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Memories of office life: on 9/11, we walked through a wormhole separating before from after

It was an ordinary Tuesday at the office – and the day everything changed. We had breakfasted in a time of optimism, inside and outside the Guardian. The lustre was yet to fade from a Labour party that had recently been elected for a second term, while the internet was bringing the world to our doors.

I was the literary editor. Come lunchtime, a group of us headed out to celebrate a new partnership with the Hay festival, which the previous year had been declared “the Woodstock of the mind” by Bill Clinton. It was all very jolly and perhaps a bit smug – part of a mission to seize the literary high ground.

Halfway through the main course, a waiter appeared, asking if there was an Ed Pilkington at the table, because there was a phone call for him. This wasn’t entirely surprising, as Ed was the foreign editor, which has never been a job of the long lunch. When he returned, ruffling his hair, a bemused look on his face, he said he had to go back to the office because a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Ha ha, someone joked. If you need an exit line, you might as well choose a good one.

Minutes later, the waiter was back again, asking if there was a Gary Younge in our party. Gary, at that time a columnist and features writer, returned with a stunned looked on his face. “I need a taxi home to get my passport,” he said. “I’m on the next plane to New York.”

It was as if we had walked through a wormhole separating before from after. Around us, diners chatted on happily, stuck in the before, while we abandoned our lunch and hurried into the after. The office was in a state of hushed pandemonium. It was truly shocking, a glimpse of a tragedy that, even in those first minutes, you knew would unfold over decades. Staff clustered in appalled silence around TV screens – which were already playing the same image again and again, showing a passenger plane crashing into a tower in the morning sun – while editors tore up their plans and got to work on the first edition of the new era.

Gary never did catch that plane to New York (the closure of US airspace meant he had to go the long way round, via the Caribbean), but I have never felt so awe-struck by my colleagues’ ability to rise to a crisis, and so humbled by the responsibility of finding words capable of giving shape to a horrific event that hours earlier had been beyond imagination.

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