“That’s not an accident. That’s terrorism.” It is 11 September 2001 and I’m speaking to the editor of PM, moments after the second plane hits the World Trade Center. It’s not an especially insightful observation.
Professor Paul Wilkinson I am not. Neither, sadly, is he. But at around the moment the White House chief of staff is whispering into the ear of the storyteller President Bush, at PM we realise this will be no ordinary day.
By six o’clock, at the end of an extended programme in which I perform in the mediocre-to-poor category, I’m eager to go home and sleep. The intensity of it all has been draining. It puts me in mind of Royal Obituary Rehearsals where we sit in studios for hours making pretend programmes to test our readiness for you-know-what.
I’m not sure I’m allowed to divulge more than that, except to say that executives always come up with creative ways of fictitiously seeing off senior royals. Don’t get me wrong – we’re not talking the opening scene of any Six Feet Under episode, or Dexter. But I do get a pang of worry whenever Prince Philip goes carriage driving.
The odd thing about such rehearsals is that having lived a royal death for hours in the studio, it’s odd to get in the car to drive home and find no mention of it on the news. It takes a moment to adjust.
Sadly, there’s no such moment as I drive home that 11 September. Thousands of people are indeed dead, and the rest of us are glad to be alive. I celebrate by going to sleep at 8.30.
The phone rings shortly after. Work is urging me to go to Stansted Airport at once where, it is rumoured, a special plane will fly a bunch of hacks to America so we can all win awards.
It’s gone 11pm and the only restaurant open is full of the cream of British broadcasting. Kate Adie is here. Jon Snow, too, I think. John Sergeant? A clutch of BBC TV reporters and radio producers and every seat taken. There’s some sniffiness at the remaining late-night offerings on the wipe-clean picture menu, but these people have all reported from the crappiest places in the world so even the tomato salad holds no fear for them.
The place is awash with rumour about the plane. It seems laughable now, of course. US airspace was to be closed for days. But at the time we’re hopeful of take-off before midnight. Then 0030. Then 0100. Then we hear the plane will fly to Canada and we’ll all hire cars to drive to America.
Pity the staff at the Avis desk in Toronto imagining British broadcasting’s biggest stars elbowing each other out of the way in pursuit of the first vehicle out. At 2am we’re told to go home and come back at 5am, when the flight will probably leave. It doesn’t.
By morning even more journalists are here. Hours pass. Imagine the worst-delayed charter flight you’ve suffered and add 50 hacks all trying to out-do each other with hair-raising tales from their CVs.
Stansted’s a busted flush but my producer and I get wind of a flight going from Heathrow. We leap in a car. After several fun hours at a crowded Heathrow we get wind of a flight from Gatwick. At Gatwick we… I lost track in the end.
We certainly visited four different airports that day. Stansted three times. And at 5pm, on one of the biggest news days of my life, I was not on air but on the M25, rushing to catch a plane that never left.