LONDON – My 9/11 was much like a lot of people’s: I watched the horror unfold on TV. In my case, it was the Reuters office we worked out of during my time in Paris. We came in from a shoot to see the second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower.
My sister used to work there. My father used to work a few blocks away. I’d been there many times. I quickly rang my family in New York to make sure all were OK.
In fact, one of my nephews was working in what would be the badly-damaged World Financial Center next door. I offered what was clearly the wrong advice that he should stay put. Luckily he ignored that and fled via a Hudson River ferry away from the death and destruction.
What WAS perfectly clear to me, though, was that this was the work of terrorists. Al-Qaeda. Usama bin Laden. He and the group had been on our radar at Fox, mainly starting with the US embassy bombings in Africa three years before. But this was the big hit.
Within 24 hours of the attacks, we were sitting having tea with the Taliban’s ambassador in Islamabad. We’d spent three weeks in Afghanistan the past June shooting a series for Fox. We wanted back in.
That was not immediately to be… but we got close. We spent time in Peshawar, talking to US officials trying to sift through the clues and trail of the mass killer.
And we were with Hamid Karzai in Quetta the night before he went covertly into Afghanistan and with the help of Special Forces worked to topple the Taliban.
The Taliban fell when I was back home in New York for Thanksgiving 2001. It was the first time I had been to my home town since the attacks. It was a changed place. Armed guards and soldiers were everywhere. Flags flew from nearly every car and house. Funeral processions were still wending their way through suburban neighborhoods.
That first visit I actually didn’t go to Ground Zero. Perhaps it was all too raw. I did look from across the Hudson from New Jersey at the gap in downtown Manhattan, where the twin towers were and were no more.
So strange. Our last home in New York was in Brooklyn Heights. Every morning I’d look out at the skyline and see the sun glistening off the towers. And now they, and thousands who were there, were no more.
Two weeks later I was looking at another skyline… the mountains of Tora Bora where it was believed Bin Laden and his men were making a break from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
When we got there, B-52 bombers were smashing the slopes. Afghan militia were brandishing their weapons. Less than four months after the 9/11 the man behind the attacks was gone.
Fast-forward through weeks and months and years of the War on Terror that would see us travel from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and in May of this year, to Pakistan and the villa where Usama bin Laden was found living, was captured and killed.
It was hard to believe the man who was responsible for so much time, attention, money, manpower… and blood, lived in such a non-descript place.
Operatives had told us he commanded a mountaintop lair protected by concentric rings of steel-like security. Instead he was found wrapped up in a rug huddled in front of a TV.
More important to help close the circle of the past ten years was an interview I conducted recently with Thomas Von Essen, the New York City Fire Commissioner in 2001. He was visiting Europe to help commemorate the attacks.
343 firemen lost their lives on 9/11. Von Essen was there and told me about those heroes.
“There was no hesitation,” he said. “I saw them running up the stairs just as fast as they could go...as far as they could go.”
And then he told me what it was like to try and help the grieving families.
“You couldn’t give them what they wanted. They wanted the rescue of their loved ones. That didn’t happen. And then they wanted the remains. We couldn’t even give them that. We couldn’t give a mother her son.”
I shook his hand and thanked them through him. Better, for sure, to remember those brave men and many more of the incredible men and women in the armed forces, emergency services and others we have met during the last ten years then the twisted soul who brought this all on.
And, as Von Essen also noted to me, maybe better now, to begin to think about moving on.