The Twin Towers – a televised tragedy
Of course, 9/11 is a JFK moment. We all remember where we were when the twin towers collapsed. It signalled not just a single world event, but set the course for the world in this new millennium.
I was working at The Sunday Times on Tuesday September 11th 2001. Tuesdays are spent clearing up after the week before. Bills are paid, mistakes investigated, lunches spent out of the office. For a Sunday paper it is the least newsy day of the week. We didn’t even have the television switched on.
I had just had an early lunch, with a view of going to the gym for an hour in the afternoon, when one of the subs from the style section came over and told us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and it was on Skynews. We grudgingly switch the TV on and watched. I seem to recall that there had been a speight of planes flying into things. They were always light aircraft flown by a lovesick or revengeful pilot angered by his tax bill or cut adrift by a broken relationship. This looked like another one. The sheer size of the tower, the angle from the ground and the lack of any proper perspective completely removed any idea of size and depth. looking back now, I realise that each pane represented an entire floor, but at the time they just looked like the sort of window we had in our own office – about the size of a sheet of A2. Because it was reported from the ground, there was no understanding of how far the plane had penetrated into the building. The small group gathered around the TV started to drift away, believing that this was essentially a local story – a few people dead, a tragic tale of a thwarted life ended in a desperate act. There would be nothing in it for a Sunday paper on a different continent.
We entered the surreal with the arrival of the second plane. The noise of its engines was obscurred by the babble of reporters on the live feed and so it seemed to be gliding gracefully between the manhattan skyscrapers. Had they come to have a look? Was this its natural flight path? The questions barely had time to be asked before it plunged itself into the second tower. The office was silent and still. It seemed to have happened in slow motion, like something out of an action movie. The live feed broadcast the screams of horror from the witnesses in the New York street. The news professionals, in the office, at Sky, on the street were dumb. News very rarely happens like that. Live and unpredictable. Every event a journalist attends has a spectrum of possible outcomes, usually underwhelming, that the journalist has prepared himself for. We very rarely witness something so completely beyond the expected.
Of course the office burst into activity -some mindless, some purposeful, most useless. We tried to get photographers to Heathrow and onto flights, but they were all cancelled. we tried to contact photographers in New York city but the cellular network was down, in New York state, but they were engaged or not answering. Everyone, friend, family, newsgatherer, was trying to do the same thing. And all the time the television beamed it live to an office far to busy to watch it. Reports came in of flights all around America going missing, crashing, being hijacked. Every whisper and misheard comment was broadcast live around the world as fact. Experts were rushed on air and asked ridiculous questions, relentlessly pushed for any view no matter how bizzare. Surely somebody must know what is happening? Only the pictures told the truth. They were jumping out of those huge windows to their deaths.
I didn’t see the first tower go down. We were all too busy. I caught the TV as the plumes of dust wrapped themselves around the streets, enveloping everything. The office came to a standstill as everyone gathered around the screens. Nobody really knew how many people had just died. How many worked at the towers? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? How long does it take you to get out down the stairwells? who would have been there at 8am? they were all questions which could be asked later. We stopped trying to phone people and watched. Like everyone else. The collapse of the second tower was almost expected. We were full to the brim with emotion and information. It washed over us, not finding a way in. The Pentagon, flight 93 were mere add ons to what we had seen develop in front of us. When you experience something so beyond normal parameters, you can’t think where it will end. How many more planes? How many more cities or countries? These events were not contained by geography or time. Were these the events, or the overture for something bigger? We all went home that evening not knowing if the sun would rise the following morning. Such certainty had gone.
By the next morning, something approaching a structure had returned. The horror was still there, but the overwhelming sense of disbelief was being crowded out by more practical considerations. We were professionals after all. Who was there? What had they got? How can we get it? All the calls were made. The tone was softened by genuine concern, by a recognition that many of the photographers were still in shock, did not fully recall or understand what they had seen. Many functioned out of habit. But the british agencies were in contact with their American affiliates, who, of course, knew that we wanted to see whatever they had as soon as possible. The agencies, AP, Reuters, EPA and Getty had been putting out stuff constantly and we had to trawl through it all before it dropped from the feeds. The archivists allocated more memory so that we could store it. But this story went beyond the normal sources. It was the first digital world event. In the UK the internet was hardly really up and running. It was used by geeks and evangelists who believed that people would rather get their information off a screen than from a newspaper (!). The States were years ahead of us. With our limited knowledge, narrow pipe and lacklustre search engines we were finding pictures and stories uploaded by eyewitnesses who just wanted to get their story out. Worryingly we knew that we were only scratching the surface and that the agencies, wires and established feeds weren’t tapping into this citizen journalism. As an industry we had slipped from being the news sources to chasing a deluge of information that we didn’t know how to search for, access or even identify. The official sources were trying their best, pushing lines, coralling opinion, trying to homogenize our collective memory, but all the time we were being distracted by the siren call of those individual voices.
Our fears were confirmed a week later when the Evening Standard ran a series of pictures from an office worker, shot as he escaped down the stairwell of one of the towers. Nobody else even knew they existed. After a week of endlessly searching for this sort of stuff, offering large sums for exclusive pictures, commissioning anyone we could think of to trawl every contact, the Fleet Street nationals had been beaten by the local London paper. The fact that they had found them as a result of a tip off only confirmed that we, as a profession, were outside of the new loop.
These days, news organisations have made great strides. They like to feel that they have some semblance of control again. Digital media is now much more structured, Google rules the net and journalists are comfortable with the various channels and platforms. Citizen journalism follows certain criteria. But, every so often, an event will take place that will rattle the confidence of conventional media and remind the professionals that the control they think they have doesn’t really exist.