We’d just got back from six weeks in America. We’d flown back from Chicago because we’d run out of money. The original plan had been to travel from Chicago down the East coast and fly back from Miami. Maybe we would have reached New York by 11 September, I don’t know.
Instead, I was in my sister’s car when we heard the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre. I pictured a tiny biplane. I remember saying “What did the pilot think he was doing?” We left the car at my sister’s house and walked to the shops. It was as we passed a TV shop, showing the news on every screen, that we saw it wasn’t a biplane and it was much worse than we’d imagined. I kept thinking “Poor New York.” Over and over. At that point I hadn’t thought about the people in the buildings. I think as we walked away from the shop the second plane hit – other people were watching through the windows and we heard their reaction – and we ran back. I think that’s the moment I started to feel frightened. We went back to my sister’s house. I phoned David (he was at my Dad’s house) and told him to put the TV on.
We sat down and watched. I remember neither of us being able to speak. I remember having my hand over my mouth and struggling to catch my breath. And then the first building fell. I don’t remember crying, but I’m sure I must have done. By then, of course, the news was talking about how many people were in the buildings. I was still thinking about the buildings themselves – the first time we went to New York, in 1999, we stayed at the Milennium Hilton, directly opposite the World Trade Center. In the morning the top of the towers were in the clouds. I would sit in the window and watch them clear and the upper floors appear. We went to the viewing platform and couldn’t believe you could actually go further and stand on the very top. It was incredible. I thought the buildings were beautiful. It was unimaginable to me that they were gone.
The news reports were talking about other planes that were “unaccounted for”. They said a plane in Pennsylvania had been shot down (I absolutely remember them saying it had been shot down). They talked about car bombs in Madrid and elsewhere. In my sister’s Merseyside living room I didn’t feel safe. I thought it was the end of the world.
And then as the days went on, I stopped thinking about New York and the buildings and the skyline and the unimaginable horror of it all and I started thinking about the people.
A couple of years ago I read 102 Minutes: The untold story of the fight to survive inside the Twin Towers. Despite the awful subtitle, I actually found it quite a life-affirming book. Of course it’s profoundly sad – how could it not be? – but so many people behaved incredibly that day. The kindness, tenderness, bravery and basic goodness of people was just overwhelming. People who chose not to leave the towers but to stay to help others escape. People who refused to leave friends who, for whatever reason, couldn’t get out. Many others who didn’t die, who managed to get out of the towers and who, along the way, saved, comforted or encouraged strangers. I’m so glad I read it.