9/11: It's a Yahrzeit for the World

There are those times where people in the future will ask you where you were at that exact history-happening moment.

I know this because my parents got married on November 24th, 1963, two days after Kennedy's assassination, and I have it on good authority from the beautiful bride that no-one was at all interested in her dress and everyone was going round saying "where were you yesterday?"

And I know exactly where I was on 11th September last year; with some time off, I was creosoting the garden shed on what looked like one of the last sunny days of almost-summer. My neighbour came rushing out yelling to go turn on the TV, and I went inside and watched with horror, like the rest of the world, as the TV stations played the same film over and over of the plane hitting the first tower.

Good friends of mine live three blocks away in downtown New York, and I called them, amazingly getting a line, and ended up talking as they were on the roof of their building as the second plane hit. As the news of the other planes unfolded, I called my friend V who works for the Treasury in Washington, (having no sense of the proximity of the Pentagon and the Treasury), but either way, she was thankfully at home waiting for their new fridge to be delivered.

The rest of the day was a daze; the realisation that this wasn't an accident; seeing people jump to their deaths on live TV; talking to my Dad about the evil in the world, instant messaging with some other New York friends.

That night, bizarrely, I was supposed to be going to an artist friend's gallery opening; he specialises in skyscrapers, it's his thing. I couldn't go, but heard later that two paintings of the twin towers sold immediately.

Facts became clearer a few days later; how many; who; companies. I cried watching the Cantor Fitzgerald CEO talk about getting to the office late because he'd taken his son to the first day of school, and how all 700 of his staff had died. Risk Waters Conferences were running an event at Windows on the World on the 106th floor of the north tower.

Towards the end of 1998, when I was running a small conference division of publishing company, I got called by a headhunter looking for someone to run Risk Conferences, a business specialising in financial events. My background is law and technology, but I managed to bluff my way through a couple of meetings before she rumbled me. At the time I was only slightly disappointed, and the job eventually went to a former IIR colleague, Michelle du Berry, who was ideally suited to the role. I even sent her a congratulatory email.

Michelle and fifteen colleagues died that day, together with about 65 delegates, and in total 2,800 people. Inevitably, selfishly, I can't help thinking What If. How Lucky.

My friend Emma had been working for Risk in New York for a couple of years, before getting a promotion at another company a few months before. She had planned her September schedule earlier in the year, and had decided not to hold her conference at Windows on the World on the Tuesday; she preferred the Thursday, as she could then come straight back to London for the weekend. Her event was cancelled: no venue.

I was instant messaging with her later in the morning - her office was in midtown - when she said they were being evacuated as they were opposite the Empire State Building and there was another terrorist threat. Later she told me that running down the stairs in her building with her assistant, she had a real sense of this being the end of her life, and was she doing what she wanted to be doing if it was?

Scary times, I know. I'm not convinced that the world is changed forever; but we are different. Emma decided not long after 9/11 to return to family and friends in London and retrain in another profession she feels makes a more valuable contribution to the world.

I still can't get over the enormity of what happened. And I think that's OK: I'm not sure I'm wired for wanton destruction. But today - inevitably - I've been thinking about the kind of world we've created, and how I might feel living through a war - which is also seeming sadly inevitable - and about people who never came home, and kids who can't tell the difference between a cartoon and a real war on TV.

11 September 2002

text divider