Friday, September 11, 2015

I Was Living in England on 9/11. Here's What I Remember.

It's often said that the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occurred against the backdrop of a crisp, clear blue sky on a perfect September morning. This was almost certainly the case for millions of Americans who were beginning what must have seemed like just another day.

My own memories of the unfolding atrocity, however, are somewhat different. First of all, the five-hour time difference meant that the first attack happened not in the morning but in the early afternoon—1:45pm to be exact. Secondly, given England's record in this department, the weather was almost definitely overcast, though from memory I can only assert this with 99% certainty. 

What I can say for certain is that I was 19 when it happened. The afternoon had found me in my college library, where I was busy typing an essay (some things never change) for an A-level English class. It was 2001, so there were no smartphones pinging me with news updates or emerging Twitter hashtags. In fact, I must have been particularly engrossed in that essay, because I don't think I even opened up an internet browser during that session.

Given how big a part the internet has come to play in my present day job as a professional writer, I am amazed that I then spent a whole two hours without it. Regardless, I'm a little hazy on what time I actually left the library, but suffice to say enough time had passed that—completely unbeknownst to me—Lower Manhattan was now enveloped in plumes of smoke and dust.

This image, of course, would remain the furthest thing from my mind, as I negotiated the corridors of my college in a relaxed effort to head home for the day. My utter obliviousness to the new century's biggest news event was not even shaken by the words "both towers have collapsed", as I sauntered past two apparently incredulous students. It was only afterward, as I rode home on the bus, that I realized those two students hadn't been discussing an action sequence from The Mummy Returns but from real life events occurring right now on the other side of the Atlantic.

After hopping onto the double-decker, I headed toward the back to sit with the cool kids, among whom there was an unusually high level of chatter. In fact, in the absence of Twitter, the back of Grimsby's number 45 bus was probably the closest thing the world had that day to social media.

"Hey, Laurence. Have you heard what's happening in New York City?" Asked everyone. "Terrorists hijacked some airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center. Both towers have collapsed."

There were those words again: "both towers have collapsed." 

"Which towers?" I asked, unable to comprehend that it could possibly be the twin towersthe World Trade Center's main focal point, the iconic visual element of so many movies and, more importantly, the work location for thousands of workers.

As if to emphasize her response, another friend produced from her purse a Kodak photograph she had taken on a recent trip to New York. It showed in fine detail the New York City skyline, which—it was becoming clear—would never look like this again. "The twin towers," she confirmed, pointing to the two gargantuan rectangles in the photograph. 

Like everyone else, I was astonished. Simply astonished. Had this happened in the present day, I'd have immediately brought up BBC News on my Android smartphone instead of sitting there for the next 25 minutes, relying on second-hand news reports emanating from the mouths of my friends.

As soon as I reached the bus stop, I ran home in record time to ask my mum, "have you seen the news?" 

Of course she had. For those who had been watching TV at the time, there was no escaping it. She had seen the first breaking news report after the North Tower was hit, the live footage 18 minutes later when the South Tower was hit, and the subsequent tragedy that unfolded throughout the afternoon. From the hallway, it was apparent that the TV was still playing in the living room, where I abruptly entered. I needed visual cues to complete the limitations of my own imagination.

As it turned out, my own imagination would not in a million years have invented the scenes in Manhattan that day. The image of things falling—debris, people, and the towers themselves—was so unfathomably at odds with how Tuesdays normally play out, that I wondered momentarily if it was all just a horrible dream. 

It wasn't. And while I sat safely from my home 3,000 miles away, I could not help but feel great sorrow for those whose lives were being impacted. As a matter of fact, it has often been said that the United States received ovwerwhelming sympathy from the entire world that day. And it's true. For once, America—so often the subject of both our envy and our ridicule for its overblown grip on world affairs—was now in its time of need.

While reflecting on this, however, even my teenage self knew that—just like the New York City skyline in my friend's Kodak photo—the world was about to change forever. Not just in America, not just in my home country, but in every nation on earth.

The changes—from intensified airport security to heightened conflict in the Middle Easthave been real. But as someone who now lives and works in the United States, there has been a part of myself that has truly changed during the intervening years. No longer do I look back at the 9/11 terror attacks through a teenage lens of fear or hatred. Rather, I recall a day when the world came together and when love, resilience, and hope prevailed.

I will always remember this whenever my mind replays—as it occasionally doesthose same four words: "both towers have collapsed."
This article was written by Laurence Brown. Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana, and writes for BBC America and Anglotopia. He is Editor-in-chief of Lost in the Pond and loves nothing more than to share these articles with anglophiles, expats, and other interested parties on social media. Follow Lost in the Pond on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

7 comments:

Dwight Mengel said...

I remember the crisp, clear, blue sky of Sept 11, 2001. I biked to work, walked in, and saw my co-workers staring at their computer screens. One tower was burning. Then there were two. Then they fell.

I walked out of the building and looked at the flag. It was worn. I thought that when you have a national disaster, you need a new flag. So, I went to an army-navy store and bought a flag. I knew the proprietor, an ex-Marine. He gave me a discount. It was 10:45 am. I returned to the office to switch-out the flag.

NYC is a 4 hours drive away. It is the City. I first visited the twin towers in 1974. I last visited them with my scout troop in May 2001. I took a photo of the towers from Ellis Island as the setting sun cast a golden light across the city skyline. I posted the photo at the impromptu outdoor memorial service on the evening of 9/11. A photo, flowers, candles, prayer and song.

My family previously scheduled a trip to Eastern Europe for 10 days later. Tickets were already bought and visas procured. We decided to proceed with preparations only with the understanding that either parent could call the trip off at any time, no questions asked.

We flew from Kennedy airport. As the jet rose, I could see smoke rise from where the towers stood. In a rush of emotion, I wanted to stay. It passed. I'm so glad we went. We were Americans from New York. No use trying to explain the difference between the NY City and State. Strangers offered condolences. My friends and family back home wanted to know what people over there thought about it all. Overall, I was gratified to be a citizen ambassador post-9/11.

Unknown said...

As someone who lives 5 minutes drive from NYC ( just across the bridge) it was soul crushing to watch the horrors that happened that day. I've worked with people who were there, I'm friends with people who lost loved ones and the time between that day and now has had no effect on healing. I always look back and think how naive and foolish to think this could never happen and what do we do if it happens again? I agree with your words though, that day the world came together as one.

Elizabeth West said...

I will be posting my memories and thoughts about this day on my own blog, but I wanted to say thank you, Laurence, for sharing your memory with us. It's valuable even after all these years to know that when we were shocked out of our complacency, other people in other places had compassion and empathy for us.

Unknown said...

It was indeed a perfect beautiful September morning, just a hint of early fall in the air. I drove to my workplace through Rock Creek Park in Washington DC admiring the trees (I did not have the radio on). When I walked in, a young co-worker who often joked around with me said "Somebody just flew a plane into the World Trade Center" and my first response was "That's really not funny." Then he swung his screen around toward me just as I realized the expression on his face was completely grim.....

Manuela Andrea said...

I remember sitting in my office in a public school in Upstate New York, 3 1/2 hrs from NYC. I was listening to the radio when the program was interrupted with news that a plane has hit the World Trade Center. Teachers came filing onto the office asking what was going. I immediately went to a news website on my computer and had to witness the unfathomable.

Anonymous said...

As an American married to a Brit (who had worked in between the Britain USA since the early 1980's), I had been living in the UK since 1996 when the attack on WTC occurred. We were down in Devon at our home at the time and I can remember everything about that day so clearly. I remained pretty much glued to the TV for the next 4 days or so, only stopping for a brief few hours of sleep every night. The event made me realize that I much as I love and adored the UK that perhaps my home and heart belonged in the USA and from that point we started thinking that perhaps we should return to the US. Part of our decision was due although we heard a lot of kind remarks from the British people initially after the event, within a few months we heard more conversations both directly and overheard that the attacks were "America's Fault" and how Americans had brought this upon themselves.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written.

I was a junior in high school, home with a cold, in Florida. I watched the second tower get hit on live TV. I thought the air traffic controllers had made catastrophic errors.

I divide my life as pre-9/11 - an innocent teenager who felt safe and didn't think anyone in the world had a reason to hate the country she loves - to post-9/11 - fear, anxiety, and distrust.

This country, and our world, has never been the same.

But I feel the hope too, and after the Paris attacks last year I felt the world come together again just like it did that day in September 15 years ago.

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