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11 Sep 01, Three years on

But as we commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, let's remember that almost as many people are still dying in Darfur every week as died in the World Trade Center attack.
- Nicholas D.Kristof, New York Times, 11 September 2004

It's been three years since the most audacious act of international aggression in the last half century. Now, for the first time, I am putting into writing my views about that day.

It was just before 11pm Tuesday night here (Sydney being 14 hours ahead of New York). We'd just finished watching MTV Australia's trashy "Greatest Hits" half-hour program, and I just about to head off to bed. But before doing so, I switched channels over to Sky News to catch the 11.00 bulletin, and they were showing live pictures of the north tower of the World Trade Centre on fire as the result of a plane crash. A quick flick around the other news channels (CNN International, BBC World, CNBC) showed the same.

A few minutes later, confused reports were starting to emerge of a second plane crashing into the towers. At that point it wasn't clear how big the planes were. While the first crash could have been dismissed as a horrific navigational or mechanical failure, two planes doing almost the identical suggested something more deliberate.

It was, of course, a confused situation, as observed from the four news channels. BBC flashed up a report saying "at least 6 dead, 1000 injured" which seemed both premature and optimistic. As the reports started coming in that planes across the country were being grounded, CNBC was reporting from the floor of the NYSE that the start of trading was to be delayed. They showed vision of stockbrokers in the Exchange, which is not far from the WTC, all watching the TV screens in horror, thinking possibly of people they knew in those buildings.

Then, a little bit after 11.30 my time, came the next twist, when CNN reported on the bottom of their screen: "Breaking News: Pentagon on fire". From there it seemed like escalating mayhem: reports of another plane heading for Washington, of a car bomb exploding outside the State Department headquarters. Blame was starting to point towards Kashmiri separatists. Then, the news of a big cloud of dust engulfing the WTC north tower.

On Sky News Australia, by now carrying the American ABC coverage live, a reporter in Manhattan telling anchorman Peter Jennings that the tower had collapsed. Jennings asks: "The front wall has collapsed?"

"No, the tower has collapsed."

"The tower has collapsed?" asks an incredulous Jennings. He wouldn't be the only one thinking the same thing. A short while later, more reports of a "mushroom cloud" coming from lower Manhattan. This, as it turned out, was the fall of the South Tower.

Confusion continued to roll. There was no confirmation of the carbomb (which, of course, turned out to be false). A chunk was blasted out of one wing of the Pentagon. A fourth aeroplane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. President Bush cut short a function in Florida, and with the skies now totally clear, Air Force One was flying... somewhere. And suspicion was moving away from Kashmiris to Palestinians.

The eleventh was now the twelfth of September here. I was following the TV, Di was on the internet chatting to people. One friend of hers was starting to contemplate cancelling a forthcoming trip to the US. The time came around to 1am Wednesday, 11am Tuesday in eastern America. BBC World's senior presenter Nik Gowing began his shift with vision of the smoke over Manhattan and the rather crass observation, "This may seem like a scene from a Hollywood movie, but in fact it is real..."

At 1.45am I decided that there would hopefully be no new developments, and we went off to bed. My heart was racing though, it was a very tense time. It was the attack on the Pentagon that had me thinking, "Shit, what is going on?"

I got up again at about 5.30, turned the TV on, made sure that nothing new had happened, and went back to bed. At seven, when it was time to get up for the day, Tower 7 of the WTC had not long collapsed. The ad infinitum repeat of footage from earlier had begun on every free-to-air and cable news channel. CNN began using a crawler to list the names of the dead in the four planes, including one of their consultant correspondents. The crawler was here to stay.

Wednesday morning in Australia, and we were greeted with the news that the bland and obscure National Party leader John Anderson was Acting Prime Minister, because John Howard was stuck in Washington! Safe, but stuck.

Wednesday was a gloomy, overcast day in Sydney. The planes flying over our house on their descent to Sydney Airport were at a lower altitude than usual so that they could come in safely under the cloud cover. For a day, I was feeling edgy about every plane that passed over!

Night fell in the US. Bush was in Nebraska, Cheney spent his first night in a Secure Undisclosed Location, and Congress sang "God Bless America" on Capitol Hill. And we were all too shocked, compassionate and sympathetic to be cynical.