‘This is Big. This is Really Big.’

Ten years ago almost to the minute, I was sitting in my office at my boring job, being bored.  Following my return from a lunchtime trip to the gym, I was settling back into the usual dull state of affairs when my boss, an excitable individual at the calmest of times, came charging in to the office.

Have you heard?  A plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York.  His arms were flapping, and he was clutching a radio.

My first thought was that  some kind of light aircraft pilot had dozed off and maybe there was some wreckage and a few deaths.  I was already heading for the internet while a colleague shrugged and said ‘oh’ in an indifferent not-one-of-your-imaginary-crises-AGAIN tone.

Yes, my boss said, walking in small circles and seeming agitated out of all proportion to news of a minor accident several thousand miles away.  A passenger plane.  A fully laden passenger plane.  This is big.  This is really big.  

I’ll never forget those words. I am not sure what exactly he meant; whether he had made the jump terrorism before the second plane even hit, or whether he was simply being his usual verbally expellant self.

Still thinking accident, I managed to get the internet to connect me to the BBC.  It was slow, because this was afternoon in the year 2001 and at that time our internet used to noticeably slow down once the USA woke up and got online (remarkable to think now, especially considering I was hooked into a super-fast University JANET network).

Then, gradually, there were pictures.  My connection had been made in the nick of time because everyone else’s internet crashed completely.  People crowded around my desk.  In the time this had taken, the second plane must have hit.

…Where’s the plane then?  Two planes?  Shit.  That’s a terrorist attack, it’s got to be.  Fuck.  Fucking hell.  Where are the planes?  Those poor people…

We all expected to see photos of the wreckage of a plane either below the clear entry wound in the building or in some wide sweeping shot of the exit wound.  What we were seeing didn’t make any sense until someone behind me said quietly the planes must be in the buildings.  Inside them.

Slack-jawed, we stared at the screen in horror.  The office had no TV, and the internet was our pipeline.  I kept hitting the ‘refresh’ button in the hope of further news, and the talking heads were already saying it was terrorism.

I rang my mother, since everyone in my family is American except my brother and I.  She had not heard, and once the words had finished tumbling from my mouth (I remember her initial disbelief, and I remember saying ‘quick, ring the family and tell them to get out of Chicago, away from tall buildings’, but not much else) she sounded as freaked out as I’ve heard her.

I can’t remember how news reached us that the Pentagon had been hit and there were more (seven more was the figure being bandied about at that time) planes unaccounted for.  At that point, my boss told everyone to go home.  A group of colleagues went to the nearest pub with a TV, which was crowded with other office-workers doing the same upward gawping.  Initially I joined them, but I began to feel ill with worry, so I went home.

When I was about 14, I realised that the USA’s global reputation was – is – not particularly stellar.  Growing up in London, I had also become accustomed to bomb threats, the Ring of Steel, and even the occasional explosion.  Until September 11th, 2001, I had never put the two together. To me, terrorism was something that happened on a small scale, close to home; Gerry Adams on the news and his real voice dubbed over with an actor’s.

It didn’t happen in this magnitude, and it definitely didn’t happen in America.

At home, I switched on the TV and watched the footage over, and over, again.  One tower had fallen.  I could not look away.  My mother called to tell me she had got hold of some family-members and for quite a few of them it was the first they had heard of the events – initially they could not understand why she was calling them so early in the morning.  My cousin had declared that this was it, we’d better all head for the hills because Bush was going to ‘push the button’.

My mother, ever a child of the Red Scare, instructed me to purchase a bee-bee gun “in case you need to defend your property from desperate people” and make sure to always have several hundred in cash in a secret place, and a full tank of petrol in the car.  I told her she was being ridiculous, but she would not give it up, so I said OK, OK to her ear but ignored her.

I went to the pub, to a quiz, before the second tower came down.  It had been prearranged, and I didn’t want to go.  I wanted to stay and watch the events, to see what other horrors could be visited upon the nation, and to quietly wonder what would happen afterwards.

I had nightmares for weeks afterwards about planes flying through the sky, tumbling end over end, on fire.  I still have them occasionally.  I can’t really imagine what it must have felt like to be an American on that day: so many lives shattered, so much fear, so much uncertainty.

Even in the early stages after the attack, there was a noticeable stiffening of resolve in the UK too.  Londoners, in particular, knew it would be our turn soon.  The only questions were when, and how big.

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1 Response to “‘This is Big. This is Really Big.’”


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