Everyone has a story to tell of where they were when a significant news event happened: I was late to school the morning I watched the Challenger explode shortly after blast-off in 1986; I was with my Dad and brother-in-law buying a new air-conditioner the afternoon news broke that Michael Hutchence (lead singer of Aussie band INXS) was found dead in his hotel room in 1997; I was with my parents driving into the city as news trickled in with reports of the car accident that eventually took the life of Diana, Princess of Wales that same year.
Of all the global tragedies during my lifetime so far, there is no doubt the attacks of September 11, 2001, will forever be ingrained in my mind. I remember, as if it was only yesterday, that fateful day when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (WTC) came down after two planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into those buildings in the heart of New York City.
It was late at night in Sydney when the first plane flew into the North Tower. I had been working on an assignment in my study. My TV was on in the living room – I was waiting for The West Wing to start. It was nothing unusual that programs regularly did not start on time. I kept going out to the living room every couple of minutes to check if the program had started yet. At first, I thought the TV station had changed its programming to some late-night disaster movie when I saw smoke billowing from an office tower. Then I realised it was “Breaking News”.
Like everyone else, I was stunned and horrified at what I was seeing. There was no real explanation as to what was going on. Reports told of a tragic plane crash – everyone thought it was an accident. It had to be. How else could you explain what had happened?
My first thought was to call my parents to see if they were watching the news. Then I realised it was late (nearly 11pm in Sydney) and decided they must be asleep – nobody likes waking up to news like that (as it turned out my Mum stayed up all night watching events unfold). When the second plane hit the South Tower, it became obvious this was no accident.
When I heard that one of the flights had departed from Boston and was destined for Los Angeles, I immediately thought of some former work colleagues I knew who traveled regularly on that route. In a panicked state, I could not find their phone numbers to call and check on them but managed to contact another friend in Boston. He, like me, was watching the news in disbelief. That night, I stayed glued to the television for hours, crying and praying, all the while wondering what could have motivated somebody – a group of somebodies – to do such a thing.
I went to work the next morning with bloodshot eyes from lack of sleep and swollen from crying. It was the only thing everyone in the office talked about. One of the managers called in sick – he had stayed up all night watching the news. I got an email from another of my friends in Boston. He was only about 22 or 23 at the time – a recent graduate in his first job. Although I don’t have that email anymore, I will never forget the words or the sentiment he expressed in his message to me: “Those bastards killed my friends. I’m going to go over there and kill their friends.” It broke my heart to read those words, yet I felt I could understand his pain and anger.
I called my Mum and asked her if she knew where Dominic, a friend she had known for nearly thirty years at the time, worked in Manhattan. I didn’t know the name of his company but all I knew was that he worked for a Japanese bank in Manhattan. Mum tried for a long time to call him but to no avail. Finally, she tried emailing him in the hope that he would check his email and respond. We waited. The next day, he called.
It turned out Dominic worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre. I can’t remember which floor he was on – something ridiculously high up. There had been some senior managers visiting from their head office in Japan and he had been in the office early. When he heard the commotion from the North Tower, out of curiosity, he decided to take the elevator down to ground to check it out. He bumped into friends on his way out. It was to be the last time he saw them alive.
Dominic said he couldn’t believe what was happening when he saw the fire and smoke and the hole in the side of the North Tower. He wanted to go back up to his desk and call his wife, Maria, to tell her what was happening, but remembered that she, being a very religious woman, would still be at morning Mass and would not be home. So he decided to stay downstairs a little while longer. Minutes later, the second plane crashed into the South Tower. He ran.
When Dominic told us this story a few years ago, it was all I could do to hold back my tears. He was, as he said, literally saved by God – he would have perished with his friends had he returned to his desk to call his wife. As we all know now, phone lines were down and roads were closed in and out of New York City. As Dominic and Maria were living in New Jersey at the time, it took Dominic all night to reach home. I could not even begin to imagine what state he was in when Maria opened the door to him.
As the hours, days and months passed, I watched TV reports and heard hundreds of similar stories to those I heard from Dominic and friends of friends who were there. Television reports told us more. We watched coverage of people who barely escaped with their lives and those who chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn. We watched as the two towers came tumbling down like the house of cards.
The world changed in the blink of an eye.
Rightly or wrongly, America reacted by declaring war on Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. The world joined in, sending troops to a part of the world most had only seen on a globe. The “war on terror” has been going on for ten years now. In addition to the near 3000 confirmed deaths at Ground Zero – as the site of the WTC became known – many more lives have been lost in battle and from post-attack rescue efforts. All are victims of 9/11.
Every year since that day, around this time of year, memorial services are held and news reports tell and re-tell stories of heroism and bravery. Television shows included stories about ordinary people who have paid the price for the pain and suffering caused by events of that day. Documentaries and movies have been made about events leading up to, including and after the attacks. Conspiracy theories abound. Fingers were squarely pointed at those responsible.
Even if we may not have been directly affected by the deaths on that day, we have all been affected indirectly. Our attitudes towards other religious beliefs and cultures came into question; our faiths have been questioned. Travel regulations have made international travel much more painful – the checkpoints, body searches, X-ray scanners. Any time where a large crowd gathers security increases.
Physical wounds may take a long time to heal. Emotional wounds take longer. It’s a long road that we must travel together. We will never forget what happened on September 11th. The acts of terrorists took thousands of lives and impacted countless others. If we let them take away our spirit and our faith as well, then they have not only won the war, they have won the battle as well.
Forgiveness is a tough task. But we, as a human race, must continue to have faith and heal together. Out of all the tales of horror, there are many more heart-warming stories of survivors who helped complete strangers. I prefer to think that this is what we, as a human race, is about. Many heroes perished that day. Many more, reluctant as they may be to wear that badge, were born that day.
I stood in the lobby of the World Trade Centre in December, 1995, on my first trip to NYC. I had wanted to go up to the observation deck but decided not to stand in the long line that wrapped around and around, and ended up going to the Empire State Building Observation Deck the next day instead.
The next time I go to NYC, I hope to visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero. I will be looking into the reflecting pools that now stand at the footprints of the Twin Towers. I hope it will honour and pay tribute to the dead, just as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and USS Arizona in Pearl Harbour do. And I will pray for peace, faith and forgiveness.