Ten years have passed since September 11. I still tear up each time event of that fateful Tuesday morning is recounted on TV. I kept copies of the newspapers published days following that Sept morning. Newspaper pages filled with images of people running for their lives on the streets of New York. Cars, sidewalks and sky covered with thick soot, firefighters and first responders giving their lives to save others and perfect strangers helping each other to safety. It is very painful to watch still today and especially on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Sept 11.
I was not in the US that fateful morning. In fact I was in Singapore, tending to my brick and mortar store on Kandahar Street in the heart of Singapore’s Arab Street. Kandahar Street, what an unlucky co-incidence. I said to myself years later when I closed that shop. Popular with tourists and local expatriates who frequent curio shops looking for beautiful teak furniture and other local treasure troves. This section is of Old Singapore is dotted with beautifully restored colonial buildings, with its brightly painted windows and colorful facade.
It was Tuesday late evening in Asia; I was getting ready to close up the shop. The old beat-up hotel where I was staying had no reliable internet connection – I would log onto the internet via the modem in the shop to check my emails, read news and see how the US markets open before I left the shop for the day.
The CNN main page greeted me – a picture of the World Trade Center with a large plume of smoke streaking across the top section of the first Tower. The headline screamed the breaking news: A plane just struck the World Trade Center. Was this the trailer of another silly Hollywood movie? No, it can’t be, I said to myself. What has just happened? Did a drunken pilot fly his Boeing 747 into the World Trade Center? I refreshed the page in quick succession but the same image was staring at me each time. The world seemed to have stood in silence, gasping for air and in shock. It soon dawned on me that this must be something serious. It was not what I hoped it was – just a bad accident.
I picked up the shop phone and dialed a friend of mine in Los Angeles. Relieved that I got him on the other end of the line, I said “what just happened?” “I don’t know. A plane just hit the first Twin Tower.” He said. “There is a second plane approaching the second Tower. It is all over on TV. I don’t know what just happened”, he continued. I could hear the panic in his voice. I called my sister in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She told me an American Airliner has just hit the Pentagon and another had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. 20 long minutes had passed since the image of the first Twin Tower first appeared, there were now more images of both Towers collapsing onto the streets. Updates were coming in fast and furious on CNN. It was increasingly clear that US had been attacked and that terrorists had hijacked 4 planes and flown two into the World Trade Center and two others were intended for the State Capitol. One had hit the Pentagon – and the other crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The President had been notified. Oh my God. I buried my face in my hands. My mind was blank and numb.
I remember being online that might, staying on my dial-up modem intermittently for the next 3 hours. It was past midnight but I could not sleep. There was no cable news in the hotel where I was staying. I was wide awake, my mind was racing back and forth, I feared more horrific events in the days to come. I was due to fly back to California in a week. The dot com business I started in late 1999 had just received the very first large angel funding from a major retail giant in Asia. Now everything had become very fluid.
Over the course of the next few days in Asia, there was an eerie silence on the streets. Everyone stay clued to their TVs, and those in cafes clutched their morning newspapers – consuming every update and image that was printed. No one wanted to believe that there were people in this world capable of such a heinous act on humanity. Images and stories of people jumping to their death from the Twin Towers trying to escape the burning inferno filled the pages of every newspaper in this city state. It had become clear that many thousands had perished as the Twin Towers collapsed to the ground. Reports of casualties were coming from the third plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The shock felt by everyone was palpable. All incoming flights into the US had been suspended. My Northwest flight back to the US was not for another week. I was not sure if and when I would be able to get back to California to attend to business.
A few more days passed. Condolences and support poured in to the US from world leaders, and many people around the world. Everyone stood with America and vowed to catch these terrorists who had taken so many innocent lives. Life in the city state did not seem to return to normal. People tried to go about their daily lives, but there was something bothering them underneath. They seemed tentative. The reality had hit everyone; their world was now changed forever.
The flight moratorium was lifted on the 4th day. My fight originated from Kuala Lumpur where I had spent a week with my web design team. I flew into Singapore Changi International Airport from Kuala Lumpur on a connecting flight with one checked bag and a hand carry. While waiting to board my plane in the waiting lounge in Singapore, we were told we had to claim our checked luggage and they would be re-checked after re-inspection. Ground crew brought us our luggage – and security personnel with bomb sniffing dog inspected each piece of luggage. I was nervous flying on a plane after what had just happened. I told myself it is probably a lot safer flying a few days after Sept 11 than before as airport stepped up security many fold.
It was a Northwest flight, a Boeing 747 on what is a routine Asia turn-around. That flight had landed a few days ago and was on its return flight back to the US. There were some 20 passengers on board, 5 in economy and a full crew. Normally this flight would be packed from seat to seat. The air stewardess said it was nice to be able to finally get back to see their families and friends. They were looking forward to being on US soil again
We landed in LAX some 24 hours later, with a quick stopover in Tokyo. The Immigration counters were sparsely staffed, only a few stations were open and no one was waiting in line. Our flight was the only one that landed in the last few hours. The Immigration Officer who greeted me wanted to know what I was doing in Singapore. “Business” I said “Glad to be back”. I picked up my luggage, got into a cab, and headed home to Playa del Rey.
Many days later, I would find out that a friend of mine who was flying back to Los Angeles from Asia with her 70 year old mother on the fateful morning had their plane diverted to Oakland. They were not told the reason why it had to be diverted. As soon as the plane landed on the tarmac, away from the gate, the door swung open and security forces stormed into the plane. Telling everyone to sit tight, they searched the plane. Finally after a tense 30 minutes, terrified passengers were allowed to disembark. A bus carried them to the terminal where my friend immediately called her husband in San Diego to let him know what had just happened to them. He filled her in on the events that had unfolded in the hour leading up to their arrival. With no possibility of getting on a plane to San Diego due to the flight embargo, her husband got into his car and immediately left for Oakland. He was finally reunited with them after 20 hours on the road.
I did not lose any loved ones on Sept 11, but many did. My heart goes out to those who suffered firsthand: fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters whose lives have been changed forever. They say that with the passing of time, the pain goes away – I hope it will for many. My life has changed since Sept 11, directly and indirectly impacted by the events of Sept 11. The world that we know is no longer the same. We must come together and make this world a better place. We must not let the terrorists win.