Like most people, I vividly remember the events of 9/11. At the time, I was working on the trading floor of a large American investment bank at their new premises in London, near St. Paul’s. I had just returned from a lunchtime gym session and, upon returning to my desk, saw on television images of the World Trade Center on fire. I asked a colleague what had happened, and was told that a plane had flown into one of the towers. Weird, I thought, figuring that it was some kind of micro-plane, perhaps one that does traffic reporting, not for a second imagining it was a large passenger craft. I sat down to get back to work, keeping one eye on one of the many TV screens placed around the floor. When it was finally confirmed what kind of plane had hit the north tower, I immediately suspected that this was no accident. That kind of thing just does not happen. The trading floor I worked on was the size of a football pitch, holding several hundred people, and by now hardly anyone was sat at their desk working anymore; instead everyone was standing around a TV screen, trying to get more information. It was then that the second plane flew into the south tower, from what seemed like out of nowhere, immediately shattering any hope that this was just a dreadful accident. This couldn’t be anything other than a deliberate, orchestrated attack. A collective gasp went across the floor, and one woman in particular screamed as the second plane hit – a noise that I will never forget, and still makes the hairs on my neck stand when I think about it.
Everything that followed simply felt surreal. News of another plane hitting the Pentagon; reports of another plane hijacked, whereabouts unknown (which would later turn out to be United Flight 93); images of people trapped in the towers jumping to their deaths. Then the south tower fell and, within half an hour, the north tower too. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing. It felt apocalyptic. The Merrill Lynch global headquarters are at the World Financial Center, parallel to the site of the twin towers. When the north tower went down, it looked like the entire thing had landed on our colleagues. As it turned out, all but three of the 9,000 staff had been evacuated in time and made it home safe.
Along with the rest of London, we were all sent home early, still in shock at the events we had seen, feeling very vulnerable. It turned out that Canary Wharf had already been evacuated. Was London also going to be targeted? Not for today, at least. But that vulnerability is more acute than ever now, as the prospect of a major terrorist incident is a daily reality for everyone.
I remember remarking to a colleague that this will be our generation’s JFK moment. Yes, this is a cliché now, but it’s true. This was a day that seared itself on our collective conscious, still a vivid memory now, five years later. It may have all happened over 3,000 miles away, but it all felt very close to me, and it was clear that the world was never going to be the same again. And indeed it hasn’t been.
I’d always been fascinated with New York ever since I was a young boy, when I would spend ages looking at my book of NYC skyscrapers, memorising their names and locations. I had always wanted to visit and always expected that the highlight of any trip would be visiting to the World Trade Center – something that could never happen now. As it happens, I have since been to New York twice and went to Ground Zero on each occasion. Both times I have been shocked by the sheer size of the site and the thought of just how big those buildings really were. Even five years later it’s still incredible to recollect the events of that day: watching helplessly as those monolithic structures – which once stood like two fingers stuck up at the rest of the world – were attacked and obliterated in less than two hours.
9/11 changed everything forever, alerting us all to a war that we were already involved in. We just didn’t know it yet.