The Day the World CHANGED

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), September 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Day the World CHANGED


Byline: David Williamson

Today is the second anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, which claimed 3,000 lives, providing the catalyst for a series of world-changing events that we are now living through. Here, reporter David Williamson casts his mind back to the day before it all happened, and asks if we will ever heal the scars it caused

I REMEMBER September 10, 2001 as a dark and humid day in New York. You did not have to look up at the gathering clouds to know a major thunderstorm was imminent.

The air was headache-thick and the warm but damp streets were filled with the smell of drains and garbage.

I had come to the United States for the wedding of a childhood friend. Now I had just a few hours left before I was due to fly back to Dublin from JFK.

When I was halfway across a street a young woman with a baby in a pushchair made eye-contact and asked if I could help her. On the side of the kerb she told me a story of how she and her young son had been thrown out of their apartment, that her husband was 'a bad man', and that they were now sleeping in subway stations.

This, she said, was not safe. Would I talk to her landlord and help pay her rent?

Guidebooks to New York warn against giving money to anybody who asks for it on the street.

The theory is that you just walk on, but the people who write such advice are not looking at the pleading eyes of a mother and a child whose face was dotted with spots. I compromised and gave her some dollars I knew I would no longer be needing.

But when I was standing in my living room on the other side of the Atlantic, looking at smoke spiralling from the heart of Manhattan and hearing reports that all subway stations had been closed, my first thoughts were, 'Where's she going to sleep?'

The two hijacked planes which crashed into the World Trade Centre flew through storybook-blue skies. People spoke of the sharp chill in the air that morning.

September 10's dark clouds had exploded in a series of cloudbursts and lightning storms so fierce that the flights from JFK were delayed.

I sat in a terminal building looking through a large grey window at the horde of aeroplanes of different sizes pointing in all directions. They looked as awe- inspiring as cars queuing to leave a rain-soaked supermarket car park.

The sight reminded me of a book I'd read maybe a decade ago about an American airliner which was hijacked by Middle East radicals. The pilot wrote that his captors had briefly considered crashing the jumbo jet into the Israeli parliament.

Looking out at the scattered planes on the tarmac at JFK, I thought, 'What if somebody took control of one of these planes and smashed it into the Pentagon?'

I'm sure many travellers had had such thoughts before. Like me, they'd probably dismissed them as the far-fetched products of an imagination soaked in Hollywood.

But the events of the next day created a world in almost nothing was too incredible to be inconceivable.

Now, only 730 days since suicide bombers armed with knives carried out the worst act of violence on American soil since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, British troops are holding guns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Former Soviet republics now contain US Air Force bases, and an American Cuban naval outpost has been transformed from being a diplomatic curio into the location of holding-cells filled with men who were allegedly working towards the destruction of western civilisation.

Like the ending of the Cold War, none of this was supposed to happen - not in the modern world where the cosmetic alterations of celebrities occupy front pages.

The final years of the Clinton administration had been dominated by legal wranglings as to whether the President should be ejected from office if it was proven he had lied about a consensual sexual act which took place in the Oval Office. …

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