Friday, 8 July 2011

Live - Laugh - Love (4) New York 9/11


Diane and I share a very special memory of a long weekend in New York. We flew out of JFK airport in the early hours of 9/11. We were in the air when the planes flew into the Twin Towers.

It's funny how some decisions, which seem so trivial at the time can turn out to be absolutely massive. Shall we come back on the 10th or 11th of September? It seemed neither here nor there at the time.

Diane's husband worked at the time for an air freight company and had a business trip to New York. Diane was going with him and I of course offered my services as a travel companion to keep her company while he was working. Have I mentioned before that I'm very good at blagging myself onto other people's trips?

You need to imagine the combination of our thoroughly magical Big Apple weekend - then the utter devastation of what followed afterwards. An event that shook the world to it's core and massively shaped modern history. But for us, it had an even more distressing and personal side. I know that we have both thought a lot about the people that we met that weekend in New York and imagined very graphically with first hand information what utter horror they must have gone through just hours later. I've often wondered what the hell happened to them.

But of course, we were completely oblivious of all of this as we flew in over the New York sky line - iconic, with two massive sky scrapers dominating the sky line. Like so many people to arrive in New York before us, it was SO exciting. Land of opportunity where anything is possible. Loud, brash, in your face, alive with activity. Steam from the subway really does puther up through the side walks and the buildings are so high that looking up to the top makes your neck hurt! Hell yes - New York delivered!

Our first full day there (Friday 7th), Diane and I set of to explore the Big Apple. My pre-conceived ideas of NY were based on Cagney & Lacey, so clearly I thought we would either be mugged, or shot, or both. With that in mind, I had memorised the guidebook from cover to cover to minimise the risk of us getting lost and ending up in the Ghetto! I was pleasantly surprised to realise that my views were somewhat dated.

We rode the subway downtown and did what tourists do - jumped on a harbour cruise. We shook hands with Lady Liberty and stood in the warehouse on Ellis Island which acted as the immigration clearing house. The first experience of 'Land of Opportunity' for so many millions. I closed my eyes and pretended to be Alison O'Staples, an Irish immigrant escaping the potato famine and how I might feel on the first day of a new dawn.

After a potato based lunch and a pint of Guinness, we wandered into the financial district. Ten years on, the next hour or so is just as clear as if it were yesterday - I've re-run it in my mind many, many times.

There was a subway station and a shopping plaza at the bottom of the Twin Towers, we made our way through the shoppers and found some pay phones. Diane called home to let everyone know what a fantastic time we were having. I'm not sure which of the towers we went up, but I remember the big glass wall infront of the escalators with MORGAN STANLEY engraved on it in huge black letters. Up to the first floor we bought our tickets and then waited in line for the lifts. While we waited, someone took our picture in front of a cheesy card board cut out of the NY sky line and the towers. Our bags went through a security scanner and we walked through another scanner before we were finally on the lift.

The lift attendant gave us a running comentary as we bulleted our way skywards. 103 floors in a matter of seconds. To put things into context - the Beetham Tower in Manchester is 42 floors. These buildings were huge! Our attendant was a jolly, chubby, smiley African American. I remember his big smile, big eyes and his smart blazer and slacks uniform. I've often wondered what happened to him - I'm fairly certain he died.

At the top we were ushered through to the viewing deck. We were so high up, buildings which had looked massive from the ground were mere saplings in comparison. I felt like a bird. Actually, that's a lie, I didn't feel like anything because my brain just could get to grips with it. I walked the whole way around, looking through the floor to ceiling glass windows. The most amazing 360 you could imagine. I bought post cards from a young girl in the shop and then went into a cinema where you sat in seats that moved and watched a movie that flew you around the New York sky line. I can still see their faces, the girl in the shop, the attendants in the cinema - they probably had no option other than to jump - they got to fly for real!

And then we went outside and up to the very top. I was King of the World - the sky was quite literally the limit.

The next day, joined this time by Andy (Diane's husband), we explored Central Park - where I fed lemon bon bons to the squirrels (hence the present) and then watched them glueing their jaws together / burying them along with their nuts. It was a beautiful, sunny, calm September day full of rowing boats, ice creams, people playing chess and rollar blading.

We moved out to Long Island for the rest of the weekend.

On the Monday morning (Sept 10th), Diane and I got the train back into Manhattan, along with all the commuters. Lots of them were probably on their way to work in the World Trade Centre.

At 9am, exactly 24hrs before the planes flew into the Twin Towers, we were up the Empire State Building looking down town. I probably have some of the last pictures taken of the skyline with the towers before they were snuffed out for ever.

In the afternoon there was a dodgy moment in Central Park where Diane nearly got stuck in some toilets with a wierdo. But luckily I noticed that someone was lurking behind the door and managed to get her out without incident. At about 3pm there was a massive rain storm which immediately flooded the streets. Fire engines and police cars raced around with their sirens blaring. People huddled together under trees for shelter. I look back and think 'poor bastards, you just didn't have a clue what was coming'.

We were supposed to fly out late in the evening of Mon Sept 10th. As it happened, there was another massive storm which delayed our flight until the early hours of Tues Sept 11th. We were toally unaware of what was happening in the skies around us. It was only when we landed in Manchester and were met by Diane's parents.

'There's just been something on the news about a plane flying into the World Trade Centre'. It was all very vague.
'Don't be silly, we've just left it - it was fine.' But they insisted that something had been on the radio. So I imagined a small by plane which malfunctioned and flown into one of the towers by accident. Never did it even enter my head that there would be any damage.

As we got into the car, my phone started ringing - 'Are you back?' Next call 'Are you safe?' Call after call after call. We got back to Diane's and turned on the TV and sat there with our jaws on the floor, totally horrified by the scenes playing out in real time in front of us. We'd just had the weekend of our lives in a city that we loved. It was like we'd just made a new best friend. I couldn't believe what we were seeing - but my God, when they showed those pictures of the Towers, I could see what it looked like inside and I could see the faces of the people who I knew would be trapped at the top. It was horrendous.

I phoned my mum,
Mum, 'Hello love, did you have a good time, how was New York'.
Me, 'Mum, have you seen the TV?'
Mum, 'No'.
Me, 'Switch it on - and start phoning round the relatives to let them know I'm alright'.
Mum, 'Oh My God - I've got it on now'.
Me, 'Shit, shit - it's falling down, it's falling down - it can't fall down, it's a massive solid building, it can't fall down, it can't be falling down - it's full of people.' Sobbing, shaking, rocking.

We'd left Diane's husband in New York. He was still there and Diane couldn't track him down. He was thankfully fine and no where near the Towers, but with airspace closed it took him a few days to get back.

That weekend deeply affected both Diane and myself. On the one hand I felt guilty about feeling as upset as I did. After all I wasn't there and I didn't see anything. But I couldn't help it. It is a very personal memory that Diane and I share, from the most brilliant highs to the most devastating low.

Diane has been back to Ground Zero since.
Me - well Tris and I will be finishing our honeymoon in New York. We arrive on 13th Sept and stay for three nights. We'll just miss the tenth anniversary of 9/11 by a whisker, but that suits me just fine.


The next goodie out of the parcel was a FLOURESCENT BICYCLE CLIP....... What? Who? Why?

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