During my planning of our summer holiday to New York City I had decided to include a visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Initially I hesitated. Who wants to spend a happy, carefree summer day in a place that is shrouded in so much agony, pain, grief and suffering?
When we drove into the city from JFK airport it became clear to me that we would.
When we drove into the city from JFK airport it became clear to me that we would.
The skyline of Manhattan is one of the most AWESOME sites in the world. No matter how many times I see it, I am inspired and mesmerised. It doesn’t matter if it is day or night, cloudy or crystal clear blue. The sheer enormity of it quite simply takes my breath away.Before this summer, my last visit to NYC was a business trip in September 2000. My husband was in Princeton, New Jersey for a business trip as well so we overlapped the weekend and a couple days either side and partied like we partied in 1999. Both on expenses accounts, we ate at the best restaurants, drank cocktails and champagne, and saw a few tourist trail highlights. Mostly, we shopped til we dropped, literally. We could do that back then: loads of disposable income for a figure not yet ravaged by the demands of pregnancy and the lethargy of age.
After suitably exhausting our credit cards in the shops on the ground floor of the World Trade Centre, my husband suggested we go to the top floor and enjoy the view. Being the expert of all things New York, I informed him that a better view was to be from the top of the Empire State Building. I’d been to the top of the World Trade Centre before during my 35th birthday celebrations and preferred the less crowded view from midtown. He reluctantly took my expert opinion and we left. I promised we would come back some other time. We never made it back and my promise was broken.
I remember standing outside and looking back up at the buildings and being amazed by their sheer size. They weren’t beautiful buildings but, holy moly, they were big. They had a buzz about them. they looked like they would last forever.
Life took over. We discovered I was pregnant in October 2000 which put an end to my gallivanting about the globe. Our next trip was to introduce our newborn son to my family in Texas, Colorado and Missouri in late August/early September 2001. We were exhausted by the end of the trip and eager to get home. But fate had other ideas.
Flying out of Kansas City on 9 September, we were delayed due to bad weather in Chicago. There’s always something going wrong in Chicago. Don’t fly through there if you can avoid it. Don’t get me wrong: I love the city of Chicago but as a hub for flights, it sucks. Big time.
We eventually arrived in Chicago and raced through the airport just in time to see the door to our boarding gate being closed. I begged. I pleaded. I cried. I made Sebastian cry. Marc yelled. But United Airlines would not allow us to board that plane I whipped out my platinum frequent flyer card (this was back when it meant something) and gave them one of my evil eye looks. It worked. Sort of.
The airline staff were very apologetic but they kept going on and on about security requirements and our baggage and blah blah blah. At one point, they had to pull the airplane back into the gate and remove one piece of luggage because the passenger associated with it had never boarded the plane. But would they let us on the plane? Nooooooooo!
We were given vouchers for a hotel at the airport and dinner. We were even given some nappies for Sebastian. We made the best of a bad situation and went to the hotel and enjoyed a romantic dinner for 2 (pretending that Sebastian wasn’t sound asleep in his car seat hidden under the table).
On September 10 we boarded the plane with the airlines every assurance that our baggage was on the same flight that we were and would arrive at Heathrow at the same time that we did. This was a very important point as Marc was scheduled to fly back to Princeton, New Jersey in just a couple days. His days of gallivanting around the globe hadn’t ended. We needed his suitcase and most of the contents in them to make the return journey with him.
We landed at London’s Heathrow airport on September 11, 2001 at 6:30 in the morning Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). At 9:30 am we finally gave up arguing with the airlines about our lost baggage. United Airlines had absolutely no idea where our luggage was. We had been assured that they were on the same airplane as we were. Then we were told they were still on the ground in Chicago. As the last flights had left Chicago for the day we were promised that our bags would be delivered to our home the next day from the first flight out of Chicago
Defeated we headed home. We had a doctor’s appointment to get Sebastian his second set of immunizations. As we parked the car outside the doctor’s surgery, we fleetingly heard on the car radio that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Centre buildings. As we waited in the queue, I joked with Marc that some flight controller was going to lose his job and we discussed how those buildings had been designed to withstand an airplane collision. The immediate anxiety associated with my child being jabbed by a large needle took over and we forgot about it.
Upon leaving the doctor’s surgery we heard that another plane had crashed into the other World Trade Centre building. And this wasn’t some light aircraft. These were passenger jets.
When we arrived home, I ran inside and left Marc to get Sebastian out of the car. I turned on CNN and could see both towers before me with smoke coming out of them. I turned to Marc and said “We’ll never get our luggage back. And you certainly won’t be going to the US tomorrow.
Over the next few hours we watched horrified as people jumped from the burning buildings. We watched the firefighters rush to and enter the towers. It was difficult to believe that we weren’t watching a film. I kept hoping that Bruce Willis would appear or that the broadcast would be interrupted with someone telling us this had all been a mistake and Hollywood’s next blockbuster had accidentally been premiered simultaneously, on every news channel in the world
I kept trying to ring my family. All the circuits were busy. No one from the UK could ring the USA.
And then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, the South Tower collapsed in on itself. I fell to the floor of our living room. It seemed to happen in slow motion. There was a knock at our front door. Our neighbor, Karen, had arrived to just say how sorry she was. Marc let her in and she wept with me on the floor.
Then the North Tower collapsed. And then the smoke and the debris filled all the cameras and we could see no more. There was no more to see. It was all gone. All of it. All of them.
Another plane was reported to have flown into the Pentagon and mysteriously another plane had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. No one knew how many planes had been hijacked and it took a long time to discover the heroic actions of the passengers on that flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.
At 5 pm (GMT) there was another knock on our door. A man in a taxi was delivering out luggage. No one knows where our luggage had been. And at that moment, I really didn't care.
The airspace over the USA was closed. Planes all over the world were grounded. The world to stopped. The world cried.
Hospitals in New York prepared to treat thousands of injured people but they found so few that the hospital emergency staff was stood down. Donors of blood were sent home. The dead do not need blood.
Thousands were reported missing. Thousands were never found. In all nearly 3,000 people died in the towers.I felt helpless. I felt hopeless. I wanted to come home. and I wanted to run away.
I still can’t watch footage of the planes flying into the buildings, or the people jumping out of the wreckage, or the buildings collapsing to the ground without crying. I can feel my heart race as I recall the terror of those moments and the disbelief of what I was seeing.
There was a part of me that needed to see it to believe it. As I approached the area where those giants of buildings used to stand I could not only see their absence. I could feel it. I could feel the sadness. I could feel the pain. It still feels and looks like a bomb site. I suppose it always will. I suppose it always should.
As I stood at the fountains and read the names, my tears started to flow.
When I tried to explain to my children what had happened here, my daughter looked up at me and with disbelief she asked, “But, mummy, why would anyone fly airplanes into buildings on purpose?”
Why, indeed? How do you ever explain that level of hatred to a child? I still struggle to understand the hatred of a terrorist.
When we read the names, I tried to explain, that many of them were firefighters who had selflessly entered these burning buildings to save other people. “Why would anyone go into a burning building to save other people when they might get hurt themselves?”
Why, indeed? I struggled then to explain the heroism and the sacrifice of the people who tried to help the helpless.
When I explained that there were new buildings being built here, she asked me, “Won’t someone just fly more airplanes into them?”
And then I struggled to explain hope. For without hope, there can be nothing else.