Friday, 11 September 2009

9/11 Recollections

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As another anniversary of September 11 2001 swings into focus, thoughts inevitably turn to the events of that incredibly tragic day. Documentary accounts of the day fill the TV schedules and the familiar topography of New York City catches your attention all over again; both majestically bold and strident before the Towers collapsed and naked and weakened after, never has the image of a city been so etched into the minds of so many people. Thoughts turn, too, to whatever you were doing on that day.

On September 11 2001 my wife and I were enjoying the second week of a holiday in Florida. I say holiday and I say wife, but in fact we'd gone to the States to get married, at DisneyWorld, where we were also staying; we'd been married for precisely six days. On that particular day, we were headed to Busch Gardens in Tampa with my new in-laws for another theme park excursion.

We heard the news coming in on the radio station we were listening to in the car as we traversed the interstates to get to the park. My in-laws had been to New York before, had been inside the World Trade Center. It wasn't until later that day, long after the Towers had collapsed and while we watched the news, that I even realised that the buildings that had been targeted were the Towers so familiar in the background of any number of movies set in New York. The word 'terrorism' was bandied around, a word whose resonances we'd forgotten in the UK after a period of IRA dormancy.

The second plane hit while we were in the queue to get into the park. An elderly American couple in front of us, both wearing headphones, turned to one another as they simultaneously heard the news from the radio station they were listening to and exclaimed 'We're being attacked!' and fled the queue. I'm ashamed to say that we looked at one another and thought they were exaggerating.

Inside the park, we wandered around, none of us wishing to admit that something just didn't feel completely right about being at a place so obviously about fun when things that no-one really wanted to believe were playing out on the south-western tip of Manhattan.

The second tower fell while we were looking at some monkeys in a shady area of the already-baking park. We heard the news coming from a radio in a staff area nearby. At the precise moment in time a bird decided to deposit the contents of its bowels on my new Paul Smith t-shirt. It's strange what you elect to remember.

We were evacuated from the park within a couple of hours. My overriding memory of this, logically, was one of fear, tinged with a sense of the exaggeration we'd felt toward the old couple in the queue. At the exit of the park, British tourists were to be found hammering on the ticket booth windows demanding refunds for not being able to enjoy the rest of the day in the park. Fear turned to shame as we picked up the rumours and stories floating from people pressed against us trying to exit the park as quickly as possible. Shame turned to shock in the car back to a similarly-emptied DisneyWorld as the estimates of deaths and the word terrorism became ever more prevalent in the news reports.

I called my mother from a payphone at a Pizza Hut just outside Disney. She immediately asked me if I was okay. From the way she was talking, way back home in England, I could sense that she was on edge. I tried to reassure her, to which she simply said 'You need to turn the TV on.' Something in the way she said this made the events of the day coalesce in my mind and we duly headed back to our room in the Contemporary Resort where we all sat, glued, to CNN, no-one saying a word at the horrors being displayed there.

Later, my wife and I took a walk to get away from the TV. The Disney resort was eerily empty and there was no-one around at all. We retreated quickly back to our room, whereupon once again - as we would many times over the next few days - we sat silently watching the TV.

Everyone's lives changed that day. We were all affected in some lasting way by those events, even for those of us many hundreds or thousands of miles from the area that became known as Ground Zero. My lasting response has been to develop an incredible deep love for Manhattan and all its many facets. It is the only positive thing I can find in that entire experience.

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