Back in 2001 I worked at a small television production company – so small that, were it founded in these moustachioed and rhubarb-soda’d times, people would call it “boutique” or even “artisinal.” We specialized in hour-long documentaries about the survivors of the biggest atrocities that the twentieth century could hurl at an unsuspecting citizen: the Holocaust, the invasion of Poland, the apocalyptic refresh of Cambodia into Kampuchea, the rape of Nanking, the Holocaust (again), the repeated historical insults visited on the Roma – you get the idea.
My job was to select and order historical stills and footage. I quickly grew accustomed to sitting down with a stack of VHS tapes from footage houses and watching old newsreels with images of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor waving at crowds, followed by Dutch fields of tulips, then wave after wave of planes disgorging bombs over central Europe. It all blurred together into one long spectacle of scratchy film shots, dramatic titles and distant explosions. Even the Vietnam-era footage dissolved into one endless hike through scrubby jungle, punctuated by an occasional corpse. It was a pretty great job, actually.
On the morning of September 11 I walked into work around 9:00 and picked up the phone immediately. I’d spent the previous week going over footage of the British being booted out of Singapore, and now I had to contact the stock footage houses, almost all of which were located in Manhattan and just waiting to charge us their atrocious licensing fees.
I called. Nothing. No ringing phone, no busy signal, no ‘all of our circuits are busy’ message. Just a fat silence on the other end, as if my phone had been unplugged.
I tried another New York contact. Nothing.
“Is something wrong with the phones? I can’t get ITN or Getty to pick up.”
My boss appeared from around the half-wall. For a man who matched my height but outweighed me by at least 100 pounds, he could move with amazing speed and determination. He would just sort of vanish from one spot and reappear in another.
“Are you trying to phone Manhattan, Aidan? Are you seriously – trying – to phone someone in Manhattan right now?”
My boss delivered most of his information in a series of heavily emphasized rhetorical questions (“Are you bringing coffee? To the office? When you can just make some here”?).
“Yes. Yes I am?”
“Manhattan is on fire right now, Aidan. It’s on fire. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
I did not.
“The World Trade Center has been hit by planes. Don’t you know that?”
I realized that our office was completely empty. Somehow I’d missed the news that morning.
A few weeks later I managed to reach one of my contacts in Manhattan. His apartment lay within blocks of the World Trade Center plaza. When he returned to his place after a week’s absence, he discovered a layer of ash coating every surface. He’d left a window open.