I returned home to the UK from Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 10th, 2001.
I met my heavily pregnant wife at London Heathrow, and we stayed with our friends at their apartment in South East London.
After a late night catching up with the people I loved, followed by a lazy morning, we turned on the TV to the devastation of the first tower on fire. Amid the confusing news reports, I'd assumed it was a terrible accident and we all talked about how tragic this was for those involved.
Then everything changed. I cannot describe the dread I felt watching that second plane hit the tower live on TV. Immediately, I knew. This was an attack. As the reports flooded in, we just watched in horror as people flung themselves off the towers. I remember my first reaction: Why would those stupid people just jump like that? Clearly, I was unable to even remotely comprehend the gravity of absolute human despair. Even when the towers fell, one after the other like some weird Hollywood disaster movie, my mind wouldn't allow me to comprehend the horror. I just remember thinking about all those lives. All those people who were trapped in that building. Suddenly, those that leapt to their deaths didn't seem so irrational after all.
We followed the news for the day, trying to take it all in. I tried to contact as many of my American friends as I could, but to little avail. Lines were jammed up. At the dawn of the 21st century, it seemed that our technology, as well as my mind, was unable cope with this tragedy. It was all a bit of a blur. But one thing remained clear in my mind - the world would never be the same again. And this also filled me with dread.
See, I'd worked in an anti-terrorism environment for the military during a very different time, in a very different context. But I knew what terrorism was. Without getting into a political discussion about terrorism - whether or not it is pure murder, or a legitimate political act - is, for me, less important than being able to understand two things. First, innocent people always die, and that is a tragedy, and secondly, there is always a context. A reason why some people would want to do this. For me, at that moment, to avoid all that loss being nothing but a waste, it was time to think about these things. For me, America needed to ask itself some hard questions. But History told me, that would be unlikely, and in that moment, I feared for the future of my unborn child.
A month later, to add to the fuzzy surrealism of my life, my son was born. Our first child. So the aftermath of 9/11 was supplanted by the joy, exhaustion, hopefulness, bewilderment, excitement and the feeling of being completely out of my depth as a new father.
Until early 2002, when all three of us had to move to New York City for a research project I was involved in. The surrealism of 9/11 became central in our lives once more, as we lived in our little apartment on Manhattan's lower-east side, and navigated our way around post-9/11 New York city.
With a clearer mind, I remember vividly the first time we visited Ground Zero, as it was called back then. There was no public transport access for at least five or six blocks, so we took the subway to get as near as we could - I can't remember which station we had to come out. But, as we entered the street from the subway, I will never forget the air.
It was as though the air itself was thick. It had a smell that could only be described as industrial. A mix of sand, debris, oil, smoke... The air was heavy, as though my lungs were having difficulty processing it. It became thicker as we approached the site.
Then it became visual. A Burger King building with giant scars across its thick concrete walls, as though Godzilla had just rampaged down the street, tearing clumps out of the buildings with its claws. If only.
The site itself was a giant hole in the ground. My only context of its size were the huge pieces of plant equipment that looked like children's Tonka toys at the bottom. The workers were ants. Tiny black dots. People talked. Apparently they were still finding rotting bodies in the mess. It was all fenced off and tourists, drinking in the tragedy, were corralled along to keep the Disney-like crowds moving. Fitting that in the country of pomp and glamour, even one of its most poignant tragedies was now a tourist attraction. Was I any different? I'd already felt connected to this thing due to me leaving the USA the day before it happened, from the airport that the planes flew out of. Shit - I would've been in the same airport at the same time as the terrorists. I felt connected. I'd like to think, for me, it wasn't just an exercise of trying to witness the macabre. Not my 21st Century Victorian freak show.
My wife and I cried the whole time. It was the flag that set us off. A big Stars and Stripes adorned with messages of love and support for all those affected. Photographs of the dead. The ghosts of the tragedy. I was critical at the way America reacted to this. And the way some Americans reacted to this - anti-Muslim sentiment, hate, persecution, not to mention the Patriot Act - all things I thought had made this tragedy bigger than it should have been. But seeing those faces of the lost. For their families, how could this be any bigger? But I didn't feel anger, or hatred, or need revenge - I just felt overwhelmingly sad. Walking around the streets of Manhattan made me realise how the tendrils of this horror had crept into the fabric of New York's life. Each Ladder Company (as the NY Fire Department stations are called) displaying rolls of honour and murals on their station-houses - lists of men and women who "fell" on 9/11. Fell... this indeed was a war. Individual police officers with medals on their chests - the initials "WTC" evident in their display. I listened to stories of bravery and tragedy - often the two are inseparable. This affected everyone - all with stories of their own. Not mine to tell. Except one man whom I worked with. He hated the stories of 9/11. Not because he didn't love America - but because he lost his wife in a horrific car crash the week before 9/11, and her memory would be lost to most in their perception of a much greater tragedy. That is also his story to tell, and I hope he still does, for the sake of his wife.
I had the opportunity to take my children to New York in 2014, and to tell them the stories of a tragedy that happened before their were born. Of course, we visited the memorial. We paid our respects to people whom we never knew. It was a lovely tribute, if I'm honest. I know people have their opinions, but having the names of the victims seemed fitting. They shouldn't be forgotten. I particularly liked the sentiment of placing a flower on the name's of the people on their birthdays. For me, that meant that someone could remember them, other than their families and the grief that I cannot even imagine. Its a calming, serene and beautiful tribute.
But it still fills me with sadness. I still cannot help feel that our global community has learned nothing. I still feel that anger and hatred are dominant feelings between people who probably don't do enough to communicate and learn about each other's wants and needs. Terrorism has a context. Desperate people do desperate things. While I will never agree with the murdering of innocent people, the death toll of 9/11 far exceeds the 3000 people who died that day. I'm not sure its right to remember them all, because I think those victims of 9/11 deserve this day to be for them. But we should remember all the losses at some point in time, if indeed, that can ever be quantified.
So in the end, maybe all we have are the stories we can tell, so days like 9/11 are not forgotten. I'm always interested to hear other people's experiences. Please feel free to always share.