Saturday, 11 September 2021
The view from the tower
If you don't know me that well then it may be a surprise that as a trans woman I spent most of my 30s working for Telegraph Media Group publishers of the conservative-leaning Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Both major Fleet St. newspapers, colloquially known as the Torgygraph for its support of the corresponding party.
Most days were run of the mill, especially the night shifts which ran until the content of the daily paper had been uploaded to the site, between 1 and 3 am depending on the current news cycle. There were, however, a few days that stand out, and some are permanently etched into my memory.
One such day was of course the 11th of September 2001, a day now forever recorded in the history books. Below is a small extract from Falling Upwards, detailing what was a quite stressful and emotional day.
I arrived at around 11:30 and grabbed a coffee from the in house cafe, headed up to my desk on the 15th. Sometime early in the afternoon I looked up from the keyboard and noticed there was a crowd of people looking at the TV screens by the editorial desks, these were normally tuned to Sky News or one of the other rolling news channels, and it was not unusual if something important was happening for a small crowd to form.
I got up and wandered over to see what was going on. There on the screens was the world trade centre in New York, with a gaping hole in the side, and it was clearly on fire. The initial reports were saying that a light aircraft had flown into the tower. As we watched a huge fireball erupted, for a split second I thought it was just something within the tower exploding. Then it dawned on me that, this was on the other tower and something had just struck it.
I’m not sure if I said this out loud or just in my head, but the thought was;
“That’s no accident, that’s a deliberate attack”
It was at that exact moment that suddenly the atmosphere in the room changed. Almost as one everybody hurried back to their desks, and Richard Burton who was the news editor that day started to assign out tasks to people. I returned to my desk and told Helen ( who at the time was working for an American company ) and my flatmate Kym what was happening over instant messaging.
Soon reports came in that another plane had hit the Pentagon in Washington DC, and it was becoming clear that these weren’t light aircraft that hit the towers but fully loaded jet airliners. Across the world, news websites were beginning to fail, as people clamoured to discover what was happening. BBC News was down. CNN went down. Our system was relatively new and we didn’t know how it would behave under a serious load, obviously, it was going to be tested to the limit, and I was a little concerned. With hindsight, it seems callous that I was more concerned with a website than the lives being lost, and at that point, we had no idea of exactly how many lives. But people were relying on us to continue publishing the news to let people know what was happening. It was the first major global news story of the dot com era and we were at the heart of it.
I had a phone call from my boss Andrew who was stuck at a Spanish airport, it was becoming clear this was a major terrorist plot and airspace across the globe was being shut down. The Canary Wharf tower (or 1 Canada Square) is very close to London City Airport, we had aircraft flying very close to the tower still at this point. I couldn't see them from where I was in the building as the flight path is on the other side of the building from where I was located, but people were obviously concerned.
In a while, Richard Doerr the operations manager came over and we had a chat as this was clearly going to be a major situation, and we might be faced with a potential situation of being forced to evacuate the tower or even worse, especially as the top floors of the build housed so of the large American banks at the time.
So we had to devise a plan to set up a remote operations site where we could continue to publish the website even in the event of the main offices being demolished. We put together a team. Trisha who ran our Helpdesk, and had knowledge of the remote access to the Telegraph network, Awtar who was one of my team of System Admins and Ricardo one of the journalists and packed them off to the Telegraphs other offices in central London where the financial and city journalists worked, to get a remote centre up and running.
I had been tasked by Richard D to be the liaison between editorial and technical, So I was back and forwards between the two teams, checking that publishing was going OK and that the site was able to meet the demands being placed on it. As events were unfolding so fast we were publishing updates to the front page of the website every 20 seconds.
Then as I was talking to the news editor Richard Burton, the impossible happened. The top of the tower just collapsed down onto the shattered section where the plane had hit and just kept going. The whole tower went down vertically like it was made of paper.
More drama was to come later in the day as things unfolded, but I'll let you uncover those in the book. The main emotional impact of the day would come later in the day when I finally made it home about 11 o'clock that night, having covered extra hours due to staffing issues.
A month later I was to take a trip to the US which was still raw from the events, and in the full grip of the war on terror. This would be my first flight anywhere as a trans woman.
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