Ten Years Ago Today
It was a rainy day in Majorca.
Terry and I were on our first ever holiday together: a late break we’d been saving up for all year, and which we’d been enjoying every second of. As the holiday drew to a close, however, the September weather started to set in, and we woke that morning to grey skies and drizzly rain: not the best weather for our planned boat trip that day.
Standing on the dockside, wearing Terry’s sweater, which came halfway down my thighs, I remember feeling sorry for myself, and thinking that a little bit of rain on my holiday was just about the worst thing ever. It was mid-morning, Spanish time. In New York, the dawn had just started to break.
The boat trip was a mistake: the seas were choppy, throwing up waves as big as the boat. We clung onto the back of the boat, making jokes about Titanic, but secretly wondering how the little catamaran could stay upright. We got back to shore feeling lucky to be alive.
The sky didn’t clear until later that evening. We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant near the shore, and walked down onto the beach to take pictures of the sunset. On the way back, walking along a tourist street I stopped at a newsstand to read the headlines and joke with Terry that while I, ace reporter that I was, was on holiday, the biggest story in my living memory would probably go down. I was working for a newspaper at the time, and it so happened that my colleague, who worked for our larger, sister title, was going on holiday at the same time as me. Ian was one of those fiercely ambitious young journalists: the ones who don’t even flinch at the idea of doing a “death knock” and who only take days off if they’re forced to, because they’re terrifed they’ll miss something.
This was the first holiday Ian had taken in years, and he’d been strong-armed into it by his girlfriend. He was absolutely convinced that something big would happen while he was gone. “I’ll be wandering around Lake Como and the biggest news story in the world will happen somewhere else!” he kept saying. “I just know it!” I stopped at that newsstand, and I told Terry about Ian, and the biggest news story in the world. And then we walked around the corner, and there it was: the biggest news story in the world had been unfolding for the past few hours. We hadn’t even known.
Around that corner was a cafe, and in the back of that cafe was a TV. It was just a small screen, and yet people were crowding around it, jostling for position. At first I assumed it was a football match: there had been some kind of tournament on that week, and we’d seen lots of crowds around TV screens, all cheering for their teams and drinking beer. This seemed different, though. There was something about the still silence of this crowd that made the back of my neck prick with fear, so I walked over to see what they were looking at, while Terry, who had left his glasses in the hotel and couldn’t have seen anyway, strolled along looking in the nearby shops.
I found a place in the crowd and stood on my toes to see the screen.
CNN. Pictures of fire and smoke. A city street with people running, screaming, covered in what looked like ash. “What is this?” I asked the man standing next to me, who shrugged, and didn’t speak English. “What’s happening?” I honestly didn’t think it was real. I thought it was some kind of fake newsreel, or a scene from a movie. For some reason I thought of War of the Worlds, and people running out of their homes thinking it was real. This seemed real, but it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be, because the more I watched, the more the city seemed to resemble New York, and things like this – whatever this was – just didn’t happen there.
On the screen, more clouds of smoke, more people running. “What IS this?” I asked again. Then a rolling headline appeared on the screen: “New York declares State of Emergency. Washington declares State of Emergency.”
“Terry!” I shouted. “You need to come over here: something really bad has happened…”
We stood and watched the pictures, me reading out the text as it flashed up. In the footage they were showing, the towers were still standing. When we found out that a plane had hit one (and at that point, we thought it was just one plane, one tower), I, with my fear of flying, thought that was bad enough. I will never forget the next line which flashed up on the screen:
“Both towers collapsed following the impact.”
I really didn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was possible. “That can’t be right, can it?” I asked Terry. “Even if a plane did hit them, they wouldn’t fall? Would they?” But Terry thought that yes, that could, theoretically be possible. “If it was a large enough plane,” he said, “Then yes, I guess it could happen.”
I ran for the phones. My cellphone, typically, was back at the hotel, but there was a bank of pay phones near the cafe, and I had this compulsion to speak to my parents – to have this thing that was happening confirmed by someone I knew. And, more than that, I think I had the same compulsion we all did on that day, to make contact with the people we loved, and know that they were OK. The payphones, however, were all coin or credit only, and I had only notes. So we jumped in a taxi and sped back to the hotel to call home. I remember the taxi driver was listening to a football match on the radio, and I wondered if I should tap him on the shoulder and say, “Look, you obviously haven’t heard…” but I still didn’t really believe it. Terry and I held hands in silence. “The thing is,” said Terry, “If this is true, then it isn’t just an act of terrorism- it’s an act of war.” My stomach didn’t stop churning all the way home.
Back at the hotel, we sat out on the balcony while I called my parents. As I listened to the phone ring out hundreds of miles away, I thought about how stupid I was going to sound, calling to ask if the World Trade Center had collapsed. Because it COULD NOT BE TRUE. I didn’t really think it was until my mum picked up the phone, and I could tell by the tone of her voice the instant she knew it was me. “Oh, sweetheart…” she said. And all of a sudden it was real.
I spoke to her for twenty minutes, relaying the information to Terry. We found out that there hadn’t been one plane, but four. That they had been commercial flights, not, as we had initially assumed, a light aircraft gone astray. That they had managed to hit the Pentagon. I will never forget the look on Terry’s face when I told him that – it was complete horror and disbelief. We found out that another plane had come down in Pennsylvania, that all flights in and out of the US had been grounded.
I thought the world was ending.
I mean that literally. It actually felt to me like the world was ending. I can still think back to it and remember that feeling: I don’t think I’ve ever felt so panicked in my life. And there we were, on our little, quiet Spanish island, looking at the sky and half expecting to see a plane come roaring out of it, heading straight at us. It was like that, in the aftermath. No one knew what would happen next, where the next attack would come from, or who it would hit. And the fact that this had happened in New York, in Washington, in Pennsylvania, seemed to open up the possibility of it happening anywhere. Nowhere felt safe. Anything could happen.
* * *
The next morning was cloudy, and we were glad of it. It would’ve felt wrong, somehow, to have enjoyed the sunshine on September 12th, 2001. Instead, we found a cafe which was showing CNN and we sat there all day, watching the planes slam into the towers over and over again, watching the towers fall. We didn’t want to see it, but we couldn’t look away. When we finished our cups of coffee, the waiters just let us sit there. It was the most surreal couple of days of my life, and when it was over, we got on a plane, and we flew home, and I cried in the darkness somewhere above Europe at the sheer terror of being in the sky at the end of the world.
* * *
Even now I can’t believe it happened. I can’t believe that the world ever managed to return to some semblance of normality. That night, and that week, it felt like it never would. I couldn’t imagine a future after what had happened. I just couldn’t imagine how the world would pick itself up and dust itself off and go on as before. And of course, it did, and it didn’t. Things continued as they always had, but everything was different.
I didn’t ever get to see the World Trade Center. But I’m thinking of it today, and every year on this day. I’m thinking of those who died there, and who died in Washington, and on United Airlines Flight 93. Of all of the men and women who’ve died in the ten years since September 11, 2001, because of what happened on that day. So I apologise for adding to what I’m sure will be a long list of posts like this today, but it just didn’t seem right to write about anything else.