September 11: ten years on

Just ten minutes’ silence.  Just ten minutes to remember all the people killed and injured that day – and in these years that have come from it. But it brought people to stand by Oxford’s Peace Plaque in Bonn Square – Christians and Muslims, Jews and Baha’i’s, Buddhists, Quakers and people of no particular faith community, Trades Unionists, the passers-by who wondered what we were doing standing there so silently and decided to join us, the jive group who, because they too wished to remember, stopped the demonstration they were giving, the police – all of us just quietly standing together to remember those who had perished on that day in September 2001 in the plane crashes in the Twin Towers, New York, the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania….

Our silence was bracketed by the single sound of a bell, rung by Bede Gerrard, Chair of Oxford Council of Faiths which had organised the occasion, as he stood with Imam Monawar Hussain and Dr Ramzy, a member of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, Seraphim Vanttinen Newton, an Orthodox priest, and Memory Tapfumaneyi, Pastor of Oxford’s Living Word Fellowship Church. And those few minutes of quiet were followed by a reflection from Dr Ramzy, and the singing by a group from Pastor Memory’s congregation, who had used the time as a beginning to their service in Bonn Square Baptist Church.

As we stood there in silence for those ten minutes – one minute for each of the ten years which have passed since that day – what was I thinking? About those pictures, which once seen on our televisions we will inevitably never forget: the plane as it crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre in some hideous accident; the realisation and horror as a second plane came slamming into the North Tower that the first crash had been no accident; the buildings in flames; the people faced with certain death since their offices were above the floors through which the planes had hurtled; the firemen steadfastly and simply going forward to get on with their everyday work; the complete sense of disbelief as the towers were felled as neatly as if by a planned demolition; the people running through the dust that clogged their lungs, and the confetti of minute pieces of papers from offices; the buildings’ skeletons; and that immense, immense pile of rubble….

There were the sounds to remember too. Those of the day: the second plane crashing into the North Tower, the fire engines as they attempted to reach the scene; the yells and the screams; the gasps of horror as the towers, unbelievably, just disappeared; the spur-of-the-moment interviews with those trying to reach home and safety. And then the stories that came to us: the cafe owner who’d snatched two men off the street just before the massive cloud of dust enveloped them; the office manager who had doggedly held weekly ‘fire drills’ for his staff to ensure they thoroughly knew the way to the stairwells which would lead them out of the building – this real ‘nuisance of an exercise’ saved the lives of every single one of his staff, while their last remembrance of him was seeing him going up to the offices above to try and persuade others there to leave the building; the sister whose husband worked at the Pentagon but both of them out of touch for a fortnight (only then knowing that they had been safe, but unaware of the tragedy, in the wilds of Colorado); the nearly 100 search and rescue animals, helping – for up to eleven days – to scour Ground Zero for anyone trapped alive in the rubble, working alongside countless emergency service workers and members of the public; the people who should have been on one of the planes….

My own ‘sights and sounds of that day’ now include those of the television programmes of these ten years on: the US government and security services, as one news report after the next came in, frantically trying to deal with an emergency beyond anyone’s wildest surmise or planning; the firemen’s stories and those of the triage crews; the Downtown hospital whose plastic surgeon suddenly found himself pressed into service in the Emergency Rooms; the ferries moving casualties to New Jersey hospitals, nearer to Downtown hospital than those of Manhattan; and the words of those so suddenly bereaved and bereft.
A real jumble of sights and sounds. But I know that I am fortunate with only these to remember – others will also have the smells, the taste, the touch, their tearing grief – and the nightmares that still continue to haunt their lives.
Standing with me by the Peace Plaque in Bonn Square each had their own memories of 9/11 – and now have one more to add: of the Christians and Muslims, Jews and Baha’i’s, Buddhists, Quakers and people of no particular faith community, who stood alongside us united in our profound few minutes of memorial.

These are just a few of my scattered thoughts as I stood near the Peace Plaque, but you will have your own as, wherever you were this year, you remembered – far away in distance, but near in heart and prayer to all that began that day ten years ago, 9/11.

Jenny Gerrard