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The 20th anniversary of 9/11 was reached a few days ago. The recent suicide bombings at Kabul airport were a horrible reminder of the activities of Al Qaeda and their equally extreme successors, the Islamic State (ISIS).
The anniversary of 9/11 brings back some vivid memories for me. I was in Toronto, on assignment for The Irish
Times, to research a series on the Canadian health system. By 11 September 2001 I had spent a day with the Ontario
air ambulance service and a day with an innovative private radiotherapy service, contracted to carry out treatments for the overstretched public health system. Canada has a decentralised, universal, and publicly-funded health service. Largely run by each province, it is funded by both provincial and federal taxation.
And while private health services do exist, they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as here in Ireland. On a visit to a cardio thoracic unit I met two men sharing a ward who were post-CABG; one was a retired university professor and the other a relatively deprived First Nations individual from the far north of the province. The cardiac surgeon told me, somewhat proudly, that both were operated on purely on the basis of clinical need and without any consideration for social status or ability to pay.
I had an early morning appointment to interview the Ontario Minister for Health on 9/11. I arrived at the Ministry
at about 8am and was brought to a waiting area outside his office. There was an air of calm urgency about the place,
with a multiplicity of aides darting in and out of a conference room. No one interacted with me apart from the receptionist – it was a case of serious, head-down scurrying for the rest of the office staff. Thirty minutes lapsed with this intensity of activity around me. Eventually, about 45 minutes after my appointment time, an aide emerged and said
she was sorry, but the Minister wasn’t going to be able to see me that day. She referred rather obliquely to the activation of an emergency plan and a rush to empty burns units across the province for a mass casualty event. There was no mention of New York, however.
The offices were downtown, in an area with lots of plush hotels. I had seen posters for the annual Toronto film festival earlier in my visit. It was time for a nice pot of tea, I reckoned, while I regrouped and reorganised my schedule for the day. The bar of the hotel was surprisingly busy for early on a weekday morning. Everyone’s focus was on the TV screen above the bar. The image was of a skyscraper, billowing smoke. The news anchors referred to the north tower, and were speculating about a commercial airliner that had
gone off course and crashed into it. “What am I looking at,” I asked the man beside me.“World Trade Centre, New York,” he spat back tersely.Then as we watched, a second plane hit the south tower.The news anchors were stunned, no longer speculating about an accident, but unable to think of a narrative that would explain why two airliners had just taken out one of New York’s most famous landmarks.The terrible saga continued as I stood transfixed in front of the screen, all thoughts of tea banished by the unfolding horror. A third plane had hit the Pentagon. Then another crashed in a field near Washington.I glanced at the man beside me. His face was contorted with anger. A scene from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest flashed in front of me. Could I possibly be standing next to Jack Nicholson? Toronto film festival, plush downtown hotel… was this really happening? It was and he was about to exit the scene.
He brought his fist down on the countertop while staring even more intently at the TV. “Nuke the bastards,” he snarled before rushing from the room. By now, my world had turned upside down, normality swept aside by a new and surreal reality. American airspace had been closed indefinitely, the news anchors said. All planes in the air to the US had been diverted, with Gander airport in Newfoundland rapidly filling up with jets belonging to a smorgasbord of European flag carriers. Was I going to be able to get home on schedule in three days time? I rang my wife – we even discussed the possibility of a transatlantic sailing as a means of repatriation. Did the QE2 still do a regular run from New York to Southampton? The surreal was now laced with feelings of deep shock. I was fortunately staying with a good friend from medical school and her husband. My final memory of 9/11 is late evening, nervously reliving the day’s events on TV, while wrapped under a blanket in their basement recreation room.