It’s hard to believe that eight years have passed since two commercial aeroplanes flew into the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and influenced the course of history.
I know where I was when I heard the news. It came via a text message from a friend who had stood with me on the top of the south tower only two years previously.
Get to a TV, the message said.
I remember watching the replay of the first strike, like watching a cartoon, and then the disbelief as the second aircraft struck.
If you ever saw the World Trade Centre in reality, you’d be ambivalent about it, because the twin structure was absurd. Nobody in New York liked it and I can understand why. It was ugly. It was brash. It was unimaginative: a triumph of engineering over architecture.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the faux-Gothic motifs at ground level. I didn’t like the dull, straight-line purity of its form, an excuse for people with no creative ability to evade their responsibility. As a building I just didn’t like it.
But I did like the sheer scale of the thing, and just like everyone else, I laid down on my back, on the plaza below, and stared up along the endless, vanishing-point side of the thing, trying to comprehend its sheer vastness.
Of course, just like everyone else, I’m also speechless when I stand next to a commercial aircraft. Even though I know a little bit about the physics of the thing, it still amazes me that such a brute of a machine can lift itself from a concrete runway and power into the sky. That is astonishing.
So here we are, looking at a great building on the TV screen, when an aircraft appears and vanishes into the side of it, and we’re thinking, shit, there’s a little plane that’s crashed into the WTC, until we realise that it isn’t a two-seater Cessna. It’s an airliner with 300 people in it. A big jet, the size of all our houses put together. Twenty buses. Big.
You’re looking at the people beside you and they’re all thinking the same thing.
What the fuck?
You’re watching smoke pouring out of the windows with real force. Real dynamic pressure and not just a few wisps drifting out from a small fire. This is a conflagration.
People are jumping out of windows. They’re floating downwards.
You don’t know why this is happening, why these peaceful people are floating down from a thousand feet up, but you can guess, and you can imagine what it’s like at the sidewalk too as the floaters strike the concrete. But really, you don’t know what this thing is that you’re looking at.
And so you sit there, in stupefied disbelief until something else happens.
What? Well, here comes a second plane, and it slams into the other tower and then you realise this isn’t a terrible accident. This is deliberate.
What the fuck?
You go quiet because you can’t process the information, and anyway the towers are too big to comprehend. You turn to your friends and you ask the only relevant question: what the fuck?
There’s a little hiatus, while you wonder how they’re going to get the people out but suddenly everything takes a turn that perhaps even the attackers didn’t predict. As fast as you can look at it, the south tower collapses. The one hit by the second plane.
Everyone stares at the TV screen. Nobody knows what to say.
What the fuck?
How did it fall down?
Somebody makes coffee and you relax a bit. What about that?
This is the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen in real time but then, because you know a little bit about such matters, but mostly because you aren’t fucking blind, you notice that the radio mast on the North tower is starting to wobble, and suddenly it dawns on you that this one is about to collapse too, but you don’t quite comprehend the meaning of it all.
It’s going to fall, you tell your friends. It’s going to fucking fall.
You’ve been at the top of these towers, so you know how huge they are, and saying something like They’re going to fall makes no sense, but they are.
They are going to fall.
Only two years ago you were standing on top of these things.
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