"Trigger warning: This post contains vivid descriptions of the events of September 11th 2001. If you'd rather not read it , I fully understand."
My Life In Horror Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review. This is my life in horror. Deceit And Betrayal’s Bitter Fruit
I’ve recently entered my 23rd year of life on planet Earth. I’m working on a temporary contract basis for a public sector employee, in an office in a decent sized building on a sizable complex of similar large buildings. I mean, large by UK standards - not high, but spread out.
My duties are menial and clerical, but I’m learning the ropes - an understanding of the mechanics of office politics, building up basic skills, asking smart questions.
I’d graduated to having my own PC, I remember that - with internet access. This being the public sector 15 years ago, it wasn’t great - prone to running slow, and some sites becoming inaccessible if they were too popular - BBC Sports pages often failed to load completely during big Wimbledon matches, for example.
I’m pretty sure I’d been cured of my Marilyn Manson bulletin board fever by that point - a sudden radical redesign and shift of server, coupled with the total loss of the old archive, had severely dented my enthusiasm - but knowing me, I was probably still finding ways to use it to be obnoxious to born again Christians and soforth. I was that kind of kid. Thank goodness Facebook wasn’t yet a thing, and anonymous handles still the norm. Cringe.
This particular day, my memory is that I was doing the mail. Probably slowly. Probably while surreptitiously surfing/reading something. It was my way.
“A plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre.”
It’s a co-worker. He’s a nice guy - approaching middle age, balding, carrying too much weight and starting to worry about it, getting into diets and exercises. He’s got a nice line in sarcastic humor, but the warm kind, if you can dig it. Not cruel. He voice isn’t especially urgent. I make some response. Some expression of non-committal sympathy/concern. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. I recall a small four or six seater hitting the Empire State building a few weeks back. Bad news for those in the plane of course, but in the grand scheme of things…
I carry on opening mail, sorting letters into piles.
There’s a TV on in the room next door. At some point, someone says “Have you seens this?”. I look up. The office is mostly empty, and as I turn, I can see they are all in the room next door, staring at the TV screen. I have absolutely no inkling that it’s any kind of a big deal, but I figure there’s some interesting footage - maybe someone caught the moment of impact.
I don’t know, truthfully, why I got up and went in. I suspect, at bottom, if I’m really being honest, it was probably just about getting time away from my desk.
And, I mean, straight away, something’s wrong. There’s a gaping, smoking hole near the top of the tower in the centre of the shot. It’s huge, gigantic. Whole floors have been obliterated. The black smoke is belching out of the stricken building, staining the sky around. The commentators are talking. Something about a passenger jet. Which, of course, it’s got to be a jumbo, the size of that hole…
Other people around me are talking. Themes include expressions of shock, incomprehension. I can no longer recall individual statements, only sentiments. My mind is too busy locked down, grappling. Unable to compute. It has to be an accident. A terrible, terrible accident. It has to… but modern planes, the safety features, how is that even… Did the pilot go crazy? Did something malfunction? My God, the passengers. My God the office workers. Shit, the World Trade Centre is on fire. The evacuation, there must be thousands, tens of thousands… How do you even control a fire like that?
And underneath, the real paralysis. The thing that’s keeping me rooted to the spot, ignorant to what the people around me or the people on the TV are saying: This isn’t right. This can’t be right. This can’t be happening.
That’s the moment I see the second plane hit.
It’s a moment of perfect nightmare. Fast, but not too fast. Blink, and you still wouldn’t have missed it. There’s a second and a half of a perfectly ordinary object - a passenger jet - incongruously, impossibly close to another iconic yet mundane item - the World Trade Centre.
And then the plane vanishes, and there’s a gigantic explosion.
It’s not like a movie. It’s… I can’t explain why, but it isn’t. It’s too fast, for one. The fireball is enormous. It rolls up the side of the tower, pushing up a black mushroom of smoke above it. The commentators, in the room and on the set, mid sentence, just… stop.
The caption sits there, red on black - plane crashes into world trade centre. But it’s already wrong. Badly wrong. It’s not one plane, it’s two. And it’s not a crash.
My mind really starts to reel now. I mean, unravel. Some kind of massive system failure? Some skynet/delayed millennium bug from hell? It was a passenger jet. This shouldn’t be possible. I’m seeing it, and I’m not doubting the evidence of my eyes, but at the same time, I simply cannot square it with my understanding of reality.
The order of events fractures for me, now. At some point I returned to my desk, staring into space. I go to the UK version of the CNN website, after realising the UK sites would be hopelessly jammed. I remember missing planes being reported, more hijackings. An unknown number. Ten planes. Four. Two. Six. No one knows anything. Then another impossible flash - The Pentagon has been hit by a third plane. I feel like that HAS to be wrong. I go back into the TV room, and it’s there too - no pictures yet, but it’s in the text alert at the bottom of the screen. It has to be wrong. It isn’t wrong. I remember - distinctly, I remember this moment, in a day of utter dazed confusion - thinking to myself when is this going to end? IS this going to end?
The post sits on my desk, forgotten. I’m glued to the TV now. The commentators repeat the same infuriatingly vague facts over and over again. The phrase ‘of course, it’s too early to say…’ a fucking mantra to what’s starting to feel like the beginning of the end of the fucking world. The Pentagon, from the sky, more smoke, grey and black. At last, they cut away, to interviews with people being evacuated, those who have made it out of the burning towers. A specific woman comes to mind - a black woman in a business suit, shaking her head, talking clearly, but obviously in shock, saying ‘I was here last time, in ‘93. I ain’t never going back in there.’ that last over her shoulder as she walks away from the building. The streets are full of emergency vehicles, and a stream of people walking away. The main shot that the cameras keep returning to, though, the image that already feels like the iconic image of the day, the one that’ll haunt us for years to come, that iconic, immortal skyline, and the two towers with gaping, smoking holes. My mind races - Dad’s in Hong Kong, do I know anyone else who could even be out there? But mainly, there’s this horrible feeling of dislocation - of wheels spinning but gaining no traction. What the fuck is going on? How is this happening? Why? Experts fill the air with noise, signifying nothing. Nobody knows. Reports of two explosions at the Pentagon now. How many planes are still missing? Bush is saying probable terrorist attack.
This is the point I remember feeling this sickening level of dread. Two planes still unaccounted for. The White House? Could that really happen? The House of Representatives? The UN?
When is this going to be over? Is it going to just keep happening?
And as I stare at Manhattan, numb with shock, too perplexed to yet feel the enormous fear lurking just under the incomprehension, the impossible happens. One of the towers is no longer there. The wall of white smoke is massive, blanketing the whole island. The coverage is now chaotic, the whole island from a wide shot enveloped in white smoke, while the black smoke pours from the top of the remaining tower.
Coherent thought breaks down completely. I don’t faint, or sit down, or drop anything, but something fundamental in my mind just gives out. I’m left simply absorbing without thought. It feels totally unreal. It feels hyper real. I can’t stop staring at the long shot of the city, shrouded in this billowing, organic looking shape, what I later come to understand is several million tons of concrete dust. That’s a real city, those are enormous buildings disappearing into that thick fog. That’s fucking New York.
The commentator is asking about the evacuation - they had an hour from the first hit, how did they do? They’re calling the collapse a ‘third explosion’ - totally unable to understand what has just happened. The replays start happening, the repetition of What We Know So Far, and it’s basically Fuck All with a side helping of It’ll Take Some Time To Unpick, and all I can think is that impossible things are happening on my TV news. Ground level footage, the cloud rolling down the street like something Old Testament bad - the camera angle going crazy as the person filming remembers they are not in a movie and hauls ass. The aerial shots of the remaining tower, that hole still belching smoke, still looking like something unreal, a tear in the fabric of reality, some alternate world impinging on our own, Blair talking on the left panel as the second plane strikes on the right, again and again, familiarity making it seem more unreal, not less, with each loop. Then it’s eyewitnesses, talking about the collapse, the plane hitting, the evacuation, running. Fifty thousand people.
And the smoking tower. The Live banner. Most of all, that. Live. As in, happening. Now.
I stay glued to the screen, the circulating commentary rolling over me. Time feels slippery. I’ve been watching ten seconds, ten minutes, ten hours. People drift in and out of the room. They say things to each other. I’m not listening. I’m dimly aware that I am sweating.
I don’t remember if I saw the second tower fall as it happened. There’s a way in which it didn’t matter - by the time I finally crawled into bed that evening, for a fitful night of mainly not sleeping, I’d seen it dozens of times. I remember going home, turning on the news, and just sitting in front of the TV, mesmerised. I called in sick for the rest of the week. I was living with my father at the time, and he was as previously mentioned on holiday (later, he’d tell me when he heard the news that the towers had fallen, he simply knew it was wrong, had to be - ‘I’d been up them. They were as solid as an object can be’). I picked up newspapers the next day, knowing I’d want them. I got to the newsagents late enough that I could only grab The Sun, The Mirror, and the Mail (who went, of course, with ‘Apocalypse’ as their one word headline). The papers themselves were already out of date - reporting casualty rates of up to fifty thousand, when we already knew it was, by some miracle, a fraction of that. Similarly, militant Palestinians were already out of the frame as far as likely perpetrators.
But mainly, I just watched the twenty four hour news channels. Not believing it was over. Feeling, somehow, that this inexplicable horror, this carnage from a clear blue sky, was the new normal. Like I’d slipped out of the world I knew into a nightmare realm of arbitrary and random destruction and mayhem. So many nightmares, those following weeks, always variations of the same - hearing a noise, leaving the house, and seeing jumbo jets plummeting into the city, or being in a skyscraper, and suddenly seeing a plane filling my field of vision from the window, impossibly big.
I was a continent away. I didn’t lose anyone - in fact, as far as I know, I don’t even know anyone who did. Maybe that’s no longer true - I have a lot more American friends now than I did then. Of course, 7/7 happened later, and there’s ways in which that hit closer - another office day, another sense of things going horribly wrong, keeping going wrong, and I had friends in the city that day - my father too, actually - all fine, through sheer luck. But like I imagine most who witnessed that day unfold on their TV screen, 9/11 haunts me to this day.
I know it’s not a unique horror. I know there’s whole countries right now, as I type, where civilian populations are huddled together, with little but prayers as shelter from random destruction raining down from the sky. I get that. I do.
I also believe the horror of 9/11 - an evil act, perpetrated by evil people - was exploited by other evil people to pursue evil policies, the poisonous, bitter fruit of which are still ripening
But I also remember the lines around the blocks of people donating blood. I remember the incredible outpouring, of shock, of grief, of solidarity, of shared humanity, from across the globe.
Mostly, though, I remember the shock. The awful realisation that the world was not as I thought it was. The realisation, understood intellectually but now instilled at a gut level, that all the things we imagine to be solid, unyielding, and certain, are incredibly fragile, vulnerable. Most of all, vulnerable.
There’s no cure for that. Safety - all safety - is an illusion.
The world didn’t change on 9/11. Not really. But the lens through which I saw the world did. It’s not a bell that can be unrung.
I’m led to understand it is a realisation you can eventually make peace with.