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11 September 2011
Sam was beautiful. Her hair was a firey red and her eyes shone.
There is a collection of huge granite spires that stand thousands of feet above the Kern River at the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada in California. As eager fresh faced graduates, we took the easy drive down from Los Angeles with a trunk full of beer and the most basic of climbing essentials. The four of us had been climbing together for years, and had long since abandoned ropes in search of a purer form of excitement. When people would quiz us about the purpose of such apparent foolishness, telling us that we were risking death, our stock reply was "well that's kind of the point." It was exactly that knowledge, that gut-wrenching feeling, that your life is literally in your hands we were trying to capture. There is something about facing your own mortality nakedly that makes the pettiness of much of life disappear and allows you to taste and feel those things that truly matter.
The Needles is a tough climb. The vertical pins protruding along the top of the ridge make for difficult ascents and treacherous descents. Sam sat atop of one of the spires laughing and breathing in the success of her climb. I looked up at her – it was as though she was alight with life. She beamed down to me and yelled "I think I can jump to the next tower." It was an insane move. Any loss of grip on landing would see her plummet thousands of feet to a certain death.
I laughed it off and told her not to be silly. And then she jumped.
And that was Sam. Brave, a bit crazy, full of life and happiness, keen on squeezing every last sensation from every experience. Sam was beautiful.
She landed and gripped hard. Safe. Buzzing.
Some years later it appeared that life had tricked us into becoming grown-ups. I was a teacher, Andrew an architect, James a civil servant. Sam was a banker.
On the afternoon of September 11th 2001, I was teaching algebra to Year 11, Set 1. The air was hot and the classroom uncomfortable. Rebecca, a vibrant young girl with jet black hair, arrived late to class. Immediately she told the room, "Russia has bombed America."
The students looked at her bemused and panicked.
I am glad that the world has changed, I am glad that the students I was teaching that day had been able to grow up in a post cold war society. As soon as she said the words, with complete sincerity and a shot of distress in her eyes, my mind was thrown back to my own childhood and the world of "Protect and Survive" - those government funded public information films that would periodically appear on TV or be shown to us in school, where an animated house would be blasted and then the fallout would begin. Where quick thinking fathers would use their 4 minutes to sturdily erect a bunker inside the house by removing all of the interior doors and nailing them against a wall at 45 degrees, whilst mother painted all of the windows white.
Instantly that feeling in the pit of my stomach that used to keep me awake at night returned. When I would lie staring at the ceiling thinking about the end of the world.
All of this came in to my mind at once. My expression remained fixed. I asked Rebecca to tell me why she thought that Russia attacked the USA and she told me simply "It's on TV, Sir. Right now."
The messages that raced around the globe in those first few moments after American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower were mixed and muddled. The world's media was in constant residence at the World Trade Center, so the explosion of misinformation was instant.
In the back storeroom I found an old TV. I set it on a table at the front of the classroom and tuned to BBC1. A news flash was broadcasting footage of an airliner hitting the skyscraper.
The students were shocked, but a wave of relief came over them too. This was not war. This was not an attack. A terrible, tragic accident had happened.
We all talked for a while about the tragedy. A boy towards the front of the class asked me how many people were in the building. And I knew the answer.
In August that year, Sam had transferred from her company's base in Canary Wharf to an offshoot in the World Trade Center. James, Andrew and I had spent a hurried weekend in New York helping her to get settled. In a bar on the north-east corner of Central Park, Sam had told us excitedly about her first few days in her new office. "You know there are like 50,000 people working there? The place is like a mini-city."
I talked with my class calmly about the World Trade Center for a few more moments and sensing that, although deeply saddened at the great loss of life, they were beginning to calm. We turned off the TV and tried to focus on some work, but I was happy for them to continue conversations where they needed and wanted to.
The lesson ended. I walked to the staff room. It seemed like the entire staff were huddled in to the space. At the far end of the room a large TV told the unfolding story. This was no tragic accident. A second plane had struck.
I thought of Sam and tried to call her from my mobile phone, but the line was busy. An overwhelming sense of relief struck me. She was on her phone, she was safe.
As we all watched the rolling news coverage in silence, the most horrific and unexpected thing happened. South Tower collapsed.
I thought of Sam. But I knew she was dead.
Sam had been on the phone, that much was true. Since then, every now and then, I will sit with Sam's mother and she will describe to me, with tears gently rolling down her cheeks, the 20 minutes that she spent on the phone with her daughter that day. Resigned, Sam explained calmly and with reason, that she was going to die. She told her mother that she had enjoyed her life, that she had been proud to be her daughter, that she would always be with her.
Last night, a group of us met for the first time in years. We sat in Hyde Park and watched the Last Night of the Proms together. Sam's friends and family. And we ate and drank good wine and we talked and talked and talked about the beautiful red headed girl who we all loved. We laughed a lot. And we cried a lot too.
Sam told her mother, as she waited to die, that she didn't understand why anyone would deliberately crash planes in to the World Trade Center, but that she did know that people are good and that good would prevail.
As we held each other's hands last night, singing Auld Lang Syne, I thought about the kindness, the support, the solidarity and strength of everyone that I have met. I thought about the years I have spent in the Middle East. I thought about my friends of all religions condemning the bastardization of Islam by those who don't understand its true message. I thought about the way in which Sam always looked at the world, with a positive spin on everything, seeing the best in the people that she met. I thought about her mother's words of compassion for the world's Muslims who have been wrongly associated with the acts of murderers. And I dreamed for a moment that good will prevail. If I could wish for anything to come from the horror of 9/11, I would want it to be that.