Andrew Vine: A grip of despair, the dust of death... and a perilous road towards an uncertain future

Photographs of missing firefighters at a makeshift memorial in New York a week after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.   Picture: Stuart Ramson/AP
Photographs of missing firefighters at a makeshift memorial in New York a week after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Picture: Stuart Ramson/AP
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I NEVER found out what her name was, but I shall never forget her, nor even how helpless I felt or how I could not find the words to break through. Her eyes were wide, unblinking, full of desperation and the dawning certainty of what she was trying to push away.

She gripped my forearm with the same compulsion as she held my gaze. Her turmoil had given her manic strength and try as I might, I could not pull away. The next morning, the imprint of her fingers was there as a bruise.

“Have you seen him? Have you seen him?”, she demanded over and over again, her voice rising until it cracked, as she shoved a photocopied photograph in my face of a man probably about 30, with dark wavy hair and a broad grin.

Life had been the best it could be when it was taken, because she was in the picture too, and they were plainly in love, an attractive couple with everything before them and every reason to believe the world was theirs. The intertwined fingers, the engagement ring, the touching shoulders as they leaned in towards each other, the unforced joy of the smiles told their story. Now, though, she was too lost in her own private hell to even tell me what her name was, or for that matter, his. “Have you seen him? Have you seen him?” Only that.

As suddenly as she had appeared out of the crowds gathered in Union Square, where, around the statue of George Washington, as darkness fell they came to light candles, to pray, to talk, to comfort each other, she was gone. She released her grip, and turned away, asking her question of everybody in her path, showing her picture, never getting the answer she needed.

It was four days after September 11 2001, and New York shared her shock and disbelief. A brief spike of hope two days before, when a survivor had, against all the odds, been pulled from the obscene wasteland that had been the World Trade Center, brought as much sadness as gladness.

That battered woman extracted with the utmost tenderness and care was the last soul to emerge alive, and the city instinctively knew there would be no more.

All that was left of the Twin Towers – those bold, brash, even vulgar monuments to America’s economic might – was a giant, jagged fragment of steel girders, which looked for all the world like a hand reaching upwards beseeching help. Every breath within a mile or two of where it had happened was a reminder of the horror that had descended out of the sort of clear blue sky that makes it feel good to be alive.

An acrid stench, propelled by the fires that raged below the surface crust of debris, caught and stuck at the back of the throat. Drinking water, coffee, beer, bourbon, or anything else, would not wash it away; nothing worked except distance and coughing and coughing and gargling and hawking and spitting until it was gone. Underfoot, the ground was carpeted with inches of grey dust, which turned to a thick, slimy, sticky sludge when the city’s street-cleaners turned hoses on it to try to swill it into the drains. The only way to shift it was to scrape and shovel.

The dust gnawed at the mind, an omnipresent reminder of the fate of what turned out to be more than 1,700 people who had simply and totally vanished, like the man in the photograph. It coated cars parked by people who would never return to drive home in them, and few trod the streets where it laid thickest like a layer of grubby snow, because of what each gritty, crunching footstep represented.

The hospitals that had braced themselves for a deluge of casualties waited in vain, and gradually stood down all those who had rushed in from leave or shifts just finished to help. Relatively few had come, on foot or in ambulances. There was nobody to come out of the towers; they had been pulverised along with the concrete, steel, furniture and paraphernalia of everyday life, blown out in a great grey-black cloud that settled on the pavements and roads and gutters. Tiny, unidentifiable fragments of lives clung to the soles of the shoes, and the thought of it was nauseating.

That blasted, nightmarish landscape and the acts of evil that wrought it seared their way into the minds of everybody who saw them, whether in person, or on the television, never-to-be-forgotten scenes of unimaginable cruelty that even now, a decade on, retain an awful immediacy. I still break out in a sweat when I see the footage, still brace myself and squirm.

The mind recoiled then, and still does, at the plight of those caught in the towers, at the fear, despair and anguish of those who jumped. Ten years before, on a bright and clear September morning very like that one, I had stood on the viewing platform of the south tower for the first time, at something over 1,350ft, a quarter of a mile up.

It was awe-inspiring and made the head reel. As the towers burned, that memory returned and with it the certainty that, at least for those on the floors above where the planes had hit, there could be no escape.

Other tragedies were being played out, largely beyond the scrutiny of cameras – the airliner crashed into the Pentagon, the struggle aboard United Airlines 93 before it nose-dived into a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the bravery of passengers who took on the hijackers and prevented them targeting Washington DC.

But it was New York that defined it, rolling news in which presenters found themselves lost for words showing us that the world was changing before our eyes. We did not need their commentaries; our instincts told us that everything was suddenly different, more menacing, that a murderous hatred of us simply for being Westerners could be burning within the next person in the queue or in the adjoining seat.

This was not war, but a clash of ideologies, fundamentalism versus freedom, with the deadly added twist that on one side negotiation and compromise were not options; subjugation or nothing was the mantra of those who flew the planes and those who had cynically perverted religious conviction in the service of slaughter for its own sake. “The history of the great events of this world is scarcely more than the history of crimes,” wrote Voltaire, and the crimes of September 11 have spawned a grim recent history of fear, violence and uncertainty.

Four ostensibly ordinary young men from West Yorkshire followed the warped and bloody example of the hijackers in bringing murder to London in 2005, war continues to rage in Afghanistan, and the scars of Iraq have hardly begun to heal.

Tomorrow, countless millions of us will remember and reflect on what happened, its sheer nihilistic cruelty, its hapless victims, people simply going to work, the firefighters and police officers who gave their lives in trying to help, even an excited two-year-old girl on a flight to Disneyland with her parents.

There were many more victims beyond those who died; those who grieved, like that young woman in Union Square, also had their lives blown apart that day. I wonder sometimes what became of her, if she ever found some way to come to terms with her loss, if tomorrow she will look at her photograph, or if that would be too much to bear.

September 11 transformed her life as it surely transformed ours. That day remains the prism through which all of us are forced to view our world, the moment that continues to define the still-young 21st century.

Ten years have passed, but we are still nearer the start of the perilous journey that began that dreadful morning than its end.