10 Years Ago

September 11, 2011

Today is another of those days when people are asking, “where were you this time, 10 years ago”. There are so many programmes, so many memories, so many stories. I suppose if I add another one, nobody would bother to read it, especially if they’ve read so many other more dramatic ones.

It seems to me that there are three kinds of connections to 9 11. There were those who were tragically caught up in the event, either because they were in the aircraft, or in the buildings. Those who are in that category can only tell us what happened if they survived it. Others were caught up in the aftermath, either as decision makers, rescue workers, or even as travellers. The third group comprises everyone else, those who were at work, were at home, were at play, were doing something when … “the latest from New York is that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre …” and suddenly, they all knew that things would never be the same again.

at 11:40 AM, I was in an aeroplane, taking off from Heathrow airport to visit my sister in Washington. With me was her 5 year old daughter; I was looking forward to a 2 week holiday to celebrate my recent doctorate, she was looking forward to being spoiled. Our expected arrival time in DC was 3 PM local time, but by 11:40 (DC time) I knew we weren’t going there.

I would have remembered the flight anyway, because the captain was one of the friendliest I’ve ever met. As we prepared for takeoff, he told us we were gong past the specially designated area for Concorde, which was undergoing tests after one of them had crashed. The final decision on its fate hadn’t been taken then. I thought “what a friendly guy”. Then we took off. It was a Boeing 767, and it was one of the smoothest takeoffs I’ve ever experienced. Indeed, the landing was smooth too, and takeoff and landing 2 days later. I think it must be a 767 thing, because the next time I travelled in one it was just the same.

Then our friendly captain informed us that we were going to have to make an emergency landing. You can imagine the thoughts that went through my head before he told us that he had very little information, but the US airspace was closed. Closed? Why? We didn’t know, not even when we landed in a usually empty airstrip in Newfoundland, I think it was called Stevensville. We sat in the aircraft We sat in the aircraft, being fed information by the captain, until about 7 AM the next morning, UK time. I hadn’t changed my watch settings yet, but I believe Newfoundland is 3 and a half hours behind UK time. And as we got more information, I had to explain to a 5 year old that some very bad people had done something really bad and that meant we couldn’t yet see her mommy.

I was glad to get off that aircraft, even though the security was tight at this unknown airstrip. I think they kept us waiting while they assembled the people who would process us in. It wasn’t only that it was cramped, it was also that I, the great follower of news stories was, for once, almost completely in the dark. In that confined space, rumours were flowing; Someone even said that nuclear war was under consideration. Maybe everyone else was in the dark too, but how was I to know. I had access to one of those expensive aircraft phones, the one you had to pay using a credit/debit card. I kept trying to ring my sister in DC and failing. It was only about half an hour before we disembarked that it occurred to me that the US was probably the most difficult place to reach. So I rang a friend in London and finally got information about what had happened, what governments and people were saying, and crucially, who had contacted my sister.

Eventually, we got off, were met by the Canadian Red Cross, were bused to a little town called Cornerbrook. The Canadian government and people were just wonderful. We stayed in some hotel and were given full access to the telephone to ring our families. We could watch television and actually find out what happened. A lovely lady from social services, who acted as a volunteer, took my niece and I out to buy some clothes, as ours were still in the plane. Her dad came along too, she even brought her boyfriend to meet us. On the morning of the 13th, we returned to London, despite my loud protests. I knew the captain was right, security meant we couldn’t go to the States, but I wasn’t thinking rationally. I just wanted it to be over and for life to continue. I wanted to relax again. Besides, my 5 year old niece had heard enough about bad people and wanted to be with her mum. The good captain came to me in the middle of the return flight and spoke to me and my niece. It was a calmer talk, because I was resigned to returning to London. BA took us to a hotel, and eventually, on the 15th, we were headed back to Washington.

My thanks goes to you (Cornerbrook residents) forever. Maybe I’ll come visit, a proper visit this time, not one forced on us by “very bad people” who wouldn’t let my niece see her mother.

I’ve done a lot of reading about that day, mostly from the political angle. That doctorate, it was in international politics, and my area of interest was Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the UN efforts to remove them. I knew about weapons of mass destruction, if of a different type. I knew of government foreign policy, damaged national pride and all that. I’d read enough about terrorism and anti-American feelings among some elements in the Middle East and predominantly muslim world. This was terrorism, it was the use of a weapon of mass destruction, and it had the hallmarks of anti-American feeling, but in every other respect, it was unprecedented. I suspected even then that an unprecedented act was likely to lead to unprecedented reactions.

I sat on that plane, wondering what would happen. My knowledge scared me; You can’t imagine what was going through my mind. I remembered that the good thing about Canada is that it’s foreign policy stance is quieter than the States, and if there was an international explosion of violence, it was probably safe to be in Canada. But if security meant that we couldn’t ever get to DC, would I have to remain in Canada with my niece for an indefinite period? How would I manage, as a single blind man with my 5 year old niece, if things really god bad? What if the unthinkable happened, and those rumours about nuclear war were true?

When you’re in an aircraft in the middle of nowhere, with limited information, but sufficient knowledge of international relations to conjure worst case scenarios, that’s the sort of thing you think about. I think there is a time for rational thought, but that wasn’t it. And I couldn’t get over the thought that I was flying. Never mind that it was domestic flights that were hijacked. I was actually in the air, and one aircraft is as good as another for hurling at a building.

I didn’t want to write about international relations, not today. Everyone else is doing that. I wanted to write about something I really knew about. I could never tell what was happening outside the aircraft, and I’ve learned that nobody ever truely understands those high sounding things like foreign policy and strategic thinking. Too many others are involved, nobody has the full picture. Why should I speculate when I can write of what I know.

This week, it occurs to me that the American open tennis tournament is on. I tried to remember if it was on then, it’s the same city, New York, if it’s in a different location, Queens. I can’t remember, perhaps because I was too busy working on my viva, then getting ready for a holiday. But when I once again focussed on the news, I heard that the Rider Cup, which was supposed to have been held that year, (probably about that time) was cancelled. I’m trying to remember the news stories around that time. For someone so normally clued up on international relations, I can’t remember a thing. It just goes to show how some things can overshadow everything else. Come to think of it, do I still remember any of the world leaders of that time? Apart from President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, I’m not sure I remember who was in power in any of the other permanent members. Was it Shirac in France? Putin or Yeltsin in Russia? I’m sure I can’t remember who was in charge in China.

Have we learned anything in 10 years? I heard of a guy, he spoke at the memorial service this morning. He said he’d decided to be a forensic scientist after he’d lost his dad on that day. It was so moving. Then I heard that there were 3000 people being remembered as victims of those terrorist attacks. The same guy who said this on radio also said the US had lost 6000 people in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of the war on terror. The US is in a state of high security alert right now. It all happened 10 years ago, but the effects are still here, in the mourning, the foreign policy, the memories.

I can write of my apprehensions, or the shock of full realisation, long after most others had fully grasped what had happened. I can write of my friends, with total gratitude. I heard later of those who started ringing round asking each other “wasn’t Ife supposed to be travelling today?” I know of how my sister worried. As a doctor, she was on standby. But that didn’t stop her pestering everyone she could. She knew I was going to the Comfort Inn in Cornerbrook, even before I got off the plane.

And all my friends who knew how to reach my sister, they just kept calling. She thinks you’re all angels … I know better, but I haven’t felt it necessary to disabuse her. (joke). Someone rang my sister and said “if there’s any place where there’s trouble, you can be sure Ife would be there”, then realising it was the wrong thing, she added “and if anyone is going to get out, you can be sure he will”. Thanks for that vote of confidence. I wish you could have told me that when I was on the plane. I just needed to hear that everything would be all right.

I was listening to a play about the Caesars. One of the characters said that a historian wishes he was there, when the event occurred, but a wise person wishes they weren’t there at all. Strangely, I always thought of myself as the historian, the one who would grab the radio whenever there was something happening … but this time? No thanks. I spoke to my niece, she still remembers the day. She remembers the people who helped, and the fellow passengers. I didn’t tell her that passengers and aircrew told me that she was the best behaved 5 year old they’d ever met. I was so proud of her, but she’s a teenager now. She’s still the best behaved teenager I know, but I don’t have that much experience of that.

And finally. On Sunday 16 September 2001, as we prepared to go to church in Washington DC, I was doing my thing, listening to the radio. I always take a radio with me to every city and spend hours going through the stations until I pick my favourites. America is good for that, there are so many stations.

But back to my story. I heard a 5 minute monologue from a pastor. I don’t know who he is, so I can’t attribute this statement, but I’ve never forgotten it. He said “God is SAFE”. God is
Sovereign;
Actively working for the victory of good over evil
Focussing us on the truth, that we could never exist without Him;
Encouraging us in His word.

I learned something good from that terrible day.

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