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'My perception of mortality has completely turned upside down'

I had a hangover yesterday morning. I'd been out with my departing editor -- and best friend in New York - the night before, saying a big, drunken goodbye. But it was a beautiful day. The light in the city is different to London; much clearer. Blue is bluer and white is whiter, writes Elly Trickett.

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I caught a cab outside my building (1.5 miles from where the World Trade Center stood,) and buzzed up 26 blocks to Fifth Ave and 26th St, to my office, getting there at 8.45. I heard nothing but the air conditioning until my art editor ran in just after nine, shouting, crying, "Oh my God! A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!"

I ran out of the office, along 26th Street from Fifth Avenue to Sixth, from where you get a clear view of the twin towers. My first thoughts, before I saw anything, were to do with the story -- what are the angles for PRWeek? At this point, I pictured a light aircraft having come a cropper on the TV mast.

Nothing prepared me for what I saw when I got to the end of the block. One of the silver towers had a black smudge on it. That, of course, was a hole. A big cartoon bubble of smoke hung above the building - there was no wind, so it just stayed where it was.

Where's Superman?

I stood there on Sixth Avenue for around five minutes. Traffic had stopped, people were gawking in one direction, as if Superman had landed. Someone said, "Where's Superman?" Someone else was wondering where Bruce Willis was when you needed him. Car radios blared, all tuned to WPLJ. No-one knew what had happened.

I ran back to the office to check on Of course, I couldn't get online. At all. But an email from my friend Susanna confused me: she said there had been two planes; two towers. And they were jetliners.

It gets blurry after this. A few desks away, John tuned his radio to 1010WINS. Yes, another plane; yes, the other tower. An instant message from my friend, Ian, in DC, checking I was OK, suddenly turned into "Fuck -- they've hit the Pentagon." I rushed into the bar next door, where they were showing CNN. (No TV in the office.) There were 15 people in there, open-mouthed. Crying. Looking at one tower, standing alone.

I left -- I felt sick and dizzy and needed air. As I stood in the street, I looked down Fifth Avenue and had the strangest sensation: the horizon was sinking. I thought I was going to faint, but when I remained upright and the horizon didn't, I realized that what I had actually seen was the TV mast of the second tower plummeting to the ground.

Staten Island

I instantly thought back to a few weeks ago, when I was on the Staten Island ferry with a dear friend who'd visited from London. I took a photo of him on the way back, smiling as his head was framed by the two towers. We talked about this most famous sight in the world, and pretended we were running across the water to arrive on Manhattan.

Now the skyline was going to look like a child who'd lost his front teeth.

Back in the office, we were all in shock. Two colleagues couldn't find their husbands. I had three friends missing, clearly in danger. I was trying to let people know I was safe, but I couldn't make international calls. Nothing worked - the city was broken. Horror after horror unfolded.

I replied to some emails I received: "But the city is... indescribable. It's how I imagine a warzone to be. Everyone feels so unsafe. There are still liners in the air unaccounted for [it landed outside Pittsburgh five minutes after I sent this]. I'm only seven blocks away from the Empire State Building -- now the tallest building in NYC. There are sirens everywhere, the phone systems are in meltdown, and I haven't heard from my reporter in DC, who left his house an hour ago to take his press pass to Capitol Hill. Ten minutes ago another airliner crashed in DC. I can't get hold of him."

Clumsy reporting

An hour later: "Yes, we tracked Doug down. There was no second plane - just clumsy reporting that identified the missing plane as the one that crashed into the Pentagon."

Later on: "My Chicago reporter just called me - he has an 18-year-old son and was crying on the phone because he doesn't want his son to have to go to war."

Then this morning: "Thank God - and I don't say this lightly - I haven't yet discovered that anyone I know was involved. But I still had one missing person right up until 10.30 last night. When he finally called me, I just cried with relief. He was a banker at Morgan Stanley, and was in the building."

And this just made me realise that I'm going to be hearing around 10,000 names over the next... how long? Weeks? Months? How long will it take for me to be satisfied that no-one I know is not coming back. And is that REALLY going to be "satisfying"? No, of course not.

Eyewitness accounts

You've all read 1001 eyewitness accounts. I won't talk about the rest of yesterday - the people crying in the streets, the heartbreaking tales and the office breakdowns - only to say that walking home (no choice) was the strangest thing. A vast array of uniforms I'd never seen before manning road barriers. Being asked by FBI officials to prove that I lived where I did so I could go south of 14th Street. No traffic, apart from emergency vehicles and a 100-strong convoy of empty school buses, clearly headed to the south to pick up the injured.

I had to walk into work again this morning, and there was a makeshift memorial in Union Square, with the Stars and Stripes flying at half mast, people writing messages on bits of cardboard taped to the sidewalk by volunteers, who were handing out markers. I was listening to my radio Walkman as I approached it, and just as I got there, there was a minute's silence - 24 hours after the first plane struck the WTC. I stood still, and when it was over, kept walking up Broadway. I was still crying at 26th Street.

What struck me was that the landscape was only slightly different. It was the slight skew, a small shift, that made it the most shocking. I was trying to not see the towers, but how do you not see something that's not there? Every time I looked in that direction, I was trying to work out if I'd normally see them from that particular perspective.

Unavoidable shift

And the fact that the streets were quiet was not unusual to me - I often rise early at the weekends and walk around before the city wakes up. But this was rush hour, on a Wednesday morning. Again - not a seismic change, but a small, unavoidable, shift.

I just got a message from another friend, Peter, saying that he'd finally got back from Newark airport. He hitched a ride in a poultry truck and managed to get the PATH back to Penn Station. He's really shaken -- "I was ON THE FUCKING RUNWAY, on a UNITED FLIGHT, 14 planes behind the one that was hijacked." There would have been more hijacks, had all air traffic not been grounded.

I don't even want to think about it. My perception of mortality has completely turned upside down. I thank.... well, something, that he, and everyone else as far as I can think, is alive and well.

What yesterday did, though, was to remind me of the value of my friendships, and how good our life really is. To everyone I ought to have been in touch with more recently, to everyone whose phone call I never got around to returning, to everyone I should have spent more time with - which is everyone I know, really - I care for you all.

Elly Trickett is the news editor of PR Week US.

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