I’m one of the few people I know that wasn’t in the country on September 11th.
I had been living and working in London for a couple years as the senior editor for MSN.co.uk., the largest portal site in the United Kingdom at the time. Of 70-plus employees, I was the only American. I have no idea what the content staff looks like now, but in 2001, we had a core team of about a dozen people working out of an office on Great Pulteney Street in Soho. My boss, Andrew, had come from the BBC and set up our suite of cubicles with TV screens so that we could monitor the news, generally with the sound turned off. For reasons too complicated to go explain, we had to manually update the news back then. We rotated the responsibility so that one person would watch news sites, select stories and write headlines all day. Once a month, it was someone’s job to do this all weekend.
Andrew was out that day, taking off on a planned flight to Redmond to visit the mother ship. In addition to overseeing the content teams, my job included visiting major corporate clients with guys from advertising to discuss developing customized editorial packages, essentially pages my team put together for temporary campaigns that ran on our site, or sometimes across all the MSN sites outside the U.S.
Right after lunch, I was due to leave for a meeting with Disney. Rushing, I ran back to my desk to grab notes when suddenly I noticed the TV monitors. After a screen announced “BREAKING NEWS,” live video footage showed the north tower burning. With no sound, at first the image made no sense. We had clocks on the wall with different time zones; the one for New York showed it was around 9 a.m. I watched as the other plane hit the second tower. Someone on the content team said, “Did that plane just hit that building?”
“Yes,” I answered flatly. I don’t remember breathing. Without taking my eyes from the screen, I reached down to my phone, dialed an extension and said, “I’m going to have to miss that meeting with Disney.”
We turned up the sound. BBC and SkyNews announcers talked over the live video feeds. I don’t know what American TV announcers did that morning, but I know that in the UK, they immediately brought on a structural engineer familiar with the World Trade Center who discussed the very strong possibility they could collapse. By the time the South Tower fell, seemingly everyone huddled around our desks to watch the monitors as we worked feverishly to keep up with the breaking news. It was mayhem. At one point, SkyNews reported there could be dozens of planes hijacked in American airspace. Then, the second tower fell, and so did seemingly every single news server in the United Kingdom – except ours.
Earlier, Microsoft had installed a new data center with vast server capacity near Greenwich. We found we couldn’t update MSN from news sites anymore; none of them were functioning. Even the BBC site kept returning errors. U.S. news sites went down under the crush of the traffic. It felt to us that the entire internet slowed down that day, the underlying architecture stretched to capacity.
We monitored the TV screens, but so much of the information was speculation that we decided not to publish anything until it was confirmed. So, we did it the old-fashioned way. We got on the phone with journalists from MSNBC in Redmond and news outlets in London. Some of the London reporters were on the phone with other journalists back in the states in different cities. On the fly, we built a special editorial devoted to the breaking 9/11 news. Around 10 p.m. our editorial wearily made their way home or to a pub. I stayed in the office, alone, updating the news until well past 3 a.m. when I suddenly broke down crying.
I felt so alone. I was in another country when mine had been attacked and there was nothing I could do. I knew people who worked in the WTC buildings. I had no idea what happened to them. One thing about London, I told my mother, I could always fly home with 24-hours’ notice. Well, I couldn’t. I was on an island with a bunch of people who at least understood terrorism since they’d lived through it themselves. I left my office and walked through the unusually quiet streets of Soho and Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square down to the Thames and over to Parliament and Big Ben. Near a newsstand, a truck stopped to deliver a bundle of newspapers. “TERROR IN AMERICA” read the headline above the now familiar image of the both towers smoking.
A Black Cab driver stopped to ask if I needed a ride. When I tried to answer, I started to cry. Hearing my accent, he said, “Oh, you’re American. C’mon, love, let me give you a lift.” He took me home and wouldn’t take any money for the fare.
The next day, I learned my boss’s flight had been caught in the maelstrom; shortly after takeoff, his British Airways flight turned around as the captain informed the passengers that all of U.S. airspace had been closed. He’d been diverted to Belfast, not exactly the most welcoming place for a bunch of wayward Brits. As a newsman, I think it still pains him that he wasn’t in our office that day. I don’t remember the final traffic figures, except they were vast, millions and millions of page views.
As I sat down to pick up the coverage on Wednesday, an older, much more senior woman I admired stopped by my desk to check on me. “Such a tragedy,” she said. “But I hope you Americans don’t go on and do something foolish such as bomb someone to get back at them. Here in England, we’d stay calm and carry on.” The irony, of course, is that we dragged them into two wars.
I moved back to the United States permanently in 2005. In Seattle, I befriended a woman named Abigail, who lost her husband in the Sept. 11th tragedy. I wrote a book about going to cooking school in Paris; she wrote one about grief. But it’s interesting. I don’t know if I would have gone to Le Cordon Bleu if Sept. 11th had not happened. Like a lot of people, it made me rethink my mortality and debate what the hell I was doing with my life.
Although at the time, I felt achingly alone, I’m now grateful that I viewed arguably the defining American tragedy of my generation from afar. It forever offers me such a different perspective on the world in general. When I hear about terrible things happening somewhere else, those places don’t feel so distant anymore.