With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks fast approaching, the TV schedules are filled with lots of programmes related to the event. This week we watched Surviving 9/11, a moving documentary that gives an insight into some of the lives that were directly impacted by the horrors of that day. The range of people featured in the film, and the ways in which they have survived and coped — to varying degrees — with the aftermath of the trauma, were delicately and thoughtfully presented.
It’s a cliche to say that it seems like yesterday, but it’s true. On the day of the attack I was in London, sitting at my desk, filling out a form to try and make a case for getting myself transferred to work in New York on a company assignee scheme. The bank that I worked for had recently bought a large US-based brokerage firm and we were getting a programme off the ground to integrate our two HR systems. That August, I had been to New York on a business trip and had started to build relationships with our new colleagues. Much earlier, when I started at the company in 1999, I had met a bunch of New York-based fellow graduates and made some solid friendships. I was enthused to think about spending time with them all in a new and exciting place.
Early that afternoon, I read a glib message about the first plane crash on our internal chat system and we all turned our attention to the news websites. I don’t think much work got done after that. At some point I had to walk across the city to another of our buildings for a seminar about the company pension fund. I knew it was going to be about as interesting as it sounded, but I felt obliged to go. On my way I saw scores of people standing outside office lobbies, staring through the glass to watch the news on the TV screens. At some point, somebody came into the seminar and told us that everyone was being sent home. It was weird — New York was so far away, but we somehow all felt as though we were connected to it. Nobody was sure that there wouldn’t be a similar attack in London. I packed my bag, jumped on the tube and then stayed up watching the TV until the early hours, hitting refresh on the Metafilter thread to find out what was going on via my dial-up Internet connection at home.
An American friend of mine had just moved from London to New York, and years later he wrote up his experience of that day. Re-reading it now brings back more memories. I moved to Manhattan exactly two months later on 11 November 2001. It was a strange time; when I arrived there I felt a little as though I was an outsider intruding on a shocked and numb city. I lived on my own, and spent many evenings walking for miles just to be around people. The bus shelters were still filled with candles and photos of missing friends and relatives.
My new office was in Weehawken, New Jersey, a ferry ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was open plan, with glass-walled single-person offices around the edges for the senior managers on each floor. One of those was kept locked — the occupant had been tragically killed by the first plane crash as he waited for a bus to work outside the World Trade Center. In the weeks to come, I overheard my new colleagues talking in hushed but animated tones about whether his office should be left alone out of respect or cleared out so that they could move on. I couldn’t share their pain as I had never met him.
In the year I spent in New York the demand for flights from London was understandably low and tickets were cheap; consequently I had many friends and family come to visit. I loved having a stream of guests to entertain and take on a tour of the city. Some of them wanted to go down to the World Trade Center. I didn’t want to go, but I did accompany them. It felt somehow macabre to go and look. It was already a tourist destination, despite the memorial being some years away.
The two decades have passed in a flash. Watching the documentary this week reminded me of how primitive things were back then and how long ago it was. Analogue video tape recordings from the events of that day. VoiceStream being the only phone network that provided a local GSM service, on handsets with tiny displays. No mobile web as we know it now, and no Facebook or Twitter to share status updates. I still had to email or call my friends and family if I wanted to catch up. In the past couple of years I have worked with a colleague who was born after 9/11, which was difficult to get my head around at first. I guess this is what getting old feels like.
My year in New York was a seminal time for me and I think about it often. The integration programme was a great success and I learned a lot from working with some wonderful colleagues, many of whom I still speak to. My girlfriend came to visit a number of times before eventually quitting her job and coming to live with me. We came back to London together and got married less than two years later.
Twenty years on, the mental and emotional impact of 9/11 is unsurprisingly still raw for those people directly impacted by the horrors of that day. Surviving 9/11 offered a moving and sensitive insight into this. I feel very privileged to have been able to have made my own memories of the city during those fragile months.