Sat in my office that Tuesday afternoon I heard a bubble of noise to look at the news. Confused as it was, the scenes were horrifying. A plane had flown in to one of the towers of the WTC. Back then no one’s first conclusion was terrorism, we must be witnessing a terrible accident.
Then we had the live view of the second plane hitting the other tower.
The scenes were devastating and I don’t need to describe them. There’s an incredible film by Jules and Gedeon Naudet called “9/11 The Five Year Anniversary”. The two had been filming an innocuous documentary about the crew of a New York fire station and were almost at the end of their assignment when the emergency call came. Embedded with the first fire crews to respond they followed them everywhere inside the WTC. This film is the result.
On that afternoon of 11th September I found it all too real, I knew the WTC and its environs pretty well.
Cue wavy lines on the screen and flashback music …
In 1989 thru 1990 I lived in New York, seconded to support delivery of a project for financial trading. On my first day there a colleague met me at my hotel on the upper East Side to show me how to get to work in the office on the Jersey shoreline. A 4 or 6 train down the Lexington Ave line to Fulton St (one up from Wall Street). Exiting the steps from the subway onto the street there was a 180 degree turn and there it was. Framed between the buildings either side of the street the WTC occupied the centre view, those towers loomed at you. The scale was almost impossible to comprehend.
There was a brisk walk to the WTC and the myriad doors at street level. Wending the way to the stairs and escalators to the PATH – the train under the river to New Jersey, we got off at the first stop. I did that journey daily for about a year.
I knew how crowded it was during the morning commute. I knew that the best part of 50,000 people worked in the WTC. This was all going through my head on that Tuesday afternoon. When nearly 3000 people died it’s truly horrifying that from those pictures I thought it would have been many times more.
Several years later the film by the Baudet brothers brought all those sinking feelings back. I saw footage of the spaces I new so well covered in dust and ash, those deserted stairs to the PATH – I can still see them.
My working office was on the Jersey shoreline of the Hudson river opposite the WTC across the river, glass fronted and every window framing the two towers. I can’t find an exact picture, but the one below shows how spectacular the towers were in the dark. Imagine looking at them from the other side with nothing to obstruct the view.
That was the portrait out of my office window.
The company I was delivering the project to also had offices in the WTC. They had a whole floor a couple of storeys from the top. I went up there a few times. Many people will have been there as tourists, going up to the observation level. Very different seeing and knowing the actual working space. I actually found it a bit claustrophobic.
On the concourse level there were many shops – the joy in picking up a day old UK newspaper on the way to work because it was the only link to news back home. There was one fascinating shop that was truly scary to a Brit. It sold knives !! Nothing but knives. Machetes, flick knives, skinning knives – everything. And from here I bought my one memento of my time living there, a high quality Swiss Army penknife.
I carried it permanently in my pocket as one did back then. I carried it all over the world because apart from emptying pockets to go through the airport scanner no one bothered about it.
After 2001 it became a very precious tangible link to a wonderfully crazy time in my life.
Security clamp downs meant you could no longer fly with it on your person but it was fine in checked luggage.
One day, around 2005/6 coming home from Seattle I was too tired and forgot to transfer it to the suitcase. I couldn’t get it through security. There was no way I could just throw it in the bucket provided for prohibited items. On the verge of tears I found a soldier outside having a cigarette, explained the significance of the penknife and left it with him.
I’ve wondered many times what happened. Did he just throw it away ? It’s hard for cynical Brits to understand just what a scar to the American psyche 9/11 was and is. I like to think he kept it and made use of it because of that link to the WTC.
I have many memories linked to the WTC, memories from when we were all innocents. To remember it’s destruction, as we do on the anniversary, is to draw a line in time when collective innocence was lost.