Twenty years ago this Friday, I went out for a meal to celebrate my birthday with my family. My eighteen year old had graduated from high school that spring and was looking forward to starting college. My two other children had just started their new school year in 4th and 7th Grade.
We enjoyed a light-hearted and happy evening together.
The next morning the phone rang early. My default was oh no. A thud of dread. When you live in California and your relatives are in England, that ring at that hour will do that.
It was my mother-in-law calling from Los Angeles, panic high her voice.
‘Have you heard the news?’
‘Put CNN on, a plane’s crashed into the World Trade Centre.’
A what? Where? I’m not a morning person. Her words jumbled around my foggy brain.
It was a school morning, but with time to spare before rousing the children. I padded over to the living room, clicked the remote and turned on the TV.
Breaking news from New York flashed across the screen. A reporter was interviewing a firefighter, smoke and flames billowing in the distance. A plane had crashed into the North Tower. I barely had time to register this unimaginable disaster as what sounded like another plane in the background, the engine hum growing louder. It sounded low, too low. Something about it…something ominous. There, in full view on the screen, flying towards the South Tower.
My God, it’s going in…
One might be an accident. But two? Two is an attack.
My hands flew to my mouth. My audible gasp brought my children running. Their world, our world, forever changed. I sunk into the sofa, overcome by what next. And with wide-eyed horror we watched the unthinkable when one tower, then the other, collapsed.
The phone rang again. This time it was my mother calling to wish me a belated happy birthday, as arranged. It was afternoon in the UK, she had been out with a friend and hadn’t heard the news. I broke it to her.
Then I remembered; my brother worked for Virgin Airlines and was piloting a Boeing 747 from Gatwick in London to Orlando, Florida that day. Families with children heading excitedly to Disneyworld.
We figured he was probably half way there by then. Concern for his whereabouts and safety dominated our conversation.
We had no contact after that phone call for three days. Our phone lines and internet went down, I was cut off from them all. All I could do was hope and pray that my brother, his crew, and passengers were all safe.
When communication was restored, he called me and relayed his story.
He got the call from air traffic control not to enter US airspace under any circumstances. He was not told why, only that he should divert to Canada. He gleaned from London what had happened, and factoring in the amount of fuel they had left, made the immediate decision to turn the plane around and fly back to Gatwick.
Nobody knew what other attacks might be forthcoming. His primary concern was to get everyone safely back home. And that’s exactly what he did.
Turn off satellite communications on board and keep everyone calm, he instructed the crew. If passengers got wind of what was going on in New York, they might panic. Children cried and parents demanded an explanation, but a riot was averted,
Once back on British soil, he gave an announcement to his passengers. Relief and gratitude swept over them. Their holidays at Disneyworld would have to wait. It wasn’t important right now.
But that day took its toll on my brother. I saw a change in him, after 9/11.
I emigrated from the UK to the US in 1986. For many years, handwritten letters were my main form of communication with my family. There were no international calling plans, the internet, emails and face-time. Twenty years since 9/11 and my experience is meagre in comparison to the incalculable carnage and tragedy suffered by too many. Yet, those three days cut off from my family not having any news of my brother is something I’ll never forget.
It is always the not knowing that is the worst, I find.
The two decades I lived in California seem fleeting now. That birthday dinner was long ago, yet my children remember it clearly because of the day after. We all live in the UK now.
To say I am grateful spending my upcoming birthday with them is an understatement.
Sherri’s non-fiction, flash fiction and poetry are published in magazines, anthologies and online at her blog. As a young mum of three, she emigrated from the UK to California and stayed for twenty years. Today she lives in England’s West Country with her family and two beautiful black kitties. Her 2021 entry to Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize was shortlisted and also received a special mention at Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. She is working hard to bring her debut memoir to publication.