Five Years On

A pause. A moment to remember. A moment to acknowledge what happened five years ago.

My memories of that day are alternately blurred and movie screen intense. Although I was living in New York at the time, work had taken me out to State College Pennsylvania where I would spend my weekdays. That Tuesday, I woke up in my hotel room and really didn’t feel like going in – but somehow I dragged myself out of bed and into the office. I’d been there about ten minutes before one of our developers said ‘You should come and look at this’ – he showed me the front page of some news website with a drawn graphic of a plane hitting the World Trade Tower. A drawn graphic! I look back at that now and realise that means they had images ready for planes hitting the towers before it happened.

The whole of our team just looked at the page in shock. We knew people in the towers. In fact one of our team, Max, had only been working there a month or so before on the last project our company had done for Marsh McLennan. We checked other news sites – soon every site started coming up ‘server overloaded’, except BBC News who had reverted to their text only ’emergency broadcast’ mode. The headlines all said the same – plane hits World Trade Center. What was happening? Was this an accident? How could a plane not miss the towers? Was everyone OK?

One of our client team told us there was a TV in the office gym, so we all rushed down and stood in a group of about 15 people staring in disbelief. The first tower ablaze. Long distance tracking of people jumping out of the top floors. A couple, hand in hand, their business suits trailing behind them, falling down together. The smoke, thick and black pouring out of the building.

Then. A second plane. No doubt remained – this was not an accident. Disbelief ran the room. The TV commentators at a loss. Both towers ablaze. Now the cameras stayed wide angle – both towers burning seen from mid-town. Noone sure what was happening. Everyone looking dazed but trying to stay professional.

Suddenly one of the towers went down. All of us watched – mouths agape. How could this happen? What was happening? How? What? There was no sense to this. No understanding. Then the other tower went, and flatness prevailed. No emotion was strong enough to deal with this now. We sat. Staring at the now devastated New York skyline. Exchanging the odd sentence of disbelief as the screens continued to show the same nothing.

Then pictures of people covered in dust walking across Brooklyn Bridge. Footage coming in from the field of the dust clouds billowing down streets. Statements. People missing. Crowds staring. Noone sure what was happening, but everyone trying to help or make sense of it – or just breaking down in tears where they stood.

All of this was happening 300 miles away from us – back home. Cellphones hadn’t been working all morning. Email was our best friend – I mailed out to everyone I knew saying I was fine, a long way away. Emails came in from friends to say they were OK too, but who was unnaccounted for? Eventually I got in touch with my girlfriend of the time and she was ok after the whole morning of not knowing. Later I would find out that everyone I worked with was OK.

We watched for a while. Members of the client team came in to see if we were OK, knowing we were all from New York. Eventually we left the office and drove to a sportsbar. Every one of thirty or so screens, ranging in size from 10 feet across to 20 inches, tuned to different news channels. Every screen showing the same burning images. Nothing changed for the rest of the day till we staggered back to the hotel exhausted and confused.

That Friday we drove back into town as usual. Work had continued in State College – we’d seen no point in heading back, what could we do? Could we even get across Manhattan? Although looking back I’m not even sure we considered going back to any real degree. When we finally drove across George Washington bridge we got our first glimpse of the fires, still burning three days later. All of us stared out the window in disbelief. At the shattered skyline.

Back home my girlfriend came over to mine, as I still couldn’t get to her apartment being south of the 14th Street exclusion zone. That short trip had unnerved her immensely – she wasn’t even sure if she’d be able to get back home. She looked tired and upset and both of us were in tears. That was when I started to feel like a tourist again – even though I’d been in New York for almost four years. Being out of town and away from friends on that day there was now a distance, an absence of connection that hadn’t been there before. I stayed on my roof out in Brooklyn for hours just staring at the smoke rising into the sky – smoke that would continue for days yet. It was almost two weeks later before I saw the devastation at close hand.

Five years on. Is the world a better place? Are we safe from terror – or just living in fear so much that, on average, those nasty terrorists don’t seem so bad any more. Certainly more people have died in the ‘War on Terror’ then have argueably been saved. More civil liberties have been quashed in the name of freedom.

Sometimes I like to stop and imagine and world where the Twin Towers still stand. Where Gore got into government. Where Bush remained just a bad joke of a candidate, not the worst joke of a president. Unfortunately we’ll never know if those were better times – I hope they are for whatever parallel world it happened in that way. Now, please, can we get on with making this world a better one without killing everyone to achieve it.

In memorium: Roberta Bernstein Heber, Sue Clyne and John Ueltzhoeffer.

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