some degree today, fifteen years later.
What I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember clearly is when we heard that there was a plane that was possibly heading for Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. This would, of course, turn out to be erroneous, as Flight 93Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s intended target was the White House, but for a moment, my heart stopped beating. Just about everything and everyone I loved was within ten miles of TMI. A direct hit would rob me of it all. I burst into tears, hyperventilating, shaking, nervous. I grabbed my phone and tried frantically to call my parents. The line rang busy. It would continue to ring busy for hours, as would the lines of my aunts, cousins and others IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d try in vain to reach. As each moment ticked on, I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know who was alive and who, possibly, was not.
For hours we sat together, speechless, unable to do anything apart from stare numbly at the television screen. Ruth made us all tea and then something stronger, saying over and over again how sorry she was for the three of us. Kris opened the window in the common room and chainsmoked. Without any word from home and any way of getting word, my best friend and I decided to get out of the house.
We walked back towards the university, more out of habit than anything, but stopped instead at the local Subway. Ordinarily, we avoided eating out so we could conserve what little money we had, but we couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think straight and we couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t bring ourselves to go back home at that point. I remember vividly placing my order and having the young girl behind the counter stare at me with such great, heavy sadness. She did the same again when my best friend ordered, and when she took our money, she said, quietly, Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m so very sorry.Ã¢â‚¬Â She was the first of what would become dozens of Glaswegians offering us condolences, just for being Americans. Much later in the week, we would be staring ourselves, dumbstruck at the famous St. George Square in the heart of the city, covered in flowers and handwritten tributes to everyone from those who lost their lives that day to those who held American passports. It is an image I will never, ever forget.
And much later on that evening of September 11th, we were able to get through to my best friendÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s parents, who called mine to let them know that I was worried about them. We learnt, too, that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania was closer to another friendÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s parents than mine, but that friendÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s parents were safe and sound. We got word from our friend in New York. He was fine, but shaken: HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d climbed to the roof of the museum and watched the whole thing unfold, watched and felt the collapse of the towers and was himself unable to say much more.
Five days later, my grandmother passed away. With the restrictions on airspace and borders still in place, I was unable to attend her funeral. Being young and brash, I stood in the middle of my room and cursed the terrorists. Being older and wiser, I still do.