I didn’t realise it was the 15th anniversary of the death of the Twin Towers until last night when, flicking through the TV channels, I saw something called ‘The Falling Man’ flash by on Sky’s TV guide. It was just the kind of vague title I like. Would it be a horror flick? Psychological thriller? Ghost story? No. Turned out it was all about 9/11 and the horrid spectacle of people throwing themselves from the tallest sky scrapers in the world, to a certain death.
I have avoided all 9/11 related programmes since 9/11 happened and usually I’d switch over from that kind of thing in a flash, in search of something reassuring and homely, like Gardener’s World or Grand Designs. But I happened to land on ‘The Falling Man’ just as a photo filled the screen, depicting the eponymous falling man. He was upside down; absolutely, perfectly upside down; arms at his sides looking strangely like they were tied behind his back. His legs placed as though he was lying on the couch at home, relaxed. The camera had managed to catch him in this split second of motion, as he plummeted 1,338 feet down to the rock hard ground. I’d never seen this photo before but apparently it had appeared in the papers the next day and then disappeared from newsstands forever, following a public outcry at the violation of the unknown faller’s dignity and privacy at the moment he’d had no choice but to fall to his death. And quite right too. Richard Drew, an Associated Press photojournalist, caught the image, which has been hailed as one of the greatest news photos in history; as though Mr Drew has talent, as though he’s some kind of artist, when there’s absolutely no discernible difference between him and the paparazzi, who take photos of celebrities at their worst or in moments of rightful privacy. What Mr Drew had a talent for was to witness horror unfolding and then maintain the presence of mind to start doing his job, which was to continuously snap photos of the unknown falling man and then later pick out the ‘best one’ for publication, at the office. The ‘best one’ being the straight as a dart, absolutely still, in perfect symmetry with the lines of the Twin Towers, image.
What a wonderfully still and haunting image it is, journalists are apt to point out. But how would you feel if that was your husband/father/son, captured for eternity in his last horrific moments for all the world to see? Angry? Violated? Furious that Mr Drew had used your loved one as newspaper fodder?
I watched as much of The Falling Man as I could stomach and then went to bed remembering the events of September 11th 2001.
Four months earlier we’d had a family holiday to Disney World which, of course, involved taking a 10 hour flight to Orlando. I’d gone to see my doctor re: an abject fear of flying and he’d given me a couple of Diazepam to take on the flight (which I never did figuring that, should a calamity occur, being in a drugged up state wouldn’t be conducive to survival.) The husband found this logic hilarious, considering the odds of survival, drugged up or not, would be negligible. ‘May as well go down happy,’ was his astute advice. As I left the doctor’s office he’d announced that the aeroplane is the safest form of travel. ‘Really,’ I had replied, ‘how so? considering that when a plane comes down at least 300 souls are wiped out in one go.’ ‘Look, plane crashes hardly ever happen,’ he’d replied, completely failing to mask his impatience with his whinging patient.
And then four months later he was proved utterly and spectacularly wrong, as two planes crashed into the World’s Trade Centre, one plane into the Pentagon and one into a field in Pennsylvania.
I was right, I remember thinking, as the news unfolded. Man was not meant to fly and I’m never going to get in a plane again.
On Tuesday, 9/11 I was busy watching a TV programme called Working Lunch (back then I counted telly watching as ‘being busy’) featuring that bloke from the One Show – Adrian Chiles (what happened to Adrian Chiles?) The husband was very interested in the stock market at the time and I would keep an eye on stocks and shares via this lunchtime show. All three sons were at school and then, at roughly 1.00pm, the News came on and I was confronted with the image of a very big burning building. To begin with I didn’t pay attention. It’s a burning building thought I. It’s in a big city, nothing to do with me or my little town. And then the newsreader mentioned New York and the Twin Towers and terrorist attacks and I began to take notice. I had no idea what the Twin Towers were but by the end of the day I felt as if I, and the Twin Towers, had a very personal relationship.
This might seem a little mad but as the panic heightened and the plane attacks kept coming, I’d really, truly believed that my unknown little town might be next. Must go and get the kids, I’d thought wildly, a plane might crash into their schools! I had remarkably clear visions of planes crashing into everything and anything, everywhere. So I ran to the primary school, way too early, to find that other parents had had the same idea. Running into the reception area a neighbour, who worked at the school, came towards me saying, ‘have you seen the news? My son just got back from a trip to New York and he’d been on a tour of the Twin Towers!’ she’d exclaimed, ‘I can’t even think about it,’ she’d carried on, as though he were still in the Twin Towers and had perished, with a kind of weird relish of the fact that she had some kind of story to tell re: the biggest terrorist attack in history. She went to fetch son No. 3 and then we looked for son No. 2 and I went home.
15 years on and it’s difficult to recall just what an impact that day had on my little world. My diary entries for that day read like Armageddon; like this was the end of the world as we know it – which of course it wasn’t, and include a quote from Jimmy Young (an ancient radio DJ at the time) announcing: ‘God knows what will happen if we lose this war!’ One thing you learn as you age is that all things most definitely do pass.
I’d had some experience of grief and the 9/11 process had the same qualities. There was shock, disbelief, anger and then fear. The mass fear took the form of army surplus stores selling out of gas masks and protective uniforms, as Bin Laden threatened us with chemical warfare and the promise that he would ‘nuke’ Britain. I do remember flatly refusing to go to the local Army & Surplus to stock up. Son No.1 wanted us to fill the garage with bottled water and tins (again my panic didn’t stretch that far.) One clear memory is of watching the trees, just outside the back door, bending and moving in the breeze and imagining a nuclear wind (not sure what a nuclear wind is actually.) I really believed that somewhere a nuclear bomb had been detonated and we were feeling the after effects and that pretty soon a raging fire would turn up. This meant imagining the horror of being burned alive, which is exactly what happened to the ‘jumpers’ on the Twin Towers.
And then there was the Anthrax panic and white powder turning up in people’s post. For a tiny few seconds there I actually checked our post for traces of powder, until the husband said I was MAD and unhinged.
And now it’s 15 years on. I no longer think about gas masks, or nuclear winds, or burning buildings but the terror is still here and l’ll be thinking of that falling man – alone, helpless, hopeless, desperate and a symbol for every one of us in a post 9/11 world.