Monday, September 12, 2011

Ten years on

Front page of the Dominion, 12 September 2001 (yes, I kept the papers. I do that when I think the event warrants it).
Front page of the Evening Post (remember when Wellington had two dailies?), 12 September 2001.
The post date would suggest that this should have been written yesterday, but for us in New Zealand it was already the twelfth by the time what would become known as September Eleventh happened. Ten years removed it is still something that defies simple comprehension. The reasons for it go back many years, and it will be resonating for years to come.

The first airliner impact occurred at 12:46am NZST. Back then I was living with my girlfriend (now wife) Fi, and three other friends in the Kings Crescent flat we had occupied a couple of months previously. Fi's brother-in-law was touring the US, and the first thing we knew of anything unusual occurring was being awakened at dawn by a somewhat garbled phonecall from Fi's mum to say he was okay, but stuck in Denver since all flights had been grounded. Apparently a plane had crashed into the Pentagon or something. At the time I thought it was a Cessna or something, unusual, significant, but ultimately not a huge deal. I would check it out when I got up at the usual time an hour or so later.

September 12th was a beautiful spring morning in Wellington, the sun shining in clear blue skies. Wandering into the kitchen for breakfast I flicked on the TV for the morning news. The first thing I saw was a replay of this shot:
Naively I quickly thought "Wow I didn't realise the approach for JFK was so close to Manhattan". Then the jet didn't emerge from the other side of the towers, and the vivid orange yellow fireball manifested, accompanied by the twinkling of thousands of pieces of shattered glass.


Unlike many, I didn't think for a second this was a movie. Having been a plane spotter all my life, I knew the real thing when I saw it. I was mistaken in one respect though. Initially I thought it was a Boeing 737 that had crashed, and thought, well it could be worse. Only a few minutes later I realised it was a much larger 767.

Oh again. In the next few minutes the whole picture as it was unfolded. This being about 7am, the Towers themselves were long down by the time I was aware of it, and the seemingly endless replaying of the events there and at the Pentagon had begun. At about that time, one of the other flatmates walked in, a mix of horror and awe on his face. He had been watching things unfold in his room, and had been to the towers themselves only a couple of years before. I don't recall much being said. I had prepared breakfast, but suddenly found I didn't have any appetite.

At work we technicians and engineers gathered around a TV, with the only conversation being educated comment on the structure of the buildings. No-one was surprised they fell. History in the making or not, there was still work to do, and gradually we drifted away. Later I would hear on the radio about carriers being deployed off the east coast, and fighters flying patrols over major US cities. These were things I had read about in speculative fiction, but hearing them in reality was surreal, and unsettling.

Getting home we watched the wall to wall coverage for a while, then just had to turn it off. The jumpers in particular choosing one final act of control over their destiny haunted me the most, and still do. A still image of one group who must have decided to go together reminded me of skydivers exiting a plane, except these people had no parachutes. Another memory is of a replay of the second WTC impact being cued up on air. The jet hit the building, then reversed out of it, then hit it again, then reversed back. For hundreds it was alive, dead, alive, dead.

Another thought that crystallised that night, was that even though they were still counting the dead, I also realised many more were going to be killed as a result of this day. Looking back, the feeling is mostly of sadness, of missed opportunities, of some justified responses, and other regrettable ones. What has truly been accomplished, what we have gained or lost in the War on Terror is uncertain. Occasionally I hear expressed a longing to return to the 'Good Old Days' of the Cold War in preference to how things are now. While I don't really agree with it (the bits of the Cold War I remember were a really, really scary time), I can understand it; there was much more perceived certainty of the challenges the world faced then.

Two weeks later my father and I hopped on a plane for a weekend in Sydney. We had been planning to go to Brisbane for an airshow, but it had been cancelled, the various militaries involved (including the USAF) suddenly having more pressing things to do, besides the airshow itself being seen as a possible target. The signs of the new world we were in were already emerging. I couldn't regard the Boeing 767's at Sydney airport the way I used to, as simple aircraft to enjoy. On ascending Sydney Tower I enjoyed the view, but suddenly got very uncomfortable. Every few seconds or so there was a small shudder on the viewing deck, I think from the revolving restaurant. Combined with the height, suddenly it was a place I was happy to leave. On leaving we noted that all the eateries at the airport had given up their metal cutlery, with apologetic notes of explanation. When breakfast was served after takeoff though, we were presented with stainless steel knives (with serrated edges) and forks to eat with. Clearly there was still some figuring out to do.

In every life there are points when things change, and the way things were before get hard to remember. Usually they are good, like me meeting my wife-to-be, or the birth of my children. Sometimes they are a bit more complicated. My daughters will grow up in a world where the events and ramifications of 9/11 are history, with no knowledge of when the Twin Towers were just a pair of very tall buildings.


missrabbitty said...

i was living with my husband (now ex) and heard the grant and polly comments. i think their comments are now world famous in nz.

i took the rabbits ears from my tv to school so that my students could watch it. i knew this was history.

it was a different world back then. in an ironic (and reminding me of my impending dotage) moment i had to show my current students the footage of the whole event because they were under 2 when it happened.

i could go in to a whole spiel about 'back in my day' but that would make me feel old again and that's the subject of a whole 'nother blog!

suffice to say i remember where i was when i heard the i did when princess diana died. this is our JFK and lunar landing moment i guess. there will always be significant stuff for every generation of people.

Off-Black said...

I'm up to half a dozen or more "where was I when" moments these days. First was the Challenger disaster.