Friday, 10 September 2010

The 11th of September

This date affected virtually everyone in some way and the images which are so familiar were being seen for the very first time. It’s so shocking that we can’t comprehend the magnitude of what was happening in front of our eyes. This is a personal recollection of my small part in that day, not even a footnote in history – yet it is one of my proudest days and one which will affect me and my career everyday.

I remember watching the news before coming into work for my shift at Ananova, Orange’s recently acquired internet news syndication service. It was in the Guinness book of records for having created the first avatar news reader, Ananova. There wasn’t anything major happening, but I like to keep up with current affairs. I switched on the radio in my car but changed my mind and listened to a CD instead.

Taking the lift up the five flights of stairs, I walked into the office with a smile on my face around 12:50pm. “Hi everyone” I said to the video team – my team – in charge of animating the Ananova character. The mood was odd and Natasha said to me “Have you not heard the news – a plane’s crashed in New York”. This in itself wasn’t shocking, planes’ crash. I lifted my eyes up to the TV screen above the desk to see a burning skyscraper. I’d missed the reporting by minutes but the story had gathered apace.

At that moment little was clear apart from the fact that a plane had hit the world trade centre. The wires were already going crazy. The Subs desk was filtering AFP, AP, PA and all manner of news sources. The reporters had a channel each, transcribing and checking the information coming through to them. Another team was filtering the filtered wire stories and creating copy for the web, text message alerts. We were creating a special bulletin for Ananova to read out. I put the copy together while Natasha and Nicky gathered the pictures and raw information for me to use.

Then I looked up – I’m not sure whether I did it myself or somebody said something. There was a plane circling the twin towers and I watched as the second plane ploughed through the building and flames leapt out of the far side of the building. The story had changed. Reports were coming in of further hijackings and the grounding of all flights worldwide.

The job was all consuming. The information was out of date before it was published. You’d have 20-30 facts that would make a front page story, and room for ten. It only intensified during the day. The pictures were unbelievable. Witnessing jumpers. Trying to work out what was fluttering in the air. Trying to comprehend what else was happening. It was chaos yet we were managing to make sense of it all. And little time to worry about my brother working that day in Canary Wharf.

What I wasn’t aware of was the technical staff’s role. They were working hard just to ensure the servers could cope with the traffic loads being put on them. Every available space for a new user was being created getting the most from our IT infrastructure. Even the IT support desk helped in a small way providing water and refreshments.
The story changed again. The pentagon had been hit; another plane confirms a hijacking shortly before crashing. A car bomb in Washington. Nothing would have surprised us at that point. It was actually feeling scary to be 5 flights up under a flight path despite nothing happening in the UK.

Then Natasha said: “look the building’s collapsed.... it’s just gone”. I looked up. The camera was focussed on where the building was. All there was to be seen was dust. It cleared a little, and I saw the other tower and suggested it hadn’t collapsed – how could it just go? I didn’t know about the twin towers before that day, and I just couldn’t believe there was just one all of a sudden. If I’d have know the view, it would have been obvious.

More mountains of copy, more images, more to write. Yet we were ploughing a furrow for others to see, updating the story as concisely as we could. Our secondary sources went. CNN, BBC we started to lose sight of the opposition. The sites weren’t working and error pages were up. Ananova kept afloat. We didn’t realise the important of what we were doing. The whole world was on the internet and the old media was being swamped to the point of breaking point. Somehow, Ananova coped with millions of visitors to the site – most logging on to Ananova for the first time.

I changed jobs some way through, it needed a fresh focus and we needed to act as a team. Ananova was running perfectly despite the crisis. Everyone had a job and just did it. No one wanted to leave. Besides, we had the best seat in the house – a world of wires, a bank of TV screens and the most amazing and compelling story – a horror story – unfolding. And to repeat, the technical team did as much if not more to deliver the service.

I don‘t remember how long I stayed that day, but even over the next few days, the story developed and changed we all worked longer than our shift to catch the latest develop,ments. We’d always been concerned about the escalation procedure if the Queen mother died, but that seemed straight forward after 9/11 coming some 6 months later.

Equally the ease in which we all found a role should not be taken for granted. I was working as a press officer at the time of the bombings in London. It was chaotic in that business and it took leadership to assign people roles and tasks. It was trying to put in place a structure that should have been in place before.

I feel I part of history and I’m proud I was able to keep millions of people informed about what was happening, trying to bring some clarity to a muggy and confusing picture. I wasn’t a senior manager nor anyone who would be called upon as an expert – but every one of those members of the Ananova team should feel as proud as I do.

One final note. Having worked on the day and seen the con fusion, I have no time for the sceptics view of 9/11. Pulling single misreports out of hundreds of thousands of reports isn’t a conspiracy, its just statistics. No one knew what was happening and the reports were sometimes best guesses. The reports changed all the time one way then another and back again as people struggled to find the facts and work out what facts were important.

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