9/11: A Television Event


History, nowadays, happens on television – in the case of Tuesday’s catastrophe in America, literally.

Most channels in Britain were already showing live coverage of the bizarre spectacle of the North tower of the World Trade Centre burning like a rooftop chimney when a series of extraordinary live events began.

The shape of a second plane appearing behind the second tower, veering into it suddenly, in the sort of image more associated with the kamikaze fighters from another age, would, ordinarily, have been the image that encapsulated the story of the day’s news.

But whereas the image of the JFK motorcade or the fireman carrying a child after Oklahoma encapsulate events there, Tuesday’s live coverage threw up any number of astonishing images.

The twin towers smoking like chimneys, the shadow of the veering plane, the sight of the pentagon burning… one by one, each was superseded. Twenty minutes after news had broken that the Pentagon was also ablaze, live before our eyes the screens were filled with the sight of the south tower crumbling like some sort of matchstick model.

Then shocked commentators describing the scene faltered and the second tower disappeared before our eyes, like a rocket – not going up lost amidst the smoke beneath it, but going downwards, descending into dust.

Even the President of the United States was shown, hearing the news, live on television, as cameras filmed him about to address a group of schoolchildren in Sarasota, Florida. The look of tight-lipped panic on George Bush’s face was one of the many memorable images of the day.

In the space of three hours’ airtime, Manhattan disappeared under a ghostly cloud of smoke, with the Statue of Liberty looking on from the left-hand corner, and a scattering of motorboats splashed across the harbour, like a modern-day Turner.

More and more incredible images followed. Later there came footage of the plane that bombed the Pentagon, swooping into it violently like a dive-bombing bird.

A fireman’s footage showed the second plane cutting through the south tower like a paper knife. The stunning images kept on coming: people’s heads hanging in desperation out of windows and then the falling bodies as they jumped.

The exodus of two million people fleeing Lower Manhattan, was the type of picture you normally only see in countries like Somalia or Ethiopia. There was the image of the people who escaped, even their glasses covered in dust, walking away like zombies. The New York cars and streets behind them were smothered in what looked like snow.

The latest haunting image was a paramedic filming the urban avalanche of dust heading his way, muttering, “I hope I live. I hope I live.”

The camera shows us what he saw as he staggered into the wreckage as, in a scene of almost absurd pathos, he shouts out forlornly, “anybody need a doctor” being greeted by an eerie silence.

Finally, there was the image of the remains of the World Trade Centre – like a pile of silver matchsticks surrounded by flame, after an apocalypse. It was impossible to stop watching.
“It’s almost unbelievable” one news-caster said, even though ‘unbelievable’ was precisely what it was.

It was so surreal, it was almost like watching a story-line from an old Batman episode, as one incredible terrorist action after another happened live before our eyes. Experts talked of “secret cells” and “terrorist alliances” conjuring up The Riddler and The Penguin working hand in hand, as Gotham City burned.

Once again, Sky News proved itself essential viewing -starting live footage only six minutes after the first tower was hit – only shortly after CNN in America.
“The whole world was witness to the second attack,” a Sky News report mentioned later. The whole world except perhaps Channel 4.

While the BBC, ITV and even Channel 5 all eventually followed Sky News’ example, Channel 4 stoically continued screening a black & white 1941 Alexander Korda film. Flicking through the channels, it was bizarre to find Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh uttering each other platitudes in the film That Hamilton Woman, as everyone else was watching America go up in flames.

At approximately 3.15pm – an hour and a quarter after the drama started, and half an hour after the Pentagon was attacked – Jon Snow finally got the chance to do his job properly.
“What is so extraordinary, in this day and age of communication,” he said, “is we do NOT know the antecedents of this event.”

What was extraordinary was that Channel 4 had not considered it worth interrupting their Larry Olivier film, until it was virtually too late. On the BBC, Jack Straw had said, this day has not only shaken the world but has changed the world.”
“Life is not going to be the same for Americans” another news-presenter said.

ITV announced the headline, “Central Manhattan is ablaze…. The New York skyline has been changed forever. One of the great monuments to 20th century America has gone.”

Senator Richard Shelby was calling it “total war, real war.” And yet by 4.30pm, Channel 4 had gone again and was showing Countdown.

BBC2 had started showing The Tweenies, but they had BBC 1 and by now, you couldn’t help sympathising a nation’s kids were probably losing patience with the news. Channel 4 was the only channel not to show live coverage of the Prime Minister’s reaction. Blair, of course, was in his element saying we were in the face of “a new evil” – stopping just short of referring it to “the people’s evil” but once again, finding the phrase to capture the moment.

By contrast, the announcement that the Tories were postponing the count of leadership votes summed up what an irrelevance they have become. Eventually William Hague popped up to remind us why he had been such a failure.

George Bush fared equally badly, pledging to hunt down and find those folks who committed this act” – sounding like an episode of The Waltons.

The only sight more ridiculous than the Channel 4 decision was John Leslie and Coleen Nolan debating the event on This Morning with Gene Pitney. And the ‘seamless’ style with which Leslie switched to the next item about Surrogacy, with the link “how far would you go to help YOUR best friend…”

Channel 4’s decision to stick largely to its afternoon schedule makes you wonder what needs to happen before Countdown or an Olivier movie need to be cancelled – nuclear meltdown perhaps.