The worst thing in the world: a view from London
It seems like ancient history now. The world before. I remember staring at the BBC website and saying to my colleague, ‘Oh Jesus so this is it. This is it. The beginning.’ He goes, beginning of what, what you talking about? I said, ‘World War Three. This is it.’ He laughed. Don’t be ridiculous, no it isn’t. I said, ‘You have no idea. They’ll never stand for this. Everything just changed. Trust me, this is it.’
It was never my favourite building. It was crass, the subject of a jingoistic pride drummed into us when I was little; even when I was ten I could see the thing was in bad taste and rather stupid. Anyway, it was for bankers, not people like us. And there had been incidents that seemed like second-rate action movies – that ludicrous business when a small plane flew into it, the weird bombing in the underground car park. That day when my friend Pat and I were having lunch, someone called and told him a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. We just thought it sounded sensationalist. Back in his office we watched the second tower fall.
Eventually I walked into the middle of the open plan office – everyone was just sitting at their desks, it looked normal – and all of a sudden in the middle of an aisle I just exploded, floods of tears and shaking, and had to be helped to a chair. They all crowded round, what’s the matter, what’s the matter? Are you okay? Are you ill? I blubbered New York – Ohh, of course, you’re worrying about your family, are your family in New York City? Fools, I thought. (But that may also have been the moment I remembered my sister had just started a brand-new job in a ‘big international law firm’ I’d been told was ‘downtown’. I didn’t panic because I assumed that if anything had happened to her I’d feel it, somehow, and I wasn’t feeling it. ‘Downtown’ turned out to be comparative; she was in the mid-50s, standing in the office forecourt with her colleagues, watching the whole thing unfold in the clear blue sky.)
In the days that followed, so many sweet kind colleagues came to my desk to express their condolences, which touched me, and they all said: ‘It’s so sad…’ A couple of them, even unlike me, had lost people. But I wanted to punch them. SAD!! Sad isn’t even half of it, it’s bloody terrifying, no one even knows what’s going to happen now, ‘sad’ is the least of it.
My oldest kid remembers the day partly for our phone conversation. He called to say he was waiting for his father who had said he’d be picking him up from school, and his dad was very late and not answering his phone. I said listen, he’s just held up in the school playground, I’m sure everyone’s just talking, because of all the – you know – … By this time I was walking through a deserted Isle of Dogs, because the office had shut. Rumours were that Canary Wharf might be next.
He hadn’t heard. ‘Why, what’s happening?’ He was 12. I tried to think of a way to frame it. I couldn’t. It just blurted itself out: ‘Oh honey… I’m sorry. It’s the – the – the worst thing in the world has happened…’
Later, the trains were down, the tunnels were closed, there was no phone signal, my sister couldn’t get out of the city. Stuck with thousands of other people in Port Authority or somewhere, having had nothing to eat and facing hours of waiting – she managed to get through to my mother on a pay phone. Mom had heard the rumours about Canary Wharf and was going, ‘one daughter downtown and another in Canary Wharf’ – she was relieved to find that at least one of us was fine, and not long after that I got through too. (Of course, Canary Wharf never blew up. Instead I said in the underground concourse the next morning, outside Prêt a Manger, reading the load of hyper-paranoic twaddle Martin Amis had spewed out overnight.) In the meantime, though, Sis told Mom that nothing was moving and she was hunkered down, just waiting for something to change and hoping she’d get something to eat later. ‘Well…’ Mom said. ‘Do you have something to read?’
And months after that, my sister told me all about watching it in front of her office building, and a woman rushing up panicking, saying, What’s happening? What’s happening? I’m supposed to be going downtown, I’m meeting a friend, what’s going on, and my sister asked her, ‘Where are you meeting your friend?’ Church Street, the woman said. ‘Church St’, said my sister. ‘That’s not so good’.’
It wasn’t until I got home that I remembered about being able to watch the news. The wall-to-wall coverage. Un-not-watchable, & the shock sank in. Ambulances from the hospital where I was so proud to have been born, Beth Israel (a hospital that had been started in 1890 by 40 Orthodox Jews, on a subscription of 25 cents each, to fund provision of health care for new immigrants). White dust-covered people. Chaos. Things that made no sense. The next day, the front page of the Independent made all of Manhattan a black cloud, somewhere inside which was my sister, along with many other friends and relatives. I was lucky; none of mine were under the rubble, or vaporised on the planes, or in a field in Pennsylvania.
So it was bad.
It may not have been the absolute worst thing that ever happened, but it was the start of the worst thing. Fifteen years later there’s no end in sight, no diplomatic process, no peace talks, no clear enemy even. Countless more people have died than died on that day and they still die, and doctors in Aleppo and Greece and elsewhere are desperately trying to do what that group of 19th century New York Jews wanted to do: save the helpless.
Four and a half months after the day that came to be called 9/11, I started a new job – still in Tower Hamlets, in Stepney – and there were posters celebrating Osama bin Laden on the buildings in Ben Jonson Road. It was only just beginning.