I will address the question of the day, especially as I have actually been asked more than once this week: Where were you on 9/11?
I was in Vancouver, about to film two back-to-back episodes for a series on women and their financial situations. The crew and I had just finished a three day shoot in a beautiful place called Christina Lake up in the mountains and had then driven down to Vancouver along some of Canada’s most scenic routes. I remember how grateful I felt to see such wondrous sights and to travel with such a great group of hard-working, dedicated people. We had, by then, logged many miles together, having crossed Canada from coast to coast in search of our stories, which we often found in small, out of the way communities that required sleeping in crappy motels and eating bad food. So we were excited to finally be in a big city where we were booked into a decent hotel and where we knew we would all be able to satisfy our craving for good, fresh food.
Filming days are traditionally very long so we always had a hearty breakfast. On September 11th I headed down to the hotel coffee shop around 7:00 a.m. With the time difference, the life-altering events on the east coast were already well under way. Our director of photography was already at the table and I noticed right away that he looked ashen. What’s wrong? I asked. He pointed to the tv above the counter, unable to speak.
My first reaction upon seeing a plane flying into a skyscraper was that this was some kind of joke. Like millions of people all over the world, my brain would not compute what my eyes were seeing. My stomach lurched as I realized it was not a joke. I took what I was looking at to be a terrible accident. I sat down and my colleague said a very bad swearword in French.
Other crew members started to trickle in. Nobody in the restaurant spoke above a whisper. We were still trying to get our heads around it all when the tv showed images of the tower being hit. Our collective numbness was suddenly replaced by fear for our loved ones. We started to think about people we knew who lived in New York and we all reached for our phones. I called my husband.
He reassured me that our children were safe, that he had already been in contact with their schools and that he himself was heading home to be with them. He sounded as incredulous as I felt. I was due to fly home the next day but it was already becoming clear that air space was being emptied and that all airports were shutting down.
Next, I called my Executive Producer who had family in New York. They were, mercifully, accounted for and safe. Going home the next day was going to be out of the question. He suggested that we just stay where we were and sit tight until things became clearer.
So my shell-shocked crew and I decided that we would go ahead with the work at hand. We proceeded to the house of our next subject which was high up in North Vancouver with an incredible view of the harbor. It was a brilliantly sunny fall day. I wondered how something so awful could be happening on such a nice day but then we focused on the task at hand. We needed to be doing something normal and familiar.
I remember nothing about the actual interview. I do remember, very clearly, that we all stayed very close and very quiet. That evening we huddled in our director’s room. We stopped watching the news and turned on a movie instead, just to get a reprieve from those awful images. We kept calling home to report that all flights had been cancelled and that we were stuck. We had philosophical discussions about the Middle East, about Palestine, about Islam, and the folly of our times. We did not yet know who was to blame for the attack.
Three days later Vancouver airport slowly came back to life and we headed there with the hope of getting home. I will never forget the sight of all those airplanes as we approached. Vancouver had been one of the first airports to receive American planes ordered to land; the tarmac looked like a giant parking lot.
Inside the terminal, the lineups were long but the chaos was organized. Airline employees were making the rounds and handing out bottled water to waiting passengers. Although we all wanted to get home, we also dreaded getting into an airplane and the mood was thus very somber. The thought of the thousands of victims made me tearful. I was not the only one to shed a quiet tear and it seemed normal to pat the back of a stranger.
In the end, my crew flew out on one plane while I ended up on another. I thus had a few hours on my own to contemplate the greatest tragedy of my lifetime, one that would forever change the way any of us travel. There can be no doubt that we are all more afraid of flying since that day and terribly irritated by the inconvenience of the ongoing security measures that are now imposed on us. The horror and absurdity of 9/11 filled every one of us with collective anger and grief and I wanted more than anything, that day flying home, to be with my children, even as I understood that nothing I could say or do would erase the dreadful images that were played relentlessly, over and over.
I think every generation has catastrophic moments that turn the tide of history. Those who witnessed the liberation of death camps after World War II, for instance were surely also marred by the images before them. The mass graves of thousands of Cambodians, the slaughter of innocent people anywhere, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq; even violent death by natural disasters like tsunamis or earthquakes, all are terrible events which the media brings into our homes over and over and over again .
I won’t be glued to my tv this weekend, watching images that are already imprinted in my mind. Instead, I will send positive thoughts to the families who suffered losses and hope that time has helped them heal.