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 towers—the 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 East—have 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 does—those same four words: "both towers have collapsed."