Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The August when I accidentally saved a bunch of people

Nine years ago today, I woke up in a Chicago hotel room, turned on the TV and saw a plane sticking out of a building I'd worked in, right there on the screen in front of me. 

I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression. I don't consider myself a World Trade Center survivor or someone who was especially close to the disaster, but it did touch the edges of my life and scare me half to death. I had been there, in that building, working, on several occasions over the summer months in 2001. When I woke up on that September morning, it wasn't 'some skyscraper in America' I was looking at. It was a place I knew. The first plane had hit just a few floors above where I'd stood and admired the view and told a colleague 'I want your office' and that very space was being engulfed by fire as I watched, and tried to work out which tower it was that had been hit, pretty sure I already knew. I remember moving around the room quite randomly, panicking, trying to decide what I needed to do. I needed to get in touch with home, that was for sure. My family knew I'd been working in the World Trade Center that summer. I'd mentioned it specifically when talking to my sister about her fear of lifts. Even though I was in Chicago at the time, they also knew I travelled round a lot and that I didn't always keep them totally updated as to exactly where I was. I guess that, for all anyone knew, Chicago could have been next on the list. There certainly are a lot of tall buildings there if you were that way inclined. So I needed to get in touch with my family, and I needed to get in touch with the office and I needed to get there, actually, to physically be at my office (even though I had recently left my job) and be with the people in America I was closest to, my friends Tim and Rebekah. 

My first challenge was contacting home. This was before the days when you could use your mobile phone anywhere in the world. In fact, back in 2001 you could pretty much use your phone anywhere in the world except America. Mine had worked when I'd gone to Africa for a fortnight but, aside from a ten minute interlude in New York where I caught the edge of a GPS signal, it was a useless piece of plastic everywhere in the states. I'd never got round to getting one of the brick-like American 'cell' phones that made me laugh. I was staying in a hotel room as I'd recently left my job and the apartment they'd supplied with it and the phone there was good only for local calls. When I tried to ring my mum, it wasn't having any of it. A payphone then. Hmm.. Well, anyone who's ever tried to use a payphone to ring internationally in America knows how that works out. It doesn't. There are no dollar coins and you just can't put enough quarters in. I walked around Lincoln Park and tried one after another, getting nowhere. 

I did manage to ring Rebekah. The news wasn't good. Most of our colleagues were accounted for but there were two people nobody could reach. I remember telling her that they'd be found. I could almost hear her biting her lip down the phone line as she said 'I'm not sure they will.' Something inside me was insistent about it, though. I don't know looking back if it was some kind of foresight or just sheer bloody mindedness. Perhaps it was wishful thinking because both people were colleagues I'd liked and respected. I was adamant, though, despite their office being on 86th floor. They will be found. 

I decided to make my way to our Evanston office where my friends were, and where I might be able to get inside and make a phonecall. For a moment I wondered if travelling anywhere was the right thing to do. The news anchors were very clear that everyone should stay in their homes. But I would be travelling away from the centre of Chicago so surely that made sense? It was before the London tube bombings so that the idea of something happening on a train or the El did not even cross my mind. I needed to contact home and find my friends. Of course, the office was in a tower block so that, when I got there, no one was allowed in anyway. 

I had to get in touch with home. Would anyone think to check their email? It was worth a shot. I managed to find an internet cafe and send a message and prayed that someone would get it. The cafe had a huge TV and you can guess what the live pictures were that were coming through. It was there that I saw the towers fall, one after another. It felt like the world was ending. 

Finally, I found my friends Tim and Rebekah and we were able to spend some time together and talk about what was going on. Someone had got hold of some weed and we smoked it in a public park. It seemed a valid reaction at the time. There had been a miracle. The two 'missing' colleagues had been located. Despite their 86th floor location, no one we knew had died. It sounds silly looking back but, at the time, it felt almost as if I had willed it to be true. I know I had believed it when I told Rebekah they'd be okay. Under the circumstances, I don't know where that belief had come from. It was an amazing story. Bill Trinkle was on his way to a client site that morning, where he arrived to cheering and applause. He was an early starter and someone everyone was sure would be in the building. Judy, the receptionist, was in the lobby on her way up to work as the plane hit and was able to get out quickly. The New York office manager had fortunately decided to take his holiday that week. There was no management around and morale at the company was pretty low at the time so that no one else had quite made it in to work yet that day. There'd been some really horrible political stuff going on and lots of redundancies. It hadn't been pleasant at the time but now, we were all glad of it. 

And I'd had a part to play in all this too. My friend Tim pointed out that I'd probably (entirely unwittingly) saved a whole bunch of my colleagues. It all revolved around that political stuff. There'd been a new president of the company brought in by one of the shareholders. This was a German guy who'd had quite a high profile in the industry in one way and another. It had been this guy who had brought me over from London to help him sort out the business and make some difficult decisions. But things hadn't gone well. Shareholder support had turned against him and his position was in jeopardy. We had a conversation one warm evening in August. He was on his way back from a long meeting at the office, I was on my way back from the bar I'd been drinking at with my friends and we collided in an alleyway near our apartment block. He told me they were planning to move him aside; that they'd offered him a job managing the New York office. He was trying to decide whether to take it or not. I knew straight away what I thought about this. I told him he should resign. It was about pride, in the end, I said. He nodded his head and went away to think about it. The next day, he did resign. He told my friend Tim that the conversation he'd had with me had been a big factor in his decision - that he'd been seriously considering accepting the job but that as soon as he heard me say this, he knew I was right. 

If my boss had taken the job in New York, everything would have been different. He had a European banking mentality. That meant early starts and long hours. He would have almost certainly have been in his office that morning. And it's a bit like Bagpuss. If the manager is awake, all the others make sure they get there and sing like the mice on the mice organ. I suspect that most of my New York colleagues would have been there too. I'm not claiming any credit for saving their lives. It was a lucky accident. It did make me think, though. How every action, every tiny thing we do has the potential to have a huge effect on the people we know and ones we don’t as well. I just said what I thought. I can't envisage ever saying anything different in that situation. But if I had, the world would be totally different now to what it was like then. I might even have ended up in New York that day myself. 

I often wonder about those crazy times in the autumn of 2001. I wonder how much we knew, somewhere, deep inside us about what was about to happen. It’s one of the times in my life that makes me consider the boundaries between past and future, and how solid they really are. I'd been keeping a journal, not something I generally do, and my entries from the few days before are strange. They talk about restlessness and strange atmospheres, the feeling of bad things on their way. They talk about changing my life. I'd had a good friend Kevin from England visit me the week before. He left the day before the attacks. He spent the entire time in Chicago telling me how scary the skyscrapers were and refusing to go up any of them. I remember laughing and telling him he should see the view from the World Trade Center. And I think of another story too, a writer I know whose first novel came out the year before mine did with the same publisher. His was about terrorist attacks in London. Its date of release? The 7th July 2005. 

My memories of the World Trade Center itself are so tied up in what happened to it next that it’s impossible to separate the two. There was a tight security system that meant you needed to show your passport and have your photo taken before you were allowed in as a visitor, a system that never could have foreseen or done a thing about the attack that finally happened. I can still picture the lobby and the coffee shops downstairs, the doors and windows and desks and chairs and papers that I wrote on and left there, all up on the 86th floor. 

Most of all I remember the people I got the lifts with. The people who worked above the 70th floor and who got the express ‘elevator’ first, before having to find the right lift to take them onward depending where exactly they worked. The people who probably died that day. I especially remember the first time I visited the building, when I stood around looking confused about where to go next as I got out on the 70th floor and a really kind man noticed and helped me out. I always wonder what happened to him. I hope he survived but, in my heart, just as sure as I was that Bill and Judy would be found, I'm certain that he wasn't so lucky. And he was kind to me. Needlessly kind, with no agenda, except that he could see that someone was lost. It's too sad to think about. 

I used to think that what happened that day changed my life but, when I look back now, I wonder if it did. I was already changing my life. I was writing loads and had been looking into MA courses with serious intent. It perhaps propelled me faster in that direction but whether it truly changed anything I did is another matter. I know I went back to London and thought about getting another job in banking, but never quite got round to it. I went back to teaching instead, and then to Nottingham, to do an MA in Writing but also to my family. And I wonder about that decision because I remember the feeling I got that day nine years ago, a sense of everyone going home. Everything closed in and everyone reached out for the people they loved, getting there anyway they could, car, bus, train, feet. It wasn't as easy as that for me with airspace closed but it's interesting that, in the end, I found my way home too. I think that probably is significant but it's so hard to tell. 

It's taken me nine years to write about this. Looking back now, it's hard to separate the way it felt then from the hazy glow of nostalgia that settles over it now. I've seen Bill Trinkle since and some of the other people from the New York office. They seemed happy. Super relaxed. I suspect that it did change their lives. But it's hard to remember how it really was that day, those few weeks before. Every interaction seems filled with meaning, every decision as important as Hell. I knew Bill and Judy would be all right. My sister just had a feeling about checking her email because I might try to get in touch that way. I'd been so certain that my boss shouldn't go to New York that the moment I told him so felt almost supernatural. But is that how it was? 

I don’t know. All I know is how sad it still makes me when I think of all those people in my lift. 


Sue Guiney said...

Growing up in America, there were a few "Where Were You When" moments in history that became part of our lives. One was Kennedy's assassination, then Martin Luther King's. And also for some, the death of Elvis. 9/11 is now another one of those. I was in London, in the waiting room of my eye doctor. He came to collect me, but he looked weirdly ashen. I heard the news from him, and he said "I'm so sorry for your loss" knowing I was American and knowing that this could well be personal. I was lucky. I knew people involved, but no one who died. Thanks for posting this.

Ms A said...

Yes it's definitely one of those moments. Like when Princess Diana died too. For that one, I was in Ecuador about to go white water rafting. I wasn't totally convinced it was true until I got home and saw the flowers outside Kensington Palace.

Unknown said...

Hi Nicola, bit mad that.I've been through a lot personally but a shared experience as momentous as the 'twin towers' just seems too big to absorb? What really gets me is the randomness of it all; you know the 'ifs','buts','wrong place, wrong time.' Life is very fragile indeed.