I remember sitting in a conference room together with colleagues. Suddenly the door opens, a colleague walks in and says: ‘There has been an accident in New York, it seems a plane has hit a World Trade Center building’. Typical reactions in the room follow, how-terrible, hope-nobody-died, does-anyone-know-anyone-in-New-York, no?, let’s-move-on-with-the-meeting. We continue the meeting for quite some time. It isn’t until we exit the conference room that we notice people in the office staring at a TV screen by the reception. It then dawns on us: this was not an accident. More planes are hitting other targets. The US is under attack.
I am in central London and it’s Tuesday September 11th 2001. I am 23 years old. London is not my home town, I had flown in on a business trip a couple of days before and was supposed to leave that evening. Here is my story on what happened instead:
I look out of the office window and I see thousands of people on the street. The entire London subway network was immediately closed off so everyone below street level had to exit and find other ways of transportation. I don’t remember chaos, just a huge crowd of people walking on the street. This made me realize something: I am not in any other city right now, I am in London. A city that has protocols in place for imminent terror attacks. I look around in the office and I see people on phones, talking to family, while at the same time looking at the TV. Seeing footage, over and over again, of the planes hitting the buildings and eventually seeing the twin towers collapse. Then someone shouts: ‘There is a rumor of a plane heading for London!’. Of course this did not calm anyone down, including me.
I try calling home to my husband in Sweden and to my parents in the Netherlands. It takes a long time to get hold of them, as the phone lines are continuously occupied. But finally I do get hold of them. My husband is calm and I love hearing his voice. I remember my dad telling me to find a boat and travel to Holland. Not surprisingly he did not like the idea of his daughter being in a city that might be a target too. However I was young and felt a strange sense of duty to my job. I couldn’t just leave, I thought. What would people think?
As Heathrow was closed off, I was stuck in London and realized I needed a place to stay for the night. I wasn’t the only one at the office with this problem: I had a colleague from Sweden and a colleague from Spain with me who also needed a room. We spent quite some time on the phone to different hotels, trying to secure a room. It was extremely difficult to find one. Partly because we weren’t the only ones stuck in London who suddenly needed a hotel room, but also because hotels had suddenly changed their booking policy. You had to 1. get to the hotel within half an hour and 2. present a credit card with enough money. Prices of rooms were sky-high and it was the law of the jungle, really.
The law of the jungle also became noticeable at the office. As the hours passed, my British colleagues left for their homes, one after the other, while they knew that my two colleagues and I were stranded. I remember discussing possibly sleeping at the office, and still no one said something along the lines of: hey-you-can-follow-me-home, I-have-a-spare-room, is-there-anything-I-can-help-you-with? I remember how alone that made me feel. Where was the solidarity? Sense of community in a time of crisis? I did not feel that in this office in London that day. At all.
Finally we managed to secure a room and I ended up spending the night on the floor of a hotel room and my two (male) colleagues sharing a bed in the adjacent room. I did not sleep a minute, instead I watched TV, trying to grasp what had happened that day, feeling nauseous from the adrenaline that pumped through my body.
September 12th 2001, early morning. I am at Heathrow Airport, scheduled to be on one of the first planes taking off since the attack. On the newsstands I see newspapers with headlines so big I’d never seen before. WAR it said on many of them. I pick a copy of each of them and stand in line to board a plane. To Germany, of all places. Not to Sweden where I live, not to the Netherlands where my parents live. No, Germany it is ‘because I have another business meeting’. How deeply rooted this feeling was: not to abandon my job. And how I regret this today, because I felt terrified! My body was in constant fight-or-flight mode and would have needed time to regulate and restore but the logical part of my brain took over and made the decision to get on that plane.
The plane ride from the UK to Germany was the most terrible travel experience I’ve ever had. Everyone on the plane, including myself I have to admit, was looking suspiciously at everyone else, trying to determine if someone might be a terrorist. Also, at the event of every little bit of turbulence, even a tiny little shake of the plane, the pilot announced from the cockpit: ‘this was just a bit of turbulence, we experience no problem at all, the plane is fine’. This happened not just one time, but All. The. Time. I don’t remember how many times the pilot announced that everything was OK up in the air.
I vaguely remember having a meeting in a conference room in Germany and I have no memory of the plane ride back home but I do remember landing on Arlanda Airport in Sweden. The relief I felt to be home was enormous! And I felt absolutely exhausted.
It’s been 20 years today since the attacks in the US on September 11th. I can’t begin to imagine the impact this has had, and still has, on the thousands of people who survived, who lost loved ones, who had to work at the places which were attacked.
My experience of that day in London, and the day after on the plane out of Heathrow, is not even near to their experience but nevertheless will stay with me forever. The law of the jungle that took over in a crisis situation is something that frightened me and was a quite sobering experience. I also can reflect today about the workings of my brain. How stuck I was in the importance of a job-duty over my own wellbeing. At 23, I did not have the capacity to feel into my body and make sure it felt safe. Instead I got stuck in fight-or-flight, ignoring the signs of my body that it was not doing well.
I believe that I would have made a difference choice today. I would have taken that boat to Holland, and not stayed in London. And from there, after hugging my parents, I would have driven to Sweden, or taken a train. Imagining this calms me down, even today.
So that’s my story of 9/11 that I wanted to write today, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks that changed the US and the world.
And also me.
Photo: James Butterly – unsplash.com