Let’s go to the top of the World Trade Center! I said.
No, we’ll be too tired, my traveling companion replied.
Have you ever been to the top? Come on, I whined, we’re staying right next door. Please. It’s going to be a clear night, maybe a full moon even and you can see the Statue of Liberty from the observation deck on top.
We’ll see if we feel like it after we land, she said.
It was September 3, 2001, and I was aboard Jet Blue en-route to New York, the first leg in my adventure to sail across the sea, thus moving to England to attend University, stretching beyond my comfort zone.
This meant giving up my career, leaving behind a supportive husband and caring family as well as my secure Sierra Madre home. I wasn’t too scared about the move, after all, everyone spoke English there and my hubby’s family would be available for me to visit in both England and Wales.
However, studying in a graduate program when I hadn’t been a full time student in more than twenty years, combined with taking a home equity line of credit to finance this wild ride of mine was scary - unnerving in fact. Little did I know our whole world was about to change forever and my concerns would soon be overshadowed by catastrophic events.
After landing in New York, we checked in to our hotel - The Marriott, number 3 World Trade Center, then headed next door for the amazing – yes amazing, sky-ride to the top. It was late so we just squeaked by as they were about to close. The elevator ticket man was young, handsome and friendly -he left an impression. (We wondered later, of course – did he make it? What if we’d been there the following week?)
I thought we’d feel chilly on the observation deck, it’s VERY high up, but was happy that the temperature was like Indian summer, balmy even. The sky was super clear, with twinned sparkly lights: the stars above twinkling as well as the lights of Manhattan below. Lady Liberty could be seen in the distance, under a bright moon, her beckoning torch lit up, creating patterns over the shimmering water.
September 4, 2001, we hailed a yellow cab and headed for the pier to set sail on the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2. The reason both Jet Blue and QE2 were chosen as modes of transport had less to do with glamour, and more to do with luggage allowance.
After all, I was moving abroad and had my summer and winter clothes, bulky jackets and boots, and skinny and not so skinny clothes. You gals understand this. I wasn’t going to buy a new wardrobe there (in pound sterling!) on my limited budget, preferring to save funds for short trips and theatre in-between semesters.
The airline and cruise line at the time had unlimited luggage allowance and I had SEVEN pieces!
As the ship’s horn blew and we sailed slowly away from one of the world’s greatest cities, I stood on the deck and took endless pictures (film, not digital) of the World Trade Center - clearly the star of the show. If you have never sailed in or out of New York, I cannot recommend it highly enough. For me, there was no greater ‘goose bumps’ moment than sailing past the Statue of Liberty, reminding me of our immigrant forefathers, their sacrifices, their patriotism.
Arriving in Southampton, U.K. on September 10, my hubby’s cousin was at the dock, gazing at the amount of luggage that we had to smash in his car for the drive to Wales, a four hour journey to the west. In the small village of Ammanford, we turned in our film at Boots the Chemist (drugstore)to be developed and headed to the hillside cottage of my father in law, known to us as “Dah”.
September 11th 2001 – Let’s go into town and pick up our pictures of New York and the ship! I said. She agreed.
So off we went to shop in the village with its pedestrianized cobbled streets, pubs, ‘fruit and veg’ stands, and meat pie shops. We were in an old fashioned store with uneven wooden floors and handmade candies in jars when two ladies with lilting Welsh accents mentioned something about a plane crashing into a building in New York City. That’s weird, I thought. After picking up the developed pictures, we headed back home.
Poppet, there’s some news on the radio about plane crashes in New York, Dah said.
Forget radio, let’s turn on the T.V., I replied.
We, along with the rest of the planet, looked in horror at live coverage of the hijackings and attacks.
Throughout the rest of the day it felt like we were trying to swim through jello – everything was moving in slow motion. Our brains did not want to accept what was happening and our hearts hurt unimaginably.
Some of my very first thoughts were: I was just on top of the World Trade Center, I am away from my American people and I want to help them, I do not want to be here. Forget the UK, University, my dreams. I want to go home. Now!
Being in the travel business, I thought of the tangled, difficult logistics of grounded flights and stranded people. I felt helpless watching while people were trapped in the World Trade center, rescue workers, civilians and tourists. Sobbing in disbelief while watching the television, it reminded me of War of the Worlds on the historic radio show – this is fake, not true – it was all a bad dream and we would wake up soon. My friend and I called our families in California, just to make sure they were ok, even though they were miles from the east coast.
Poppet, take this sleeping pill, I’m taking one too, Dah said.
He was a World War II veteran, an officer in the Royal Navy who witnessed carnage - but watching people fling themselves from a New York skyscraper live and in Technicolor was not in his repertoire of things he wanted to see in his retiring years. The images dredged up horrible memories of war and he had nightmares from them.
Later in the week, we took a train ride on the Heart of Wales line to Shrewsbury, England and visited an ancient Abbey, lighting candles in a makeshift shrine erected to honor the fallen, with the American and British flags side by side. Back in Ammanford, we shopped at a fabric store to fashion black arm bands and when we told the shopkeeper what the fabric was for, she insisted on not charging us.
Over the next few weeks, it was surreal living in London, attending university with young adults from many cultures. Most were sympathetic towards me, and as one of the few Americans, I appreciated their empathy. One snarky lad, who happened to be both Irish and Christian said to me the USA deserved this and had it coming to them. Another student was from Pakistan, a Muslim, she held me tight and said I am so very sorry that this horrible thing has happened. In the privacy of my room, I grieved. Living across the street from London’s largest Mosque was at times disconcerting, and later when the US invaded Afghanistan, students demonstrated outside my window.
Tourism took a nose dive and London’s West End theatres were half empty, as much of the audience came from abroad. Many shows had to close. I attended many productions in my free time for as little as £5.00 – about $8.00 dollars for a show that would cost at least $100.00.
Throughout the year, I studied hard and worked on my thesis at the British Library. My mother came to visit me twice, and I also enjoyed visits from my step mother and sister. These visits helped me through feelings of isolation. In their suitcases, they brought me a little familiarity and comfort from home, authentic Mexican tortillas, for example. (Contrary to some beliefs, food is very good in England, but good Mexican food hasn’t made it over there.) When my husband came to visit me, I booked him on Air New Zealand instead of American or United, I just couldn’t help feeling better that he was on a ‘neutral’ plane while we were ‘at war’. The year passed by and suddenly it was the first anniversary of 9/11/01.
Do not go to the ceremony at the American Embassy, Poppet, please, said Dah, pleading with me by phone on September 11, 2002.
It will be the safest place in London, Dah. I must go, I replied. I continued: I haven’t had the chance to be with MY fellow Americans for a year now. I want to honor the fallen. Security will be tight, you’ll see.
And boy was it.
The American Embassy in London occupies some of the most expensive real estate in Mayfair, called Grosvenor Square. Whole areas were cordoned off with police barricades. Many dignitaries were there including the American Consul General, members of Parliament and the press. A giant tent with photographs from ground zero was impressive and included a guest book to sign. The presentations were heart wrenching, especially when New York firefighters gave to British firefighters their country’s flag: a charred Union Jack salvaged from the wreckage of one of the buildings. An area of Grosvenor square was dedicated to the British citizens who died that day, their names in bronze. I thought I could hold it together and not weep - I was wrong, but not alone. A Welsh choir, all male and one hundred voices strong, from the very area that our cottage is located, broke into song: The Battle Hymn of the Republic!
I met a lot of my fellow citizens that day including former first lady Mrs. Carter. And I felt better having met and really connected with other Americans for the first time that year.
During this last decade, I’ve listened, watched, studied and wept over the many stories of 9/11/01. While the evil of that day is unspeakable and it blows my mind to ponder man’s inhumanity to mankind, I try instead to think about the many that day who were, and still are, compassionate, brave, strong, resilient. As many have said about those who lost their lives on that day, do not dwell on the tragic way they perished, but rather honor the heroic way that they lived.
Oh, and my photos that I had developed from Boots the Chemist on 9/11/01? At the cottage, I was hesitant as I opened the package during a necessary break from the TV and the horrible news. Hopeful that I captured a decent picture of the World Trade Center, I was disappointed that most of the photos were of the ship, and interior shots of the public rooms. Then I remembered that it was drizzling with rain outside when I was trying to photograph New York City and my camera was getting wet. I looked at each picture carefully. Then I saw it. A photograph of Manhattan’s skyscrapers – and as if it were outlined in sacred splendor- stands the World Trade Center, framed by a rainbow overhead.