Ten bloody years

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It can’t surely be 10 years?

Today is the tenth anniversary of the attacks on America.

Like everyone else in the world, I have no trouble remembering September 11, 2001. Here in France, as in the US, it was a beautiful day – a bright blue September sky with crisp air and sunshine. 

I had been working, but couldn’t get Internet access so eventually I phoned my friend R to ask if she had no internet either (the lines here run above ground and coverage is patchy). 

"Turn on the television," she said. 

"What is it?"

"It’s, it’s awful – just turn on the television…"

I did so just before the second plane went in and for the rest of the day, the DH and I watched, transfixed as the events of the day unfolded. 

The attack on the World Trade Centers remains the worst thing I have ever seen. Not by any means the most deadly – the Asian tsunami and the Bangladesh disaster killed infinitely more people; the Balkans conflict was horrendous; the killing of James Bulger and the crimes of the Wests were the stuff of nightmares.

But this was murder on a grand scale. It wasn’t a natural disaster. It was the desecration of a beautiful day, full of hope and promise; the vile use of graceful, birdlike passenger aircraft turned into weapons of war; the inducement of panic in civilians, of every race, creed and colour who fled the scene in their tens of thousands; the destruction of glittering buildings – symbols of human achievement, science and engineering – collapsing in a  cloud of ash.

"Jesus Christ, how many people were in there?" I remember asking the DH. At this point, the French Air Force jets were screaming overhead because, with news of the Pentagon attack, and several other aircraft not responding, no-one knew if other capitals might be next. 

We thought at that point that there might be 20,000 dead in New York. Certainly, the trade centres would be full (as indeed they were – mostly with young, able, high-achieving men – the kind that any country can ill afford to lose). What’s remarkable in retrospect is how FEW people were killed. Half an hour later there would have been far more people in the buildings and a truly surprising number got out and away before the buildings collapsed – almost all of them below the points of impact. The evacuation was, by and large, orderly. Many people stopped to vote on the way to work, so were late at their desks, and many were taking their young children to kindergarten for the first day of term, and avoided trouble altogether. 

The biggest nightmares, for me, remain the anguish of those trapped in the buildings, phoning home to say I love you or plunging out of the windows as the fire took hold, and those on the aircraft, knowing that they were about to die. The aircraft looked lovely in the morning light, and it is still hard to accept that they were full of screaming passengers – some of them babes in arms. 

Today, then, will be a day of remembrance and the unveiling of the WTC monument. Like all American monuments, it is beautiful – the quiet reflecting pools that mark out the footprint of the lost buildings, the endlessly plashing water, the trees, and the list of names, etched in bronze – with those who died together grouped together for eternity. 

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