I know there isn’t much to add to a blogosphere that will be saturated with posts about the five-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist strike. Still, I thought I would share my experience of being an American in Europe that day.
Once or twice a year I visit Switzerland, which is where the members of my company’s global Internet team meet to discuss changes and enhancements to our web sites. It’s pretty cool, actually, because you end up in a meeting room at a U-shaped table with representatives from ten or fifteen other countries. Sort of like a mini version of the U.N. I’ve been making this trip for about six years now, and my understanding of global culture has increased dramatically because of it.
On September 11, 2001, at 3:46 PM, I was sitting at the U-shaped table when I received this email from a good friend of mine and co-worker here in Tulsa:
Have you seen the news? !!!
I wrote back:
Which news? About McCaffrey?
It was Tuesday, and the first weekend of NFL football had ended the previous night. My second round fantasy draft pick had gone down with a season-ending injury, and I honestly believed he was writing to tell me this. Then he responded with this message:
Multiple attacks on US targets.
I looked around the room. There was a training seminar going on; the trainer was an American who had come over to work in Switzerland for a couple of years. Everyone else was European. At that point I was the only person in the room that knew something was up. I didn’t know, however, what exactly “it” was. I immediately tried to hit an American news site, but my browser couldn’t make a connection with any site in the U.S. The BBC’s web site hadn’t yet reported any news.
I sat there, not listening anymore to the trainer, completely blind to something terrible happening in my home country. Then I received this email.
both world trade centers, and the pentegon
Then this one:
Hijacked aircraft crashed in to all three
Of course I was stunned. And I was also thankful that Scott, who knew I was overseas, was sending me these emails. He was my only link to the opening moments of that morning. At that point I was still the only person in the room who knew what was going on, and I didn’t know much.
His next message said:
It’s like a Clancy novel here. My wife is crying. Julie* is also. Julie’s father’s company is in the World trade center.
FAA cancels ALL AIR TRAFFIC!!!
I wrote to him:
I can’t get any news here. Keep sending me stuff. The Internet is completely bogged down.
And that’s when he sent me CNN’s first published report of the attacks. At that point it was believed that Camp David had also been hit. I shared the information with the other people in the room, and the training came to an abrupt halt. Everyone started using their laptops to try to get information, but even European sites were becoming clogged with traffic. Somehow, though, Scott’s messages kept coming through, probably because my company has a dedicated connection between its headquarters and the various countries in which it operates.
It’s difficult to describe how it felt to be 5000 miles away from home, receiving this information via email. I couldn’t just get up and leave. Where would I go? My friends and loved ones weren’t around. Back at my office in Tulsa, people were crowding around the television, and here I was sitting in a meeting room, waiting on more emails. At 4:40 PM I received this one:
2nd WTC collapses completely
At that point I had seen none of the news coverage that by now is burned into everyone’s minds. I couldn’t understand how the building had fell. I had stood atop the WTC only a few months before, and I couldn’t imagine how a plane had caused that massive building to collapse.
Meanwhile, the American who was conducting the training seminar became testy because everyone in the room was looking for news about the attacks and not participating in the training. This fellow is a little odd and not very in touch with his emotions. To his credit, he only had a limited amount of time to get his part of the seminar done, and no one was listening to him. But when he wouldn’t do it on his own, I told him to “shut the fuck up.” I don’t think I’d ever said that to anyone at work in my life, except in jest. But he did, in fact, shut up. Then I wrote this understated email to Scott:
It’s hard to concentrate on the PDB over here. I just snapped at Tim because he raised his voice telling us to stop talking about the bombing or leave.
I decided to leave and go back to my hotel, and at that point one of the European managers stepped in and canceled the rest of seminar that day. I went back to my hotel and turned on CNN International, got on the phone with my then-fiance, and couldn’t take my eyes off the nonstop coverage. At this point my memories become the same as everyone else who experienced the event via television. I was angry as hell and even a little scared. I wasn’t sure when I would be able to go home. Amazingly I flew back on my scheduled flight that Saturday, but what had been a half-empty plane on the way over was crammed full on the way back. I arrived at the Zurich airport three hours early and didn’t board for six hours. Then we sat on the tarmac for almost two hours while (I guess) all luggage was inspected. There were armed marshals on the plane. It was surreal. It was the longest plane ride of my life.
My experience is obviously different than someone who lost a loved one or friend in the attacks. People in New York have a very different perspective than many of us. But the one thing I can say about my experience in Europe is that the compassion showed by the people there was extraordinary. Political differences will always exist, and there will always be disagreements about the choices made by governments. But the individuals I know there care what happens to people in our country, in every country. And that made the experience just a little bit easier.
Note: I used the actual emails for this blog. I’ve never deleted them.
* Not her real name.