The Opinionated

When the World Changed Forever

20 years on from the terror attacks which changed the world, September 11th will live with us forever thanks to the heroics of the ones we lost.

SEPTEMBER 11th, 2021

© Getty Images


here is a clear blue sky across New York. So clear, in fact, that meteorologists declare the day a rare “severe clear” - a term used to describe the absence of any cloud formation whatsoever. The date is September 11th, 2001; a date which on this morning imbued no importance, no element of history or horror. It was, for a nanosecond a simple date, labelling a simple day, at what was a simple time. At 8:46 a.m, simplicity faded beneath the deep gray clouds billowing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center - the aftermath of American Airlines Flight 11 colliding with the tower. From that point on humanity watched with despair as the most destructive terrorist attack the world had ever seen unfolded before our eyes. From that point on, the world would never be the same.

9/11 - as that day has become known - is a moment in history that elevates above all else. It was, and remains a day of horror, helplessness, heroism and sacrifice; a desolate reminder of the cruelty of hate and the hopeful promise of kindness and community. The countless images of the Twin Towers, smoke billowing from the steel structures, filling the sky with gray smoke as papers float against the still breeze are burned into the psyche of all those who watched that day unfold.

20 Years On: Two beams of light mark the location of the Twin Towers - © Reed Gallery

In 2001, I had just made it home from school - 10 years old - and watching the TV screen in our kitchen broadcast live footage from New York, the footage of the carnage didn’t seem real - in a way it still doesn’t now. It resembled a disaster movie, so unbelievable that such devastation had to be scripted - events like this didn’t occur in real life. Yet there it was, the World Trade Center ablaze after two planes struck each tower minutes apart.

I, as did the rest of the world, watched in abject silence, unable to find the words for such brutal and visceral destruction. No one in my household said a word as the events continued to spiral out of control. All you could do was sit, watch, and pray for the thousands of people in those burning towers.

Throughout the day there are the moments we all remember seared so clearly onto the fabric of our minds. The planes striking the towers, people waving for help from the opened windows, the Pentagon in Washington D.C. being struck by American Airlines Flight 77, the downing of United 93 in Pennsylvania, then the people jumping from the Towers. And finally, in a cataclysmic crescendo of terror the South Tower collapsing, swiftly followed by the North - the solemn and silent image of the Tower’s spire plummeting into the cascading storm of monstrous smoke.

As we watched the aesthetic of 9/11 unravel - the debris, the fire, the smoke and screams, it was the cost of human life which took all our breaths away. 2,996 were lost in an instant, a monumental loss of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, friends. It is a grief which remains, perhaps on this particular day more than most.

FDNY's Ladder 118 lost all crewmembers on 9/11. Their fire truck is seen at the bottom of this image. - © AP

It is 20 years since the attacks, and for the families who lost loved ones, the people who stood beneath the shadow of those towers, disbelief etched into every facet of their expressions, the emotions will still feel as raw as they did in 2001. But so does the heroism of those who ran towards those towers, whilst urging others to run away. The police officers who guided those injured and hurt to safety. The paramedics, who despite facing the endless unimaginable casualties of those who had escaped, continued onwards without a thought for themselves. And the countless Fire Officers who scaled the 110 floors desperately trying to save as many as they could, refusing to leave, holding onto the hope that more could be rescued.

Their sacrifice has shone brightly throughout two decades, and one picture perhaps defines the immeasurable risk they placed themselves in on that fateful day more than any other. It isn’t a visceral image highlighting the carnage and chaos of the day. If anything, it is the opposite - a simple backdrop of New York, the towering skyscrapers of the World Trade Center in the distance, the black smoke hiding their tops from view. Yet, settled at the bottom of the image is a lone fire truck - FDNY’s Ladder 118. Surging across a downtown bridge it is heading towards the awaiting turmoil. They, like the rest of the world, have no idea what is yet to come, how in under an hour and forty-five-minutes that skyline will be forever changed. However, the truck never stops until they reach the World Trade Center. Each of those fire officers inside willingly and heroically enter the Twin Towers. None ever came back out.

FDNY’s Ladder 118 lost all their crew members on 9/11. They died trying to rescue as many people as they could. Twenty years on, the humbling reality of their loss still leaves you breathless.

In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, we watched as a war erupted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden, the conductor of the attacks was killed in an operation in Pakistan in 2011. And last month the current President Joe Biden declared the resulting 20-year war at an end after a highly criticised retreat from Afghanistan, plunging the country back under the callous and cruel rule of the Taliban - much as it had done 20 years ago.

Today, as we look back on that fateful day, many will wonder whether what came after 9/11 was worth it - the bloodshed, the loss and destruction? Of course there are questions which will be asked, whether an answer is given or not. Yet, as we solemnly look back at the day the world changed forever, let us grieve for the loss of those who died, and perhaps for something bigger.

The South Tower collapses. - © Getty Images

9/11 shifted our communities, our outlooks and perception of the world and each other. The terror of that day planted distrust in those who are different to us. We began to see enemies where there weren’t any, question the morals of our fellow citizens, and where the world was once open and bright, we shut down and built up our walls. We restricted our humanity and compassion, reserving it only for those who agreed with us. Those who didn’t no longer mattered. We let tragedy and terror root itself into the very fabric of modern society, and the imperfect peace we lived in tumbled as the Twin Towers fell.

Yet, 20 years on that humanity can reemerge. Instead of focusing on the divisions of the current world, we can rather remember how such horror united a global community in grief. How, even though the world around us has changed, our values and hope for a better day link us together. 9/11 highlighted the worst of humanity, but it defines the best of it. The world placed its arms around New York that day. In the UK, The Queen broke protocol ordering for the changing of the Guard to play the Star Spangled Banner instead of the British National Anthem to honour all those who had died.

On a simple clear day which started like any other, we must never forget that First responders ran into those towers, knowing they may never come back out. The many phone calls to loved ones from those inside the planes and the World Trade Center, who knew hope was lost, were filled with love, not regret or fear. Twenty years on, they are who we remember, they are the ones who come to define the history of that fateful day, when the world changed forever.

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