Remembering 9/11

Today (11 September 2021) is the twentieth anniversary of the ‘9/11’ attacks. As with another recent post (All Accidents are Human Error), I have been inspired to write this post thanks to listening to the Take To The Sky Podcast. They have done a couple of podcasts recently in relation to 9/11 (on top of two that they have done previously that were apparently (I’ve not listened to these two yet) more specifically about the planes). In the first of these, Episode 73: Two Best Friends on Two Doomed Flights: A September 11th Story, which is probably one of the best tellings of a 9/11 story that I have ever come across, they encouraged listeners to write about their own 9/11 experiences. So that is what this post is.

Let us roll back to 2001. In August of that year, my wife and I travelled to the US. It was my first trip to the country. Having flown into Chicago, we transferred to Seattle (noting how lax security in the US was compared to most other countries I’d been). We then spent some time in Vancouver, went on a cruise around Alaska, then returned to Seattle, before returning to the UK via Chicago again. I remember one day in Seattle being approached by people wanting me to sign a petition about getting rid of then President George W. Bush. I don’t want to make this post political, discuss the reasons for 9/11, or what happened on the political or international stage as a consequence, and offer the previous sentences only as a bit of scene-setting.

Back in the UK, on 4 September, I attended a Japanese studies conference in Sheffield. One of the speakers was discussing Japan’s lack of nuclear weapons. In relation to this, I pointed out that Japan does have nuclear weapons – perhaps not in the sense of actual missiles (a theme that comes up in my novel Hijacking Japan), but putting nuclear material from one of their power stations in the back of a passenger plane and crashing it into a city would be a weapon. While there would be no mushroom cloud, there would be radiation. It would be a ‘dirty bomb’ as I believe the general terminology became. Unsurprisingly, when I saw the images on 9/11, one of the things that went through my mind was ‘what else was on those planes?’. Also, unsurprisingly, quite a few of those who were at the conference exactly one week earlier also got in touch with me on 11 September. I wonder whether the Yahoo account (which I had at the time) became monitored as a result!

A few days later, back in Cardiff, I remember reading a story with the headline ‘US issues Japan terror warning‘. As I often handled media enquiries as, on top of being Director of the Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre, I was also an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (‘Chatham House’) at this time, I was always trying to keep on top of news stories relating to Japan and naturally this one caught my eye. Here is some of the key text from that article:

The US embassy in Tokyo has warned American residents in Japan of a potential threat from “terrorist actions”.

The embassy said in a statement that it had unconfirmed reports that US military facilities or locations visited by military personnel could be targeted.

US embassy spokesman Patrick Linehan said the threat was “credible” but could not give further details.

But the BBC’s correspondent in Tokyo, Charles Scanlon, said that US officials speaking privately said they immediately suspected it was in connection with the Middle East.

The US said that the warning was issued under the “Lockerbie rule” under which it undertakes to share any such alerts with American citizens. The US has been blamed for not publicising security information which it received shortly before the bombing of a Pan American airliner over Scotland in 1988.

I have always been surprised that this story didn’t get more mention in the wakes of suggestions that the terrorist attack on 9/11 came as a surprise to the government, let alone the public. Yes, it was not Japan that was attacked, or indeed military personnel, but the story would appear to suggest that there was a suspicion that something could happen.

Anyway, as to 11 September itself, I was in Cardiff, but was going to be travelling to London in the afternoon to attend a Japan Society seminar that evening. As usual, I got my lunch and began to eat it at my desk in front of the computer. I checked the news and spotted a small story about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I didn’t think much of it (keep in mind that at this time I was doing research that would lead to my book Shinkansen and was not yet working on plane crashes). I assumed that it was a small plane (there had been at least one such previous accident).

By the time I was leaving the office I had spotted that a second plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I then left my office and began to walk down to Cardiff Central station. This walk took me though the city centre and I remember seeing crowds of people outside shops that had TVs. I went over to see what was happening and at that moment one of the towers came tumbling down. That was the moment that I knew that this story was much bigger than I could have possibly imagined only about an hour earlier.

But I didn’t stay and watch the images for long as I had a train to catch. Once on the train, I phoned my wife at her office (keep in mind that this is in a time before smartphones with good internet access). I asked her if she had heard the news. I forget the answer, but the news story that she was referring to was nothing on the scale of what I then started telling her about. Of course we had no real idea at the time what was going on or why. Despite the earlier news article that I mentioned, I remember even wondering whether environmental terrorists were involved. Others on the train, who hadn’t seen the news, and only hearing my side of what was going on, all looked shocked as they listened in on my conversation.

By the time the train got to London Paddington, there were signs everywhere saying that all flights to the USA were suspended – Paddington is where the Heathrow Express train can be taken from. I continued onto the seminar – the only detail of which I now remember being that we stood for a minute’s silence at the start of the event in respect of what was happening in the USA. After the seminar I returned back to Cardiff. I remember on the train, everyone, even amongst strangers, were talking about the attacks… I even remember one person suggesting that something similar could happen in Newport as we pulled into that station. I remember being puzzled by the level of hysteria.

At home, I watched the news to try to find out more about what was going on. I remember the terrifying images of the whole event – and particularly the sight of the people who chose to throw themselves out of the towers rather than be burnt in the towers themselves. But I also remember some pundit being interviewed and him saying that this was the end of people wanting to live and work in tall buildings. I remember thinking at the time how silly this sounded. People would forget. People would move on. Lessons would be learnt. More, and probably taller, skyscrapers would be built. I reflected on this again in a recent podcast interview that I did (to be discussed in another post).

In 2007, I started my research about the flight JL123 plane crash. 9/11 came up in a few places in my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan. One aspect that I discussed was how, at the time of writing the book, many of my students already had little personal memory of 9/11 (this part of the book was inspired by a discussion I used to have with my students when discussing Japanese history and how their experience and connection to events was different to mine, but how theirs would, in time, be different to future students). Now, 20 years on, I suspect that none do. This was an issue that was also touched on by Take To The Sky Podcast in their second episode this year to do with 9/11 – Episode 74: Korean Air Flight 85, which is also definitely worth listening to. In Dealing with Disaster in Japan, I also discussed the symbolic impact of 9/11 and how in a post 9/11 world the idea of shooting down a threatening passenger plane (also relevant in the case of Korean Air flight 85) is more understandable than it would have been in 1985 when JL123 was a potential threat to hundreds of lives on the ground.

There have continued to be some links between JL123 and 9/11 in my research – with examples being my article Developing a Model to Explain Modifications to Public Transportation Accident Memorials (which, when looking at existing literature on memorials, spoke about the mass of memorials for 9/11) and Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different? (which included the 9/11 related movies Flight 93, United 93, and World Trade Center).

Turning to memorials, I have been to the 9/11 Memorial in New York. I didn’t go in any of the museum, but I hope to do that another time. For now, I will end this post with some images from the memorial.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ellen says:

    This post brought some disparate ideas together in a good way. It was understated but the photos of the memorial have a sadness and peacefulness to them.

    Liked by 1 person

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