You know what I’m talking about. 9/11. Twenty years ago today. Hard to believe it’s been that long. But I remember exactly where I was. Every detail. As clearly as if it was yesterday.
I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I was seeing five films that day (I saw five to six films every day for 10 straight days). And on this particular day, Tuesday, September 11, I was just coming out of my first of the day, which had started at around 8:30.
The ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) had a very small theatre in the basement and that’s where my film was playing. I don’t remember the title, but I do remember it was a foreign film, from an independent film maker who’d spent half a lifetime trying to cobble together enough money to make it. It was a little after 9:30 in the morning and I was just making my way to the street. I had about an hour until my next film, so I thought I’d have a cup of coffee.
Everything looked normal enough. It was a beautiful September day, not a cloud in the sky. I’d had my phone off needless to say, so just as I emerged onto the street I turned it on. There was a voice mail from my mother, who was volunteering at a downtown Toronto hospital. And a bizarre voice mail it was.
“Hi Fransi. It’s me, mommy. Can you believe a plane went into a building? Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, we’re fine here, I’m at the hospital, it’s my day to volunteer. I’ll talk to you later. Bye. I love you.”
“WTF” was the first thing that came to mind. What was she talking about? What plane? What building? What did she mean, I didn’t have to worry? You’re damn right I was worried. I thought she’d had a stroke and couldn’t think straight. I tried calling her, but of course she had her phone off because she was working.
There was a TIFF staff member right by the door to the ROM so I went over, and asked if she knew anything about a plane flying into a building. All she knew was that a plane had, indeed, flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. She wasn’t sure exactly when. And when I asked if it was a private plane in some kind of trouble — which was the only thing I could have imagined, would you have ever imagined that a commercial airliner would fly into a building — she didn’t know.
Not all that surprising, really. She was stuck on a street corner, not very long after it had happened, the news hadn’t really had a chance to spread yet.
The Four Seasons Hotel was just about a block away, so I decided I’d go there. Surely somebody there would know what was going on. As it happened, in those days the Four Seasons was the TIFF headquarters. It was where most of the celebrities and industry executives stayed. It was where most of the press conferences were held. And it was definitely where the groupies congregated. But not that day.
Walking into the lobby was like something I’d never seen before. Pandemonium. There was not a square inch of space anywhere without someone sitting, standing, crouching, leaning, kneeling, sprawling. Everyone was congregated around one TV that had obviously been hastily commandeered from a meeting room somewhere in the hotel, stuck on a stand, plugged in, turned on and left wherever they could find a a spot for it. It was pre flat-screen days.
There was luggage everywhere, there were coats everywhere and everyone was either crying, shaking their heads in disbelief, trembling, or on their phones frantically dialing. And then whispering to whomever they were calling, in every language you can think of — it is an international film festival after all.
Trying to find friends, colleagues and loved ones, I guess. Trying to get out of Toronto and back home, I’m sure. It was pretty quiet, considering. But everyone was too shocked to speak and too engrossed in the sight of the first tower collapsing — in what seemed like slow motion — to the ground, where it just became piles of rubble and dust. An ocean of rubble and dust. Being rerun over and over and over and over and over and over again. Like it was on an endless loop.
And what a sight it was. Absolutely surreal. I had found a tiny inch of space between two men and I claimed it as mine. I remember the man on my left turned to look at me and I’ll never forget what he said: “I feel like I’m watching a B movie.”
That’s exactly what it was like. And considering that everyone gathered there — with the exception of me, the hotel staff and maybe a few other people — were all connected in some way to the film industry, it was a very fitting description.
Information about the Festival, and what would happen, was still sketchy. It was only the second day and there were days full of films yet to be screened. And sold. Would the Festival be cancelled? Postponed? It was anybody’s guess at that point. Not that it really mattered. I don’t think anyone was in the mood for movies. I know I wasn’t.
Within a couple of hours it was announced that no films would be screened for the rest of that day. It was a Festival first. The Festival was going dark. But the powers that be, in consultation with executives throughout the industry, decided that for the balance of the week “the show must go on.” Which it did. Although it wasn’t the same.
The spirit and the fun had gone out of it. No surprise. And the conversations that always took place as we all waited endlessly in lines to get into the theatres weren’t about films like they always were before. No one was chattering about what they’d seen, what they were going to see, what they loved or what they hated. The only topic of conversation was what had happened. No surprise again.
When I’d bought all my tickets months and months before, I had invited a friend to join me at a film the afternoon of 9/11. Not really in the mood anymore, I called her, offering her both tickets. She wasn’t in the mood either, but she said she’d come and meet me for lunch. We agreed to meet at a small Italian restaurant up the street from the hotel where I knew they had a TV at the bar. No one wanted to be far from a TV, including me.
By then I’d connected with my mother who explained that she assumed I’d be worried because the American Embassy is a building away from the hospital where she was. And she thought maybe I’d be concerned that there’d be some kind of an attack there. She’d also assumed I knew about the attack and that I’d understand what she’d been referring to in her message. I wanted her to leave and go home, but she was determined to finish her shift.
I got to the restaurant just in time. I found a seat for myself and stuck my jacket on one next to me, for my friend. The reactions from the people crowded along the bar were exactly the same here as they were at the hotel. Shock, disbelief, tears, fear, anger, confusion. We were total strangers, but we all had a connection to each other. Because we were all witnesses to an absolutely horrific tragedy, a twilight zone nightmare of epic proportions.
Strangers were comforting each other, helping each other, lending phones to each other, hugging each other. Some ate, some drank, some just sat there. They’d come for the TV. The staff didn’t care. They let people stay there as long as they wanted. This wasn’t a day that was about making money.
My friend arrived and we did order some lunch. She left but I stayed there until 4 in the afternoon and another friend came and joined me. Incredibly the crowd hadn’t turned over. For the most part I was there with the same people who’d been there all day.
Nobody wanted to go home. Nobody wanted to be alone. At some point the two of us went back to the Four Seasons Hotel, but this time we went to the bar — where we stayed until after midnight. It was still chaos in the lobby. It was still strewn with luggage and knapsacks and briefcases and garment bags and jackets and coats and newspapers and empty coffee cups. Which in itself was strange because normally that lobby was pristine. Not a pillow out of place. But that day no one cared. And it would have been futile anyway.
And there were people. So many people. The TV was still on, and it was still in exactly the same place, and they were still playing that image of the tower crumbling like a kid’s sand castle that was kicked as someone walked by it at the end of the day.
When I finally got home there was a voice mail from a friend of mine who lived in New York. She was in Japan, stranded, and she was calling me to see if I thought she get home through Toronto. She had neglected to tell me where, in Japan she was, in which hotel, or what the phone number was.
For some reason, the number didn’t show up on my call display. I had no way of reaching her. I kept calling her mobile number, but there was no service on it. I left endless messages on her home phone hoping she’d check for messages occasionally. I finally heard from her a week later, when she finally got back. She eventually managed to get a flight to Boston, where she rented a car and drove to New York.
She was brave. I don’t think I could have gotten on a plane right then.
Since that day I’ve watched endless documentaries, several at the following year’s film festival. A couple just a few nights ago. The most recent — “9/11” — shot by two brothers from France who lived in New York. They’d been at a fire station very close to the World Trade Centre, shooting a documentary about a probie firefighter and ended up filming a terrorist attack. They were in the building when it collapsed and that footage is absolutely chilling. So was the sound of those who jumped landing on the ground. That will stay with me forever.
I will never forget.