Saturday, September 10, 2011


Ten years ago, and I remember it as clear as day. And I'm not American, and live on the other side of the globe.

I was at work. It was shortly past 9pm in Singapore. By that time of the night, I had already finished my work, and I was idly scanning the newswire service. The regular copytaster was off that day. I saw a little newsflash that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. That first single-line newsflash suggested that it was a light plane.

At that time, nobody had any idea it was a jet. I had thought it was a small plane because some years before, there was a prankster who landed a light craft in Moscow's Red Square, just for the hell of it. And I used to play a game that a friend had on his computer, which was an aircraft flying simulator where you could pick a skyline of whatever city you wanted to soar about in. I used to pick the New York City skyline and made it the object of my game to try and fly my plane between the World Trade Center towers. And I thought that was what happened. Someone probably tried to do that and ended up crashing into the tower.

I told the night editor about the newsflash, and he wearily said to put it as a short one or two paragraph filler in an inside page, which would involve minimum rejigging of pages that had already been done. This was the same man who once famously banned stories of train crashes in his native India because it happened too often to be news.

And then live coverage spluttered on the TV. And crescendoed into an unending torrent. Not just New York, but also the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. There wasn't so much horror when we saw footage of the second plane crashing into the tower as disbelief. It didn't feel real. It felt like we were watching a Hollywood disaster movie. I don't know if it was because news people feel no emotion when covering disasters because you snap into a somewhat detached business-like mode of 'How many dead? How many wounded? Is this picture too gruesome to use in print?'

I think the detachment was the effect of watching a disaster unfold on a screen -- you're wired to think that it's not real, it's a Michael Bay movie, and that after a couple of hours, the lights will come back on and life will become normal again.

It was with that sense of disbelief that I typed an e-mail to a dog e-group I belong to, all dog people and friends, and all American. "What on earth is going on in the US?" And their replies slowly came back, all stunned and shell-shocked as I.

And it didn't help when you keep watching a loop of the second plane crashing into the tower, like it's some kind of instant replay. I remember it got too much for me, so I went out of the newsroom to get away from it and to clear my head. I very probably lit a cigarette at this point. At the carpark, I ran into the copytaster who was on her day off. She got into her car and started driving back to the office as soon as she saw the TV news.

By the end of the night, that one-par filler became the front page, back page and several inside pages. I usually got home at midnight then. That night, I got home at 5am. My father, who usually went to bed at midnight, was still up, and had just turned off the TV. "Horrible, terrible," he said to me as he went upstairs to bed. And he's a man not given to saying very much.

The next day, a New York resident in my e-group forwarded an e-mail from the father of one of her students, a first-person account of how he walked down from his office in one of the two towers. Later, when the NYT wire service picked up his story, I recognised his name. Suddenly, picking through news wires wasn't impersonal detachment any more. These were friends of friends. It was a friend's friend who walked down a World Trade Center tower. Over the next 10 years, it would be a friend's nephew who was posted to Iraq. And so the web of connection slowly crept out and grew, and drew us closer than six degrees of separation.

I wasn't supposed to be working tomorrow, Sept 11. I thought I would be spending it at home, watching all the 9/11 programmes, docu-dramas and analyses on TV. There's been an unending row of trailers for them. I was pretty sure that it didn't matter what station I was tuned to, at any given time, some channel would have a 9/11 programme airing.

I wasn't sure that I wanted to watch another loop of that plane flying into the tower. So I was somewhat relieved when a supervisor asked if I could work the Sunday shift because we were short-handed. It would at least get me away from the TV. But it won't get me away from the news wires. Come 9pm, I don't know if I want to be doing what I did 10 years ago.

Now, 10 years on, the lights have come back on. But life was never normal again.


The Cat's Whiskers said...

Beautifully-written. You are such a good writer!

Milly said...

During the actual events of 9/11 in 2001 I was riveted to the TV. This year, I found I couldn't watch the commemoration. It was just too sad. I read, I watch some DVR, and we went to the movies instead. I remember . . . for me this year, that was simply enough.