7 Sep 2011

My 9/11

Until this year’s Japanese tsunami, 9/11 was the worst destruction I had ever seen in the developed world. On the day it happened, like everyone else, I can remember where I was.

I was being lunched by some telecoms executives (a rare event), I can’t remember why, but it was in the London restaurant world of Charlotte Street. My mobile rang and my newsdesk told me an “aircraft has hit one of the twin towers in New York”. Relieved of my somewhat dull circumstance, I pounded back to the studios on my bike, imagining in my mind’s eye a small Piper aircraft embedded in the glass of the tower.

The scale of what I saw streaming into our newsroom on the newsfeed stunned me. Within moments we were “on air” and talking live to the pictures as we saw them. At one point we could see people falling to their deaths from the upper floors burning building – I began to wonder whether we were treating their desperate deaths with the dignity they deserved. We never rebroadcast them.

Amid the shock, I had a premonition of terrible reprisal and consequence. But for weeks, amazingly nothing happened, but then Afghanistan was launched, and soon Iraq too. Our decade of war was with us.

The searing memory of 9/11 itself for me is enshrined in a rare visit right into the very heart of Ground Zero a few weeks after the attack. Journalists were banned – images had to be grabbed from the perimeters of the site. But my friend, the celebrated American panoramic photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, had been given special access to record the site from day one for the New York Parks Department.

He was the one lone cameraman on site everyday for the first three months of rescue and recovery. He called me up and told me to fly over to New York suggesting I and my own camerman, Malcolm Hicks, accompany him into the site as his “assistants”. We got away with it. Our film portrayed the horrific wreckage from ground level and below. The detritus was still steaming and hot; the smell was all but unbearable; and the tiny fragments of so many human lives brought home all too vividly the scale of loss and somehow the inevitability of retaliation.

So that 9/11 for me is also entwined with the consequences of that retaliation. On the ground in Baghdad, in the horror and fear of life and death: The blast walls; the Humvees; the telltale suicide bomb blasts and consequent towers of smoke that located the bomb toward which we hurried for news; the strewn limbs and pools of blood; the wailing mothers and people on the panicked move.

I have not reported from Afghanistan in this phase of conflict – nor from Saudi Arabia – but both, together with Iraq, have dominated my own reporting decade ever since that eleventh day of September 2001. Pray God it is a decade the like of which we shall never know again.

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