The day the earth stood still

I was at work in a pretty ordinary nine story London office block, working for an Internet company of about 100 people. The first email went round declaring that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. It was 2:10pm UK time.

The email pointed to a Web page seemingly on BBC Online. My first thoughts were of a light aircraft hitting the building, like at the White House a few years ago. Then someone said it was a passenger jet. Our project office stopped and stared. It must be a sick elaborate spoof.

I checked Ananova and it was running the same story, only by now another jet had hit the second tower. We simply couldn’t believe what we were reading; it was already beyond anything Hollywood had touted our way. The pictures were starting to come in across the Net, which was already creaking with traffic; I was beginning to feel sick.

People were looking around ashen-faced, willing someone to say it was all a horrible joke. Then we went to work — we needed information and we needed it fast. Some were checking the BBC, others CNN; my source was Ananova. It wasn’t some gruesome desire for gore, we just had to find out what was going on. We were so far away and yet the immediacy of the reports brought us into a situation that we were impotent to help.

Perhaps our scramble for news was there to prevent shock and imagination getting hold: there were reports of people jumping out of windows, but no pictures to support it. Was the explosion at the Pentagon another plane? Had eight aircraft really been hijacked? Where were they? Were they aiming for the White House? Would they be shot down by the F-16s that had supposedly been scrambled?

Then the first tower collapsed. The moment we heard this, a colleague rushed into our project office saying that a TV has been set up in reception. We made our way up to the first floor and realised that our entire building had stopped. The tiny television was barely visible but we were glued to it none the less. We saw for the first time the pictures of the second jet hitting the south tower. It looked like a terribly bad special effect. An eerie silence descended; hushed tones in huddles. An American colleague was standing alone, shocked but calm.

Gradually we peeled away and tried to go back to our jobs, without much success. Some people came out of a meeting, oblivious to the news. They took a lot of convincing it was all true.

Many people in the office were visibly upset and the boss sent an email went around suggesting people could go home early to be with friends and family. For one reason or another I got home an hour late. No one had been talking on the train.

I slumped on the sofa next to my girlfriend who was tearfully watching BBC News 24. She was clutching some photos taken in New York four weeks earlier. A friend she was travelling with had reminded her to photograph the famous Manhattan skyline. The terrible irony was not lost.

It’s now the following morning and I’m sitting on a commuter train surrounded by silent people, all grasping the same pictures. Some are staring out of the window, perhaps having had their fill of the horror, or looking towards the familiar pyramid atop Canary Wharf, now joined by two nearly fully grown sister buildings. It had been evacuated yesterday as a somewhat obvious target.

Hushed discussions start in small groups of familiar strangers; people who never normally converse, despite sitting in the same seats day in day out. It seems I’m not alone in my feelings of hollow numbness and pangs of guilt at yesterdays information feeding frenzy.

I can’t read the paper. I can just about manage the pictures, folding the paper on my lap in between pages. And now I have to concentrate on my job; business as usual. That’s what the mayor of New York said yesterday although I doubt he really meant it.

Richard Rutter (rich at
12 September 2001