Memories of 9/11



Some years back, there coin box ‘public’ telephones installed in all London Fire Stations. These were referred to as the ‘phone under the stairs’.  This was because most of the telephones could be found somewhere on one of the lower floors, usually under the stairs but, like all Fire Brigade traditions, it didn’t necessarily have to be under the stairs to be called by its commonly used name.  The ‘phone under the stairs’ rang, at the top of the stairs, at Ilford Fire Station that day and the call was for me.  I was on the Red Watch at the time and my, then-wife, had called me to tell me that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers in America.  I accepted the news slightly sceptically and, though slightly surprised at just how concerned she had been on the phone, I went to the mess room to see if there was any news of it on the television.

“That was my Mrs.  She says that apparently a plane has flown into one of the twin towers.”

Someone in the room grunted, leaned over for the remote and began to flick through the channels until he came across a live news feed.  And, though I would still have obviously found it very sad if only a light aircraft had flown into one of the towers (as I had assumed) I hadn’t actually believed that a plane had really flown into it at all.  I seem to remember that at the time there had been a few news reports leading up to 9/11 where people had carried out politically motivated publicity stunts and had landed light aircrafts in restricted areas etc.  So when I initially took the call I assumed that A: It was very likely a light aircraft and that B: It was also very likely misreported and was in fact either merely a near miss or a publicity stunt.

What I’d failed to consider is that my wife, who worked in the city’s financial sector, would very probably have had several televisions on in her office displaying news 24/7.  I hadn’t realised that she had just seen early footage of a large plane hitting the building itself.

When the television channel was initially changed and we all soaked up all of the information currently available at the time we all realised the absolute devastation and panic that must have been present at the scene.  The atmosphere at work was suddenly both professionally and personally sombre.  We watched for a few open-mouthed minutes as the surreal sight of a passenger aircraft hitting one of the twin towers began to uncomfortably sink in.  At that moment I think I must have been struggling to imagine anything more tragic, anything more barbaric…but soon my lack of imagination was replaced by the brutal fact and harsh reality of the sight of a second plane coming into view.  The live footage was of a static view of the towers, so as quickly as the plane had appeared into the shot it then disappeared again.  For a moment we were not sure if it had flown passed as the angle at which the cameras were facing blocked the view of the second planes’ point of impact.  Then flames exploded across the skyline and smoke began to billow out of the second tower.  The sombre mood in the room deflated even further at the saddening realisation that this was clearly no accident.  This was not a random event or tragic but natural disaster.  This was so very clearly an orchestrated incident and it seemed clear that this would not be the end of attacks.

My wife called me again.  At the time she worked for a company called Cantor Index.  This was part of the Cantor Fitzgerald company whose offices then resided at the top of one of the towers.  She was on the phone to her colleagues who were all, obviously, concerned about their safety and weren’t sure if they were going to survive.  Having told me this, she then asked me if they “were going to be alright?”  Now at this point, I hesitated.  Do I tell her everything’s going to be okay?  Do I lie?  Do I give someone false hope and potentially deny someone the opportunity to make that all important call?  “No.”  I said.  I know it sounds cold and callous but at the time I didn’t feel that I should lie.  I didn’t want to tell my wife that everything was going to be okay.  I know that we tell people white lies to make them feel better about an illness or a job interview or something else that’s out of their control, “No, no, it’s not that bad…” we say whilst we’re looking at the bone sticking out through our friends’ trousers.  “Oh, no, they’re probably just busy letting the other candidates know you got the job…” we insist as we mentally rebuke those interviewers who have clearly missed how brilliant our partner would have been for the job.  “No.”  I said…and even today I know it was the correct answer.  Hard though it might sound, the situation at the time demanded some straight talking, honest bluntness.  Certainly at the time I didn’t think that the towers would have collapsed so totally and catastrophically but I did know how Ill prepared any Brigade in the world would be for dealing with such an incident.  I knew that, though all Brigades train regularly for certain eventualities, these eventualities are always based on worse case foreseeable disasters.  But no one could have foreseen this, the deliberate use of such large (passenger filled) planes as missiles fired directly into such a densely populated area.

What she told her colleagues on the other end of the phone I don’t know.  I never asked her and she never brought her conversation up.  It wasn’t something we ever discussed.

Having finished the call I then went back to the television and watched events continue to unfold.  Now I should point out that I’m not a ‘rubber-necker’*, other than to glance to see if my help is needed, nor do I have much time for those who are.  I don’t make a habit of watching reality shows where people have been injured nor do I like to watch programs where peoples’ suffering or misfortune is autopsied for public entertainment.  Put simply, I don’t like car-crash television.  But…the events that occurred on that day were of professional interest but moreover were so genuinely surreal it was almost like not actually being there, not being in that moment.  It was so unreal and incomprehensible that it was almost like watching a special effects movie.  So out of the norm were the images that it was almost impossible to accept them as being real.

I also remember getting very angry at a reporter who was stopping people as they appeared out of the dust having fled the scene.  He then asked them what had happened and then enquired as to why they were running away.  He asked why they didn’t turn around and go and help others.  He encouraged them to turn and go to offer aid.  I remember feeling angry that this reporter had done nothing himself to help.  All he had done was to stop people who had safely fled one of the most surreal and dangerous events to have happened on such a large and devastating scale and then he reproached them for not turning and heading back into the scene from which these people had just miraculously escaped.  Why didn’t you drop the camera and do it yourself, AR****LE!

Reports that day continued to come in that confirmed it was a large scale coordinated terrorist attack and I remember thinking to myself at the time that these events would probably change the world…and, in many ways, they did.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am aware that the world can be subtly altered by a series of events beginning with the destruction of a butterfly…and that the consequences or ‘effect’ of this might never be attributed to the destruction of that butterfly, but here, something had changed…so dramatically that some of its’ obvious consequences and repercussions could not be ignored.  A group of terrorists had thrown down an incredibly destructive gauntlet, smirked at America and then turned and walked away.

And how did we respond to this?  Did we stop and think about our actions?  Did we gather together as a world to consider how best to approach this threat?  No.  If you smack a child for poor behaviour they may behave, may comply for a short time as they have just received a short sharp shock to their system…but to reliably stop that child from recommitting the misdemeanour, evidence tells us that it is better to educate them.  Now, of course, I am not suggesting that we should simply have invited the terrorists around for a nice cup of tea to discuss their issues and to then enter them into a 12 week education program on the virtues of the western world.  Nor am I saying that those responsible should ever have gone unpunished…but from a President who was informed of the terrorist attack and who then continued to listen to children’s stories while the news slowly sunk in, should we have been so surprised that the reaction was of the swiftly jerking knee variety?  And should we be so shocked that the British Prime minister should have come out so publically and adamantly that President Bush ‘had overwhelming evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction’ whilst all the while privately rolling onto his back and pleading with Bush to tickle his belly one more time?

Here was Blair, a Prime Minister who stated a while back that governments should start to listen to their people, should be more accountable.  Well how hard did he listen to the British public when a million of its people marched in London that year to protest against the idea of invading yet another country just to inflict on it our own ideas and ideologies?  What a P&%$k!

The following year my wife and I visited America and the views of some of the people we met were scary to say the least.  I recall one particular taxi driver who stated that “The US should just go in and nuke Iraq”.  When I asked him “why” he simply replied, “because we’re bigger than them and we can”.  When I asked him what other countries might think, he asked, “what do we care, we don’t need them anyways.”  Thankfully, I have discovered that not all Americans think this way and perhaps, with hindsight, maybe even that taxi driver has now retuned his opinions slightly.  We can but hope.

Having joined the family war-mongering business, Bush clearly seemed to want to take advantage of the situation by completing the work his Dad had started some years before.  And like some power crazed Sith he gave the orders to “Wipe them out…all of them.”

Had Iraq not had oil, he would likely have adopted a completely different approach to the war but, as it was, there were spoils to be had.  And so, as opposed to the many other dictators around the world whose only commodity is the people they repress and enslave, Bush took what he spouted to be a moral stand against Saddam Hussein.  Sadly though the high ground doesn’t seem so moral when it’s at the tee of a golf course and when the person standing there is more concerned about you watching their shot than answering probing questions about the war in Iraq.

Though I don’t think that we should have thundered in and wiped out all that we could have, and though I don’t feel we should have simply invited Saddam or the terror suspects over for Dunkin Donuts and a nice paper cup of Starbucks coffee, I do feel that we should have found some middle ground.  The world did change that day and the ripples of the effect from that day still rock political decisions, reshape and even radicalise some peoples’ ideological thinking.

The Fire Brigade lost a great many of its family that day…but then so did the rest of the world.  No-ones’ life is more important than another’s and the death toll that day was catastrophic.  That death toll sadly grew exponentially as soldiers were sent into battle and, though most behaved professionally and bravely as they served their countries, they were still as much victims of the events that occurred on that fateful day as those who died on site.

Sadly, even now, some survivors of the event are now suffering the stresses and mental health problems associated with such trauma.  Soldiers, who survived, either returned badly wounded or with missing limbs or are now wearing the invisible hidden scars cut into them as they fought.

So why this blog?  I was inspired to write something having read a WordPress blog by Writers Without Money which reassured me that there is still hope out there.  There are still some voices of reason trying desperately to be heard above the deafening media throng and political spin that would have us believe them when they say “We will never forget.”  Because the ugly truth of it is that the media has a very selective memory of such events and historic documents rarely reflect an honest and two way account of real events.

Personally I do not feel the need to wade through the constant yearly reminders of the events that occurred that day.  Having borne witness to the hysteria-hungry media airing live footage of people literally falling to their deaths whilst still in their plane seats, I don’t need to be reminded.  I do remember.  I don’t fully understand all of the political and religious complexities of the day as, like most, I am not privy to all of the relevant sensitive information to be able to make such an informed opinion but, I do remember that people lost their lives…and that those who knew these people still suffer the effects of those two huge towering butterflies having been so callously trodden on that day.

Of course I think it’s vital that we remember.  Just be sure you’re remembering it correctly and for the right reasons.

* someone, usually a driver, who will crane their necks as they drive passed the scene of an accident desperate to see what the emergency services are doing.  These people often get to experience first hand how the emergency services work due to continuing to drive whilst not looking at the road.

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