Having seen Come From Away recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about that day. It’s one of those days that no-one who experienced it in real life or through the power of broadcast media will ever forget.
It was a day that began as any other – the commute to work, 14 miles from my hideously expensive rented studio flat, driving my 6-years-old navy blue Ford Fiesta 1.8D. I arrived at my desk in a first floor open-plan office overlooking Heathrow’s Terminal 4 at 8.30 am. I’d barely switched on my computer and set my morning latté down on the desk when my friend Dee called to say that her old school friend had invited us to New York City in November, and that another old school friend had gifted us airline vouchers to cover the cost of our air fares with American Airlines. Was I in?
That frisson of excitement for an unexpected trip to New York City saw me through a slow morning spent looking out of the office window, watching jets take off and waiting for the departure of the magnificent Concorde for JFK at 11 am. I’d begun to think about lunch when Ben, the department’s team leader, sent out a team email with a link to a CNN news story about an accident at the World Trade Center.
None of us in the office could access the link and we laughed that we’d all tried to view it at exactly the same time. Then I went to lunch.
It was around 1.45 pm that the building-wide tannoy came to life …“Anyone wishing to see what’s happening in New York right now should proceed to the auditorium, where we are broadcasting a live feed from the BBC.”
That enormous auditorium was filled to capacity, standing room only. You could have heard a pin drop. I was staring so intently at the screen that my mind did not, could not, register seeing the second plane hit the South Tower. (It was years before I could fully accept that I had indeed witnessed it – the fireball that appeared immediately after flight United 185 struck the tower between the 77th and 85th floors).
We’d returned to our desks before the towers collapsed, but people kept calling out across the office with updates as the afternoon progressed. The atmosphere was subdued and most of us packed up for the day early.
I was due at a friend’s house for tea and cake in celebration of her son’s 17th birthday. I listened to BBC Radio 4 during the half hour drive from work to her house. Listening to an almost continual update of news, with the occasional commentary from the presenter and hastily assembled guests wondering aloud who could do such a thing.
The tea was drunk, the cake eaten and the birthday boy celebrated, but I headed home earlier than I might have done ordinarily. I potted about my flat, had supper, tidied up – all to the background noise of the BBC.
I was considering having an early night when my telephone rang. I expected it to be Mum, but it wasn’t. It was someone wanting to talk about a job I’d applied for and offering me an interview. I could barely comprehend what she was saying to me, as it all sounded so, well, normal.
I lay awake that night for what seemed like hours, trying to make sense of a day that began with the excitement of a proposed overseas trip and ended having witnessed unimaginable horror.
Where were you on Tuesday, 11 September 2001?
PS: Dee and I went to New York City in the November of that year as planned, flying out on an American Airlines flight that was less than half full and flying back on a flight that had more empty seats than occupied ones.
We paid our respects at Ground Zero.
PPS: I went for that interview … and got the job.