Saturday September 8 2001 found Simon and Elizabeth Turner in John Lewis trying to decide whether, in addition to the bottles, the bedding and the baby monitors, their imminent first child really needed a complete Winnie the Pooh dining set.
“They do that two-hour window with somebody who explains all the equipment to the numpties who have no idea what they’re letting themselves in for,” says Elizabeth. “It’s quite a scary experience.”
Three days later, her thoughts had shifted from infant tableware to transport. By then, Simon, a 39-year-old financial publisher, was at his hotel in New York, getting ready for a conference and trying to reassure his wife over the phone.
“I was freaking out about a buggy that I was trying to get hold of and couldn’t and being completely irrational, and he was like, ‘We’ll sort it when we get back. The baby will have a buggy. There’s lots of buggies in the world and it will have one, so don’t worry about it.'”
Shortly after the call, Simon went for his conference, which was at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Elizabeth, who was at the offices of Channel 4, where she worked in human resources, went for lunch with her colleague Jane before the monthly staff meeting.
When they came back, the channel’s many TVs were all showing the same image: a plume of smoke from the top of the north tower.
“As we were stood watching and listening to all the commentary, we saw the little black dot come across the screen and watched live as the second plane hit the trade centre,” says Elizabeth. “That was when everybody knew. Jane and I both said immediately that it was a terrorist attack.”
Simon’s phone went straight to voicemail and there was no answer at the New York office of his company, Risk Waters.
‘Something bad’s really happened’
“Part of you knows something bad’s really happened and the other part of you is almost conditioned by your rational brain, which says, statistically, this sort of thing doesn’t work for you,” says Elizabeth.
“You might see it on the television every single day and read about it in the news but it actually doesn’t happen to you. So the bit that I remember is feeling a cold wave of terror go through me. As soon as it had gone through me, it was pushed away and bolted up and blocked off.”
Not wanting to leave the office in case Simon tried to call her, Elizabeth walked into the HR meeting. To this day, she has no idea how long it lasted.
For the next nine days, as her family gathered, friends rang and Simon’s brother, Keith, and his friend Pete headed off to New York to find out what they could, Elizabeth retreated into herself where she held fast to the hope that her husband had somehow escaped.
Looking back, she describes those days as descending “like a smoke or a fog … you can’t remember the bits in between”, but realises that her family knew by then that Simon was dead. And that so, at some level, did she.
“On one hand, I knew it was not good. I knew Simon would have contacted me immediately if he could. So then you’re thinking, well maybe he was trapped; maybe he was in a hospital. All these wild and wonderful scenarios that you create because you’re thinking, ‘I can’t be the one that gives up on him, because there will be a lot of other people who’ve already given up on him because he’s on a list of 3 000 people. I have to be the one who keeps pushing and pushing until someone says, ‘That’s enough’.”
Enough came on September 20 , when Pete rang Elizabeth’s brother and sister and told them they had to make her understand that Simon was dead: everything that could have been done had been done; every avenue had been exhausted.
And so they told her.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now’ … and almost, ‘am I supposed to fall on the floor and start wailing’? And yet, there was just nothing. I think that was the over-riding sense; there was a feeling of nothingness.”
Two months later, William Simon Turner was born. She would have been happy with a baby of either sex, but a boy seemed fitting as William was the only name she and Simon had come up with.
William will be 10 in November and, considering what has happened, says Elizabeth, “he’s a very happy, well-adjusted normal lad who’s taken on an awful lot of information and dealt with it really well”.
The same could be said of her. In the aftermath of Simon’s death, Elizabeth, now 43, has retrained as a life coach and written a book, The Blue Skies of Autumn, about what happened and how she dealt with it. If writing it was therapeutic, it was also practical: proceeds are going to the Red Cross to thank the organisation for providing a “life-saving” maternity nurse to help her through her early days as a single parent .
In March this year, the family went to New York so that William could see for himself the city his father loved so much, and where he died.
‘Why do you hate New York?’
“One of the things he’d said to me a while back was, ‘I hate New York’. And I said, ‘Why do you hate New York?’. And he said, ‘Because they killed my daddy’.”
The trip helped Elizabeth explain to her son how Simon had died and it allowed William to learn more about who his father was. As well as visiting Ground Zero, they went to Simon’s favourite restaurant and coffee shop, saw a Broadway show and went shopping. With one of her numerous duties to her husband and son discharged, Elizabeth will see through this week’s anniversary quietly with family and friends.
To this day, her approach to answering William’s questions about his father remains simple: she tells him as much as he can understand. But she is determined that whatever happens in the future, and however tempting it is to give into fury and bitterness, her son should realise that he does not have to be confined or defined by the events that culminated in Simon’s death in New York a decade ago.
“The bit that I have always said to him is because of what happened to us — and because of what I went through afterwards — I am choosing to be one of the people who breaks the cycle,” she says. “I will not continue the anger and the killing. It has to stop with me.” – guardian.co.uk