9/11 memories: Finding my way back home

I’m not a big fan of anniversaries in journalism, and I especially feel this way about 11 September 2001.  As the Washington correspondent for the BBC News website then, we looked back at three months, six months and then one year. The entire year was dominated by looking back at that day. After 10 years, I can’t help but think back to that day.

Like most of my colleagues with the BBC in Washington, I found myself away from the city on the day. We were almost all on assignment or on holiday. My colleague Stephen Sackur was in central America. He and his crew had to drive all day and all night for three or four days, spending several hours in a huge queue at the Mexican border. Nick Bryant was in Seattle on holiday. When the story broke, he found a local television station and immediately started doing lives.

I was in London visiting face-to-face with my editors for the first time in more than a year. I was sitting in the Foyer, one of the BBC staff cafes, with my friend Tim Weber from our business team. UPDATE: Tim remembers the day:

https://twitter.com/#!/tim_weber/status/112871385919004672

We looked up and saw a sky scraper on fire. At first I thought it was in Asia, but then saw that it was the World Trade Center in New York. We rushed up to the newsroom. Soon after the second plane hit, and we started to think about whether I should go back to the US. What happened next still gives me chills. The BBC News channel cut to a different feed, and I could see the presenter pausing, listening in his earpiece. Before he spoke, I said to myself with the horror of recognition, “That’s not New York. That’s Washington. That’s our live position at the White House.” Over the next several minutes as we made plans for me to get back to the US, several rumours flashed over the wires of a car bomb outside the State Department and fires on the National Mall. All were false, but for a time, it seems like Washington and New York were descending into chaos.

When I saw the pictures of Washington, my first thought was about my girlfriend at the time, Linda. She worked for a defence contractor and was a civilian staff member for the Air Force Chief of Staff. She occasionally worked at the Pentagon. Fortunately, I was able to reach her via email and find out that she was OK. I found out later that she had actually been in a classified briefing about “future threats” in a a SCIF, a secure compartmented information facility, a shielded, secure conference room in Arglinton. Someone interrupted the briefing, came in, turned a TV on to CNN, which was showing the towers on fire and said curtly, “This is what we mean.”

I was already scrambling to get to Heathrow. I rushed out of the newsroom, my colleagues asking if my friends and family were OK. I’m still touched by the kindness of my colleagues that day. Back at my hotel, I threw my clothes in my suitcase and soon was in a mini-cab to Heathrow. My driver was Iranian, and we talked on the half hour drive to the airport. When he found out that I was American, he asked if everyone I knew was OK. I told him yes as far as I knew. He told me of how he left his country, and I could tell he was very conflicted. He felt caught between a home he loved but was forced to leave and the West which didn’t quite welcome him. It was the first of several times since then I have felt that conflict from people I met from the Middle East.

I arrived at Heathrow, and just as I ran to the United check-in, they shut the gate. The flight had been cancelled. I rang my editor only to find out that all flights to the US and Canada were cancelled. North American airspace was closed. Not only huge numbers of BBC journalists, but Sky and ITV crews as well as members of the British press were all heading up to Stansted. The plan at that time was unclear, the timing of what came next even less. I got money and quickly got into a black cab to take the long trip on the M25 and then on up to Stansted. About 10 minutes into the trip, the first tower fell. My eyes burned and welled up with tears.

I arrived in Stansted to see the assembled masses of the British press corps milling about, upset that they couldn’t leave immediately. If you want to see anxiety, pen a few hundred journalists up in an airport, unable to go anywhere, as one of the biggest stories of their lives is unfolding an ocean away. In what would become common the decade that followed, we were told that everything we carried on the plane as hand luggage had to be carried in see through bags.

I tried to call Linda but the circuits were overloaded to Washington. I found out later that she had walked all the way from Arlington, across the Key Bridge into Georgetown and up the hill to her apartment across from the National Cathedral. I managed to reach my parents to let them know I was OK. As my caged colleagues paced and plotted, I cobbled together a wireless data connection with a mobile phone (much harder to do in 2001 than in 2011) and got online to check email. My inbox was full of friends and family wondering if I was OK, where I was and if I had been anywhere near the Pentagon. As it became clear the wait would be longer, I called home. My father asked if Linda was OK. I said that I thought so because we had emailed shortly after the attacks, but that I couldn’t reach her now because all of the telephone circuits were overloaded. He broke down sobbing.

That was Tuesday night. We spent the next two nights sleeping in a nearby pub with rooms, waiting for the call that our flight was to take off. All of the British press corps were going to travel in a chartered short 747. For young reporters like myself, it was odd to see the high-powered stars of British television and press up close as they frantically waited for flight clearance, and we jokingly referred to the flight as the Ego Trip One.

We waited for two more tense days waiting for North American airspace to open. Thursday night, we finally took off for Montreal.  We arrived at about four in the morning, and I drove with four or five colleagues to Washington. As I wrote for the BBC:

Most of my colleagues drove from Canada to New York but I kept going to Washington, passing by Manhattan on the way.

Heavy rain had fallen the night before and the skies were grey. Rising up from lower Manhattan, smoke still billowed from the shattered skyline.

I arrived back in Washington just as people were observing a national day of mourning, and people had stepped out into the streets of the US capital, my home, with candles.

I rarely wrote first person pieces for the news website, but I wrote a piece about what it was like to come home. I had to clear my head before we set about covering the story, and we wouldn’t take a break for the next month and a half.

It is still the most emotional story that I have ever had to cover. I learned a lot of things in journalism school, but we never had a lesson in dealing with such a traumatic event. In December, we did a series of live web video programmes in New York. One of the webcasts was from the 29th floor of a building overlooking the still smouldering site where the Twin Towers stood. The eerily twisted columns rose from the pile of rubble. On the one year anniversary, I still remember that we had to comfort one of the people we interviewed who hadn’t been back since the day the planes hit. We had to comfort him as he had a panic attack.

The 11 September attacks were also one of those rare stories when my personal life intersected with a story. Linda told me of how a friend in the military who worked at the Pentagon had to go to 39 spouses and tell them that their husband or wife wouldn’t be coming home. I referred to Linda but not by name in the piece I wrote on coming back:

One friend has had nightmares every night since the attacks. On Friday, shortly after I returned, she told me that she had not yet cried – but she was waiting.

A few hours later, she could wait no longer, and she began to sob.

At the time, it didn’t feel right to bring her into the story. This was three years before I started blogging for the BBC, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing in the first person much less getting so personal. This story almost broke that line between my personal and professional, the feelings were so raw.

Now a decade later, part of me can’t believe that I’m not covering the story. Since I left The Guardian, it’s been good to start writing again, mostly for the site that Suw and I helped launch in India, FirstPost.com, but I do miss being a reporter in the field.

Beyond that, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. So much has happened, but it feels right for me both personally and as a journalist to pause and remember the horrible events of that day. With all of the pain and sadness I witnessed on that day and in the following year, I feel fortunate that one of my lasting memories of that day was the kindness my colleagues showed me as I tried to make sure from afar that friends were safe. From now on, that’s how I will choose to remember the day, one of friendship in crisis.

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