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Dispatches from London - A New Yorker's Recollections of September 11, 2011

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I am a New Yorker, but I was not there. I was not there when the planes hit. I was not there when the fires burned like Armageddon in my beloved city. I was not there when the precious towers fell to the ground burying loved ones beneath over a hundred floors of rubble. I was not there when my people let out a loud cry asking the heavens over and over again, "why?"

It was the summer of 2001 and I had just spent half of the summer studying and then taking the grueling two-day long, six-hour per day exam for prospective New York attorneys. After the exam, I wandered around Asia for some time with friends, but chose to spend my last weeks of leisure before I started work at a New York law firm in a city that I called my second home - London. I had only been in London for about a week when tragedy struck on September 11, 2001.

I was up and about on the day, carefree and wandering through various parts of London. That afternoon, I met up with a friend who informed me that the World Trade Center in New York had been bombed. I immediately told him that that was impossible. I was confidently skeptical of what he had said because I knew that security around the World Trade Center had been beefed up in 1993. I remembered 1993 vividly because I was caught underground in a train when the bombs went off back then and I was stuck on the train for what seemed like an eternity. I knew that getting into the World Trade Center was never the same after those bombings, so I thought, naively, it turns out, that the twin towers were subsequently impenetrable.

Soon we arrived at my friend's home and turned on the television. I was right, the security at the twin towers hadn't been breached, but what I saw on television was far worse than what happened in 1993. To my horror, I saw the twin towers on fire. I stood still and watched in disbelief, not blinking and eagerly waiting for the moment when the credits of the movie that I thought that I was watching would come up on screen. It really looked like a scene straight out of the movie, "Independence Day."

But it was not a movie! It took me only a few moments after my initial denial to realize what was actually taking place. The unimaginable had occurred.

Londoners were, at that point, afraid that there would also be an attack on their city. There were reports of planes in the air headed for London. My sense of security disappeared; my mind rapidly thinking of places to hide, but at the same time resigning myself to the possibility that we were all doomed. My mind raced and soon thoughts of self preservation disappeared when my mind focused on my family in New York. I immediately picked up the phone and started dialing numbers furiously, only to encounter busy signals time after time after time. It was heart wrenching. I tried to call everybody that I could think of, including relatives across the United States, but I could not get through to anyone. For six long hours, which seemed like an extremely agonizing eternity, I called and called and called, until finally I got through and found out that everyone was okay. I said a quick prayer of thanks to God and heaved a sigh of relief. On that horrible day I had thought that the world was coming to an end, but I had one moment of happiness when I found out that my family was alive and well.

It was beginning to get dark in London by the time I found out that my family was okay, but the city was unusually quiet since Londoners thought that their city could also be under attack at any moment. Flights over London were suspended. All night long I stayed awake, watching the news and seeing the twin towers fall over and over again. I asked myself if these could be the same buildings that I had visited many-a-time when I worked in downtown Manhattan. Could this tragedy have occurred in the same complex from whose underground subway station I had emerged practically every weekday on my way to work for two years before I went to law school? I could not fathom that the towers were no more. And the people! All those innocent people who worked in the towers! I could not imagine how many were caught unaware. The planes struck at the height of the morning rush hour. The devastation was immense.

With the attack on the twin towers, the Pentagon and the plane crash in rural Pennsylvania, I was sure and prepared that the United States would declare war on whoever was responsible, but I was unprepared for and shocked by the outpouring of support from the rest of the world.

The next day was Wednesday, and I ventured outside. Life seemed a little bit back to normal in central London, but what I discovered that day and in the days that followed was something that I will never forget.

On the street, I was approached by some random Londoner, who proceeded to ask me if everything was okay. I wondered whether I had done something to make the enquirer wonder whether there was something wrong with me. But then I realized that I had been standing still at the same spot talking to a friend on my cell phone and the Londoner had been standing next to me for a while and presuming my accent American, wanted to find out if my family and friends in the US were okay. I was completely shocked by this stranger's concern. It was completely unexpected, but most appreciated. I witnessed the same concern from other random strangers over the course of the rest of my stay in London.

Also hundreds of British citizens went to the American embassy in west London to express their sympathy to the American Ambassador to the UK, the closest representative of the American people that they could find. I was even more shocked to see flags posted at windows of private residences for all of the world to see. I was shocked because the flags were not symbols of the UK; they were flags with red and with stripes and white stars on blue backgrounds in the corners - they were replicas of the American flag.

I was sincerely touched by these gestures of kindness from the British people as I am sure all Americans were. In a way, the kindness of the British people made me feel safe despite world events.
As soon as I could return to New York, I went down to the financial district where the twin towers had been located, just to see for myself whether it was really true that the twin towers were no more. When I got there, I saw what looked like a war zone. The air was heavily polluted with debris and I could still smell the smoke and actually see particles from the buildings rising towards the sky. There were policemen everywhere and rubble where the twin towers once stood. All that remained of the once large and imposing Borders bookstore at the World Trade Center was the front wall which was lying at an angle on the ground, like a dying dinosaur, with the Borders sign still hanging from it. The stores on other streets that had not been crushed were thickly covered with dust inside and out, which made them look like they had not been touched for a hundred years. There were missing people posters all over the place! It was a terrible sight to behold. Some of the people that I saw walking the streets seemed to be in a holding pattern, like in a trance.

After that visit to the World Trade Center site in 2001, I did not venture again to that part of Manhattan until July 2003. By that time, all the rubble had been removed and the area had been walled off. People were still walking the streets, but none seemed like zombies anymore and most were not stopping to look or get a glimpse of what lay behind the walls; New Yorkers seemed to have grabbed on tightly to life and moved on. We had to move; we could not stand still paralyzed with fear and grief because we still had to earn a living and raise our children; we basically had to learn to live life to the fullest despite all that had taken place. Anything short of a return to normal would have handed the terrorists a victory. I am a New Yorker and I know that we are smarter and braver than that. We are resilient.

With the 10th Anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks upon us, my emotions are two-fold. I am overjoyed that my city has overcome and is overflowing with a zeal for life, but I am also sad about the people we lost, the loved ones who will always be missing from the dinner table, graduations, weddings and holidays. I am also sad that the innocence that we all once knew has been lost forever.