I’ve read some very moving editorials today marking the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Given the day that’s in it, I thought I’d share a couple of them instead of my usual writing round-up. Sometimes true stories are more remarkable than anything we can make up.
One is a first-hand account in the Independent, which captures the panic and helplessness of those on the ground. John De Vore was working in an office in Manhattan that day, and found himself pitched into what felt like an alternative universe:
‘I walked up the middle of Sixth Avenue with hundreds of people. There was no traffic. Jet fighters zoomed above our heads. I tried not to turn back to look downtown. I remembered the Greek myth of Orpheus. How he was allowed to escort his great love out of the underworld on one condition: that he not look back to make sure she was behind them as they ascended out of the darkness. I didn’t look back. I walked.’
The other article is a set of intertwining interviews with White House staff on a school visit in Florida with President George W Bush that day. They recount the eight hours Air Force One spent circling the skies in the confusion of the immediate aftermath. It was deemed the only place secure enough to protect the Commander-in-Chief from a possible attack, much to his frustration:
‘We’re flying around, all we still have is local TV. The only benefit was that anything broadcasting was broadcasting the attack. Whatever I locked into, it’d only be good until we flew out of range. We were trying to understand from those pictures like anyone else. It was a whole paradigm shift from what I’d thought about conflict and war growing up. It was a new age’ – Master Sgt. Dana Lark, superintendent of communications, Air Force One
Naturally we all remember where we were that day. I was living in London at the time, and taking my first proper stab at producing and directing a play, having served my apprenticeship as an assistant director. Rehearsals weren’t going well for reasons that no longer matter (though some were no doubt due to my inexperience), and that day we worked through lunch to make the most of a cast member’s limited availability. When you’re in a rehearsal room, you’re completely away from the outside world – absolutely no mobile phones (not back then, anyway), no people popping in. I think we may even have had the blinds down, though that might just be my memory adding mood lighting to the setting.
By the time I was free to pop out for food to a sandwich bar, both towers in New York were monstrous plumes of smoke and the man behind the counter was too dazed by the TV hanging from the ceiling to notice the line of customers. It was the closest I’ve ever come to those archetypal scenes in Hollywood blockbusters, where crowds gather outside a TV store to watch some grave press announcement from the White House. It felt like we were watching one of those films, impossible to take in that it was actually live news coverage.
I raced back to the theatre, where most of the company were still oblivious. I can’t actually recall the next bit, but I presume I scrapped the rest of our rehearsal. What I do remember is trying to get home. London was in a state of high alert because of the fear of a co-ordinated attack. The Underground was on lockdown, so the multitudes sent home early from their city-centre workplaces had to make their way out to the suburbs by whatever means they could find.
The theatre was near Earl’s Court, and I eventually managed to squash onto a bus that was heading in a south-westerly direction, then shared a taxi to Twickenham with a bunch of strangers. I don’t remember anything about them other than that everyone was in shock. And there was the worry: was this just the beginning of something more far-reaching?
The play premiered a week later, following soul-searching discussions about whether we should even open. In the sombre aftermath of 9/11, audiences understandably had no stomach for frivolity, and both Broadway and West End shows saw drastic drops in ticket sales. Added to that was the fact that our little fringe production was a black comedy, the set for which was a traditional Irish living room with, of all things, a coffin slap-bang in the middle of it. It was not good timing for such a symbol.
Unsurprisingly, few people came to see us, and the play didn’t really work, but it didn’t matter. We had given it our best shot, and besides – there were worse things that could happen.
RIP, all innocent victims of hatred.