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Friday, September 9, 2011

The South Tower chocolate shop, 12 September 2001

Why my last two stories have involved chocolate is pure coincidence. Maybe I was reminded of this one by all the discussion about it when I thought of the sad case of the debummified Easter Bunny. But so near this 10th anniversary of 9/11, this is a sombre memory rather than a light-hearted one.

  It's frustrating that the closer the date of an event is to today, the less I remember the precise details. This must have been May or June 1996. We had been with friends in Philadelphia and then took a couple of days to stay with another friend in New Jersey.

  She wanted to show us some of the sights of New York that she enjoyed the most, so we took a short train trip into the heart of the city from her apartment in New Jersey. We had never been to NY before.

  Not far from the train station were the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. I wouldn't use the word “awe-inspiring” unless I meant it, but these two buildings were. Their dominance of the skyline was complete, and their symmetry more than doubled their presence. There was something about that duality of solidity, strength and soaring precision that made it so imposing.

  We walked to the towers and gazed upwards, as you do, but there's only so long you can do that. Our friend wanted us to see something in particular, at ground level of the South Tower. It was a tiny chocolate shop. I can't recall its name and I guess it doesn't matter now.

  It was beautifully presented, as were its wares; a boutique of delights that would send chocolate lovers into raptures. As I said before, although I enjoy chocolate, I don't have quite the passion for it that many do. In this case, it was that orgasmic adoration which attracted a steady stream of devotees to this little establishment; people prepared to pay large sums of money for minuscule amounts of utterly decadent but delightful chocolate creations.

  Even for me, each chocolate was so enticing that I would love to have tried every one at least twice - once to taste as a novelty, and a second of each to confirm that these sweets had really been sent from heaven. But this was not feasible for a variety of reasons, all of which I am sure are obvious to you.

  'You're from Australia - or New Zealand? I can never tell which,' said the dark-haired young assistant tending these objets d'art, all securely locked away behind sparkling clear glass as if they were diamonds. She was more friendly than I expected. I don't think we looked like the sort of customers who would be buying pounds of these delights, but it didn't trouble her.

  'Yes. Australia. Not New Zealand. We always tease the Kiwis about their accent.' 

  I don't think she understood why or how that was possible. Only a Kiwi or another Australian would get that joke, anyway.

  'I couldn't go to Australia. The sharks....'

  It wasn't the time for a discussion of why Australian sharks are no more voracious than the Californian ones, or those Pointers of the Caribbean  - or indeed why sharks might pose a problem in many places in Oz - at Uluru, e.g., several thousand miles inland. Nary a Grey Nurse in sight.

  We bought a few morsels, savoured the sight of the others that would never pass our lips, and walked out into the bright sunshine.

  Fast forward now to just after midnight, Australian Eastern Time. The date had just clicked over to 12 September 2001. I turned on the little radio to hear the ABC news, as I always did at midnight. Something strange was happening. Instead of the formal and precise tones of the midnight newsreader, a description of an event in real time was taking place. Just after 9 AM, 11 September. WTC North Tower... aircraft.... crash... burning... explosion... flames... smoke.... What was happening? A terrible accident?

  I listened for a minute, no more.

  Tracey was in the loungeroom, reading. I had a thought - this seemed so dramatic that it might be on the TV. I jumped up and went to the lounge, and turned it on. The North Tower was burning, high up. Within seconds, we heard the cry of the reporter. 'WTC2 has been hit!'

  I don't remember if we actually saw that happen. We've seen it so many times since that I might be imagining we did. All I know is that we could soon see both towers in smoke and flames.

  What we saw were long-haul commercial aircraft full of fuel flown deliberately into a commercial yet highly symbolic target, exploding on impact, as we now know. Utterly devastating. It was happening right before our eyes.

  There's no point in my describing what we saw in the next few hours, as everyone knows the story all too well. Suffice it to say that about an hour after turning on the TV, watching frantic people escape from lower floors, and others try without hope to do so from upper ones, we saw the South Tower sink to the ground, and half an hour later the North Tower met the same unbelievable fate.

  The great landmark of the NY skyline had disappeared, taking with it thousands of innocent lives.

  In the midst of grappling with the implications of what had happened on that scale, I couldn't help thinking of the little chocolate shop, now pulverised and buried. Not a recognisable trace of it would remain.

  It was the one spot in the whole complex where we had made human contact, so I am sure this is why it stuck in my mind. No doubt the occupants would easily have escaped. I thought of the smiling, shark-fearing, dark-haired girl behind the counter, and could imagine her turning towards the building as it came grinding downwards, and not being able to comprehend. Who could, at that moment?

  None of us could. I could recall no country in 'peace' time having so many of its citizens and others from around the world wiped out in such a ruthlessly calculated fashion, within two hours and with hell yet to come for so many.

  I knew the world would never be the same again. It may have been 12 September 2001 here in Eastern Australia, but 9/11 was the date, and the calamity that would be etched in history in all our lifetimes. It would also have fearful consequences far away from American soil.

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