On September 11, 2001, I was working in my dad’s office just outside Cambridge, England, when, an hour or so after lunch, I noticed an email with an unusual subject line drop into the inbox of his personal AOL account. It was from a close family friend out in California, and it read, simply, “Some clown has flown a plane into the World Trade Center.”
As a 16-year-old English kid who had spent a good amount of time in America but never been to New York City, I had no meaningful frame of reference for this news. I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was, or where it was. I didn’t know how tall it was, or how many people worked in it. And, like a lot of other people, I assumed that by “plane,” our friend must mean a Cessna, and by “some clown,” she must have meant an amateur pilot.
I read the email to my dad, who suggested that I look at the BBC’s news website to find out what had happened. But I couldn’t. At least, not for a while. Try as I might, I just got error messages. Oddly, the same was true of CNN, Yahoo, and pretty much every other overloaded current-affairs site to which I tried to connect. The requests just sat there in the queue.
When I eventually got through, the page was all broken up and the images weren’t working, but I managed to read the text. There had been a terrible accident in New York, the BBC said, and one of the tallest buildings in the world was on fire. From the links, I could see that there was a video, but however many times I clicked on it, it wouldn’t load.
A few minutes later, my dad went down to the lobby to mail some letters and noticed that everyone had congregated in front of a small television in one of the on-demand meeting rooms. When, a few minutes later, he came back up to his office, he told me that we were going home right away. He had just seen the second plane hit the South Tower.
Once we were in the car, my dad turned on the radio, which was covering the story live. It seems ridiculous to me now, but, even at this point in the day, it wasn’t at all clear to me that I was living through a world-changing event. This was partly because, as a distracted and apolitical child of the 1990s, I had no useful mental map on which to project what was happening. But it was also because the people I was listening to on the radio hadn’t grasped it yet, either. In addition to a recap of what was unfurling in New York City and Washington, D.C., the announcer told us that Tony Blair, the prime minister, had truncated his meeting with the Trade Union Congress. For weeks prior, the press had cast this meeting as a “showdown” that Blair was “dreading,” and the implication that went along with this report was that he was using the attacks as an excuse to cut it short. After that came a sports update, and the announcement that all European soccer matches had been canceled for the day. This news, too, carried the same implication: that figures in Britain and beyond were overreacting.
When the news segment ended and the live coverage resumed, the announcer uttered a series of words that send a shiver down my spine to this day. “The South Tower of the World Trade Center,” he said, “has completely collapsed.” Because I had still seen no footage, and had no prior knowledge of the buildings, I assumed this meant that it had fallen over sideways, like a bowling pin.
After this, the tone on the radio changed irrevocably, and I began to get scared. In addition to the confirmed horrors from New York and Washington, D.C., rumors were now flying wildly. There was a plane headed for the White House. There was a plane headed for Congress. There was a plane headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. And, closer to home, there was a plane headed for the houses of Parliament.
We got home just in time to watch the collapse of the North Tower, and within the space of a few minutes the 9/11 of my imagination was replaced by videos of everything that had happened thus far: The first plane, the second plane, the collapse of the South Tower, the Pentagon, the collapse of the North Tower. “This is the worst thing that has happened in your lifetime,” my dad told me. “The world will never be the same.”
A few moments later, my mother arrived home and came up to the living room to join us. Walking through town earlier that afternoon, she’d seen a group of people crowded around the window of a television store, but, having moved a little closer to see why, had concluded that they were watching a movie — Armageddon or Deep Impact, or something. But, when she got into her car and turned on the radio, she realized that it had been real. I can still remember her face when she saw the replay of the towers collapsing. I’ve never seen her look like that before or since.
Everything got worse as that day went on — except for one thing. When the towers collapsed, the number of likely dead was estimated at between 30,000 and 50,000. But, as the hours and days went by, it dropped, and dropped, and dropped, until eventually it hit 3,000 — an awful number, yes, but a much lower one than initially thought. That evening, I emailed everyone I knew in the United States — however far-removed from New York and Washington, D.C. — to make sure that they were alright. And then I went to bed, and hoped to the ceiling that it wasn’t all going to happen again tomorrow.
PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks