Approaching the 20th anniversary of the attacks, I like many others, have been reflecting on 9/11 and New York.
My family and I were on holiday in New York in the summer of 2001. It was our first trip back to the USA since we had left from living there in February 1998. Little did we know, as we visited the sites, what would unfurl a few weeks later. There are some photos below, including a couple from 2008 when we returned via a cruse ship sailing at dawn into New York
One summer morning, we queued by the elevators to reach the Top of The World observation deck on the 107th floor. It was not a bright blue morning sky that greeted us. Not like the blue we saw in the pictures weeks later. It was cloudy and hazy. A day or so before, we had been at the top of the Empire State looking across the city at the towers. Now, we looked the other way and watched the ants in the squares below. Virtually every view of the city contained the iconic landmarks.
We were back home in UK, when like the rest of the world we watched in fascinated horror as the buildings were hit and then fell. I was at work when others called me to look at the news coverage. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Like many others I thought it was a plane accident to start with. We’d watched the planes heading along the Hudson river. Stared out the windows at the cityscape as we flew into JFK a few days before. Then, the second plane hit and there was no doubt.
There were phone calls home and concern about relatives and friends who may or may not be in New York and Washington. I had former US military colleagues in the Pentagon (all safe it turned out, but some close shaves). Many contacts who visited New York. Then, there was the fear of an attack in the UK.
I was quizzed about what might be happening. My new civilian work colleagues of just a couple of years, knew I had been in the RAF and some knew that was in Air Defence. Our office was adjacent to an airfield. I could imagine the scrambles of jets and alerts rushing round the system. I could imagine my RAF colleagues manning consoles and radars, as they tried to check every single plane flying in and near UK airspace. Just in case the conspiracy was across the world.
I stated loudly in the open plan office, that the USA ‘would go to war over this.’ My comment was met by some disbelief. I had no pre-knowledge, other than my time serving directly with the US military. Such an attack could not go unpunished. I had seen intelligence from a few years before. It was used it in classified lectures I gave that mentioned the rise of Islamic extremism, across the World. Nothing specific to an attack on the USA. There had been attacks earlier that year and in previous years. The signs were there. We didn’t know until much later, how much the CIA knew and failed to tell the FBI.
When we stood atop the towers looking at the stunning views, it was just a spectacular visage at the start of a holiday. New York was very crowded and not suited to our young children. They were more used to quiet country towns. As parents, our heads were full of keeping an eye on the children, where we should eat, and the travel plans for the next few days. Central park was a notable exception of tranquillity.
We headed West from Newark to LA, in the following days to visit friends near San Diego. A few days later, we went to Tucson with more friends before a trip to the Canyon and Vegas. We flew back from LA to London. The children went back to school. My wife and I with our respective jobs. I’ve posted some photos, with the addition of a couple from our next visit in 2008 including driving past the then construction site.
The mess that Afghanistan became, has been highlighted with the chaotic withdrawals this summer, The anniversary of the attack that sparked the NATO invasion is not just a twenty year mark. It is something that happens every day and every year for those who lost loved ones in the attacks.
It’s not just 10, 15, twenty or eventually 50 year occasions. It’s every birthday or wedding anniversary missed. Children’s graduations and other events missing a parent’s attendance. Then, we have the anniversaries of those that lost loved ones or had them returned injured in the wars that followed; highlighted in recent weeks with the events and more deaths in Afghanistan.
Now, is not the time to comment again on the fallacies or justifications of those wars. Instead, I can recall a happy holiday. The gasps at the views and famous landmarks lost. The other pictures I haven’t posted, of my young children, both now grown adults with my daughter living and working as a teacher in the USA.
Skylines have changed, children have grown, yet twenty years have gone in what seems a blink of an eye.
A New York Return?
One day, we’ll probably head back to New York. We were in DC driving past the Pentagon in December 2018. Maybe we will visit the new One World Trade Centre and take a ride to another observation deck. I know I will think back then to other towers and similar, but different views.
The new landmark may be very tall but is perhaps less distinctive than the former twins. If we go, we will certainly visit the memorial. Save for a couple of weeks, we could have been on top of the towers watching the hijacked planes head for us. Our names could be on that list. It was not a close escape but one of several weeks. Luck of time and distance, as many things in life are.
A colleague of mine was sailing towards New York that day. He was due to visit the Towers on the 12th. He spent a few extra days on the cruise ship before they were flown home when flights resumed. I have colleagues who visited the towers regularly. More worked in the Pentagon or they were frequent fliers on internal US flights criss-crossing the country for work or pleasure. I know others who were on-board planes at the time and the fear that swept though them. I was in an office, not where I had been a few weeks before.
A time for reflection, a time to mourn, but also a time to be thankful that I had the experience of standing in the breeze looking at the Statue of Liberty.