I was in London when it happened. I am still in London 16 years later and 9/11 remains a vivid memory that does not only keep lingering in out hearts, but also sadly casts a dark shadow over every major city and every little town as the world has never been the same place ever since.
I can’t remember the morning of the 11th of September. It must have been the usual routine of getting into work and ploughing through my emails and tasks. Back then I was working for a dotcom in Hammersmith and had resigned the Friday before as I was keen to move into the tourism sector.
I can however recall events from about 1 pm onwards as I had decided to go out for lunch that day. A rare treat as there was always so much to do and it often seemed easier to have an ‘al desko’ lunch than to ‘waste’ time outside.
I actually had a reason to go out that day: we were moving to a new flat in 10 days time and things needed to be purchased with the eye on decorating the place. Work would be busier in the next days so I had to make the most of it.
Walking around the shopping street with an egg/watercress sandwich, I looked up to the sky and marvelled at its beautiful, intense shade of blue. It was a nice and sunny day and life felt pretty good knowing I’d soon be working in the sector I favoured and also that I’d finally move out of zone 5 to settle in an old Victorian flat in a much more desirable zone 2. My only concerns that day were: ‘blinds or rollup curtains?’ and ‘butter yellow or duck egg for the kitchen?’
I walked into the Hammersmith Kings Mall to see if I could get my hands on some colour swatches and testers, but there were none. I did buy an iron candle holder and a retro-style kettle, but was left disappointed that I still hadn’t decided on what was then one of my biggest worry: was duck egg not too hospital-like anno 1930’s?
Before going back to the office, I popped into M&S to buy dinner for that evening and picked up a big box of biscuits to share with the team. I was feeling great and when in a good mood, I always feel like feeding the troops. Ah that true happiness I felt that lunch time, I can still remember that sheer joy so well. It was one fuelled by expectations, new plans, a new and improved life awaiting me. On top of that, the sun always manages to make London a much better place.
The news was on in the lobby of our building and I saw a handful of people as well as the security guard clustered in front of the screens. As there was always an issue with the lifts, I didn’t stop to watch what was going on and jumped in the one available, zooming up to floor 11.
My arms full of boxes and bags, I walked back to my desks, shouting out that I had biscuits. No one reacted as they all seemed to be transfixed by their computer screens. Some stood grouped in front of one’s pc. I asked what was going on and a guy (I forgot his name) made a gesture with his hand so that I would come over to him.
“The WTC has been hit by a plane,” he said. I picked up speed, dropping my bags in the process and looked at his screen on which I saw one of the buildings with a big, gaping, smoking hole in it. Apparently, the plane crash happened barely 10 minutes before I’d arrived and no one at that stage seemed to grasp what or who and why.
I immediately called my then boyfriend who has been my husband for the past 15 years. Only four months before 11/09 he had proposed to me in New York, on Strawberry Fields. We had also gone up to the observatory deck of the WTC on that same NYC break.
Seeing the image on the computer screen of that smoking gaping hole of the building we had visited not that long ago made me struggle to find the right words when briefing him on the situation.
At that moment, I thought the situation to be as a result of an accident, though my husband suspected a terrorist attack. In any case, the image was surreal.
We talked for a couple of minutes and by the time I hung up, another plane had hit the South Tower.
I called my husband again and he said it was now clear this was a terrorist attack, it just had to be. “Probably Al-Qaeda,” he said.
It sounds very ignorant, but I had no idea until that day what Al-Qaeda was.
By now I was sitting at my desk and tried to check all the news websites, but they took ages to load.
I then remembered the screens in the lobby and together with some of my colleagues we went downstairs to have a look at the news.
There were dozens of office workers standing in the lobby by then, all looking up to the images broadcasted live from New York City with aghast expressions on their faces.
More people came down and yet hardly any word was spoken. What we saw on the tv screens was too much for our brains to process and we all stood there gawping at the tragedy, in shock no doubt.
Nothing like that had happened before and back then, in those lovely, naive days, so many of us probably thought that something like this could never occur. People to use a commercial plane to fly into a building? It just seemed unfathomable. Even films loaded with special effects hadn’t featured anything like that, and somehow the prevailing mentality was: if Hollywood hadn’t exploited it, it didn’t exist.
Our shock deepened when we heard about other planes being hijacked. At some point there was talk of six planes flying around, soon to morph into missiles. We then heard about the Pentagon crash and wondered what else was going to happen. How much worse could it get? Was that even possible? I wanted to phone my husband again, I really needed to speak to him about all this, but couldn’t get through on his mobile and decided to go back upstairs to try and phone him from the landline.
Back up on the floor I noticed that no one was doing any work, everyone was trying to make sense of what was going on by trying to read upon it or by phoning people. I also couldn’t get through to my husband via the landline and assumed he was on the tube.
This is going to sound melodramatic, but the moment I looked at the ring he gave me that evening he had gone down on one knee on Strawberry Field, was the instance I burst out in tears.
I went to the bathroom and sat on the closed cistern for a while. My tears kept coming as I was genuinely distraught by what I was seeing and hearing, but I was also extremely scared. My safe, little bubble of a life I had lived up to now, seemed to have been mercilessly popped and I was all too aware that this was a new sort of terrorism engineered on a massive scale funded by goodness who. These were probably the beginning of darker times. I knew it there and then.
I really sensed it.
I was also deeply sad for all the people who had been murdered by the terrorists. People like you and I, just going about with their day to be killed just like that.
As mentioned before, we had gone to New York only four months prior to the attacks. My reoccurring dream finally fulfilled.
I had been dreaming for years about landing in New York to then wake up and realising it had only been a dream. It kept happening and by early 2001, the dream creeped in nearly every three, four days. So, we obviously had to book a trip to the Big Apple. It was also around that time that we began to become financially secure. Really good times these where and everything seemed possible.
When we landed for real at JFK airport on the 10th May 2001, I asked my husband to pinch me as I wanted to make sure I wasn’t caught up in a dream again.
From my plane window, I could see the two towers in the distance and it looked like iron melting in the sun.
The towers would follow me everywhere I’d go in NYC. Often they were in full view like in SoHo, and sometimes I needed to look for them in the skyline, but they always seemed present, like safe anchors in the sky.
I still remember walking through the lobby of WTC on our way to the lifts that would carry us up to the observatory deck. It looked like an airport; bustling with people, massive and impressive.
Like every tourist, I heard the lift speech about the speed and felt that funny jolt in the pit of my stomach when we hit a certain height.
I recall walking to the windows to touch them just like I had touched the Flatiron the day before as I was entranced by being so close to an architectural icon. Marvelling at the view, I was nevertheless disturbed by how high we were. I never had been on anything that high in my life and imagined what it must be like to work on such an elevated level. The 11t floor of our office already felt like the top of London to me. This though was something almost out worldly to me. Our fire drill already felt like a chore, imagine having to go down from level 100 using stairs only! It looked mad to me.
Once we were up on the outside deck, I’m sure that like every other tourist I pointed at a Cessna in the sky, wondering whether it could hit any of the towers, if not the mast. They really seemed to fly close to the top, though my husband didn’t think so and said the planes were actually a lot farther from where we stood than what it looked like.
Before we went back downstairs, we wandered through the gift shop and bought a taxi ash tray and a Twin Towers key ring.
I can still remember the smiling face of the older lady at the till and wonder if she went into work on that fatal day.
Then it was back down again with a quick stop at Ben & Jerry’s for a couple of scoops of plain vanilla which we ate on the plaza looking out on the sphere.
Still peckish, we went for a slice of pizza close to the towers and that evening we flew back to London. The first image of New York being the sight of the twin towers in the distance also became the last one, as I could see the buildings dazzle below me from the plane window, both sticking out of the glittering skyline like rhinestone encrusted Champagne boxes. It had been a wonderful trip and I left a piece of my heart in New York.
Back in London, back in the loo on 11/09 – that same loo where I had been jumping up and down as a result of utter joy the day before travelling to New York, was the one where I sat, crying over the disturbing turn mankind had taken.
I cleaned myself up wiping away the streaks of mascara on my face and neck, and decided to go back downstairs to catch up on the latest news.
The lobby was swarming with people, most of my team were there too and I asked for any further developments while looking at a tv screen filled with smoke.
“One of the towers just collapsed!” said the girl from marketing who always appeared strung out in natural state, but even more so at that moment.
I looked again at the screen whilst trying to process her words and I swear that I could not understand what she was saying nor what I was seeing. It looked impossible, it seemed impossible, surely this was not possible?
I had to ask her what she meant. She pointed at the screen and repeated herself and still I could not comprehend that this really happened.
But it had. The proof was on the dark screen; a huge black column of smoke stood in the place of the now collapsed tower. Smoke billowing from all angles, mixed effortlessly together with the licking flames of the other, burning tower. It looked grotesque and you knew then the other tower wouldn’t survive the massacre either. Still so many people trapped inside and some were waving frantically from what was soon to become their tomb. It was too hard too watch but we kept watching.
Within 90 minutes we had layer of tragedy upon layer of tragedy shoved brutally into our memory banks and it really was too much to process in one gulp.
One horrific event after the other followed: the fourth hijacked plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania and then the second tower came down. I heard whimpering around me and many softly spoken ‘oh my god’s’. Deep shock rippled through the office lobby that afternoon. Some people were crying. I had already cried, barely half an hour before the second tower came down when the awful events terrible as they were could not prepare you for the even worse drama that would be coming next. I stood there frozen, traumatised by what I was seeing.
My husband phoned. He had been on the tube, his work had sent all of them home. I wanted to started crying as soon as he asked me: “did you see the latest?” But nothing came. Too disturbed by everything I was seeing. I could hardly muster a couple of words.
He noticed I was in a state and asked me if I could leave work earlier. I told him I would check with my boss.
I went back upstairs and noticed that no one had touched the box of biscuits I had brought, but someone had scribbled ‘The Day the World Changed’ on the lid. I kept the box for a while until it got lost after one of my impromptu spring cleaning sessions.
It was fine to leave earlier, in fact everyone could go. No one was doing any work anyway, all meetings had been cancelled. Even the MD had gone home. He was American, this must have hit even harder.
On the tube back home, I felt extremely down. I had never experienced such feeling of dread before and even though I was in London when 7/7 happened leaving me equally traumatised, I haven’t felt that exact sentiment of deep doom again as I did on 11/09.
It was after all a sinister maiden voyage into a new, dark world of terrorism and it left me disturbed as if thrown off the safe point of my axis I had been blissfully spinning on up to then.
The whole journey to Harrow was a quiet one, but where there would usually be a dead stare coming from the ones not being engrossed by a book, paper or magazine, eyes were now darting, inspecting, though most appeared saddened. Lips were sucked in, bitten, chewed on. Hands were mostly nervous.
I came home with bloodied fingers, I bit my nails mindlessly but with ferocious strength, so hard hitting was the anxiety I felt searing through my body from Hammersmith to Harrow.
At home I held my husband for a long while and it was as if I wanted to squeeze the reasons for all my ‘why’s?’ out of him.
We watched the news till deep in the night. We saw building 7 coming down and must have seen the towers being hit a dozen of times and the collapse of the buildings even more. Yet it never seemed real even though we could clearly see the sheer terror on the faces of the people who escaped the attack or witnessed it . And, It could also be nothing but disturbing reality when witnessing the despairing people on the top floors who chose to jump over choking to death.
We fell asleep with the tv on and despite all the terror I witnessed that day, I slept soundly, albeit for only three, four hours.
When I woke up, the first thought that crossed my mind was: “had it all been a bad dream?”
But no, the images being churned out by the tv, still switched on the news channel, proved the severe reality of it all.
Like someone wrote on my biscuit box that this was the day the world changed, it certainly did from that day onwards. Everything changed. We changed. We didn’t only lose far too many lives and iconic buildings that day, we also lost our innocence and insouciance.
Over the years we’ve witnessed terrorist attack after attack, some of them tragically close to home and it is fair to say that we have all been hammered with images of carnage in the name of psychopathy.
Yet nothing will ever, regardless of its geolocation, make us feel that traumatised as by what happened on the 11th of September 2001. We were not prepared for it, we had no clue humans could carry such a deep sense of evil in them. We heard about horrors in history books and on the news, but it was always a far from our bed situation. Then the contemporary edition of a burning Babylon happened in full camera view and the world as we knew it, exploded right in front of our eyes.
It left us shaken, troubled and we became different people. We live the aftermath today, day after day after day. What was then an unparalleled event has become the norm.
But we must go on. New York continued with the show. So did London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Nice, Istanbul, oh there are unfortunately too many places to name.
We won’t however forget, not in the least 9/11. We will always remember where we were when we heard about it, how we felt, and more than anything we won’t forget that this is the day we stared evil in the face. An evil greater than any bogeyman parading in horror films and the likes. A horrifying creature that lives amongst us and calls itself human. It brands itself a warrior, we call them terrorists, but really they are nothing but psychopaths.
They’ve destroyed our sense of safety and allowed hate and full blown discrimination to make an unwelcome return to today’s society.
I genuinely miss the days before 9/11.