There are certain events that happen in a lifetime you won’t ever forget. Every slow motion moment is ingrained in our memories and will forever shape our view of the world. The terror of 9/11 is undoubtedly one of the most potent of these memories. For someone of my generation who barely remembers anything about the Gulf War, let alone the wars of the past, 9/11 affected me in a way that I can only imagine witnessing a war would.
Prior to 9/11, any real terror had only been witnessed in movies or in far away countries that had nothing to do with a nineteen year old from London. The terrorist attacks on the USA eclipsed so much that I genuinely have no memory of anything even remotely similar to the effect the events had on me.
An Alan Jackson song came out fairly soon after the events of 9/11, the title of which was ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning’. I remember the whole thing as if it were yesterday. I was on holiday with my parents in Greece. We were staying at a beach resort and my sister and I had decided we didn’t want to join any of the super, fun, jovial ‘activities’ they had for the young people led by the all too smiley holiday reps. No – our idea of a holiday was to find somewhere far away from the shiny happy reps where we could chill out listen to music and enjoy the sun and sea.
My sister, however, had managed to get too much sun and, feeling too ill, went up to the villa. I relaxed outside and took in the sea and continued to fry in the baking sun. My phone alerted me to the arrival of a text message. It was from my friend – they weren’t really supposed to text me, roaming charges aren’t what they are today and my dad was ready to shoot me anyway for how much I had spent texting all my friends about the trip, forgetting of course I was in a different country. The text message said ‘Get to a TV.
New York is being blown up’. I looked at the message and was instantly irritated. Did my friends have nothing better to do than to annoy me with silly jokes? I replied the obligatory ‘What are you talking about?’ and almost instantly got a reply ‘It’s like a movie, it almost has to be – GET TO A TV’. I replied back, ‘Ok but so help you if you are lying because I am enjoying sunbathing and have to walk all the way back to my villa!’.
I grabbed my stuff and, with no real urgency, started making my way back to my villa. To get to the villas, you had to pass the pools and the club house. As I climbed the last step to reach the pool from the private beach, I was immediately struck with how empty it was. Empty is, actually, an understatement; it looked like everyone had been evacuated. The towels were still there, bags, phones, etc., beach balls and lilos still in the pool, but no one there. No shiny people, no staff, no screaming British brats, no adults. Just eerie silence.
I came around to the clubhouse and saw everyone, all clamouring to stare at the small TV. It dawned on me there and then that something really had happened. I broke into a run up the hill to the villa, burst in to see my sister watching the TV in total shock. I focused in on what she was watching as a second plane hit the Twin Towers. I stood there motionless, unable to comprehend what I was watching. Surely this could only happen in an Independence Day-style Hollywood Blockbuster – how could this be real life?
My phone started ringing; I answered it barely able to speak, so utterly confused as to what was unfolding in front of my eyes. One of my best friends was talking to me, asking if I was watching and reminding me we had only been there a year before – she was looking at a picture of us standing in front of the twin towers.
That night at dinner, no one really spoke – a scary silence had befallen the entire holiday. Panic about potential lost friends and loved ones had taken over, teamed with the idea we may be stuck as flights had been cancelled left, right and center.
I had a friend who was in NY. She had witnessed it all, she was fine; we finally had confirmation of that. My parents knew everyone they knew was fine, and so we could settle down.
Yet the uneasy feeling was there – it was palpable. We were in Greece, hardly a
terrorist threat, but who knew? Ask us all a week before if we could believe what happened could …
Back in London a few days later, the mood hadn’t changed. It had, in fact, gotten worse. The UK was on high alert, as was everywhere else in the world. Suddenly, my home city felt different in a way I couldn’t understand.
Over time, it settled and we never forgot 9/11, nor the horrific images of people jumping from burning buildings, the huge loss of life, the fear of flying … but we relaxed into the safety of knowing we weren’t the USA, so terrorists wouldn’t strike us.
Some four years later, in July, 2005, the 7/7 terrorist attacks hit London. The scale was smaller, but the impact was felt around the world. Yet for me, it was an extremely bizarre situation. I was due to travel that day, and still managed to. Yet, the first thing that morning, I was neither transfixed nor worried about people I knew. No, in my own city I knew that I didn’t know anyone who would be in town, on a bus or a tube at that time of the morning. My dad drove to work, my friends, if they worked, drove too. I sat back and watched the TV and tried to wrestle with the fact that a terrorist attack had taken place in my own city, in areas I knew well, that I had driven through, first with my parents and then, when I could drive, on my own. And yet, I felt isolated, out of the loop, whereas with 9/11, something that occurred in a city I had only visited a handful of times changed my world, my mindset, awareness and understanding of what I thought I knew.
As we commemorate those lost nearly ten years ago, and celebrate the heroes, think back: Where were you?
Alex Vaughn is the Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Agenda. He can be reached at editor@FloridaAgenda.com