'My daughter worked in the World Trade Centre'
Suria Clarke always knew she would live and work abroad. She told her parents as much one Sunday lunchtime in her 14th year when she revealed, a little cryptically, that she had decided she was going to be “big in Europe”.
That dream was never realised, but the wanderlust refused to go away.
After studying politics at university, Suria found PR work in Brussels and then New York, which is how—probably after a stroll from her tiny flat across the Brooklyn bridge and into Manhattan one September morning 10 years ago—she came to be on the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Centre.
She had been vice-president of media relations at eSpeed Cantor Fitzgerald for three months, and in the working world long enough to appreciate the luxury of those quiet, productive moments snatched early in the day before meetings and calls intrude.
At 8.30am, she emailed a friend to fix a lunch date.
Sixteen minutes later, the first plane crashed into the tower 20 floors below her.
Suria (30) became one of the first of hundreds of British victims of the 9/11 decade: 67 in the attacks, almost 400 soldiers in Afghanistan, 179 in Iraq and dozens more killed in terrorist attacks in Britain and overseas.
On the other side of the Atlantic, her mother, Alex, was manning the tea bar in the limb-fitting centre at Queen Mary’s hospital in Roehampton, London, when a familiar outline caught her eye.
“I looked across the hospital waiting room at the TV and I thought, ‘That’s strange. I know that image.’ I could see the twin towers. And I thought, ‘Good heavens, what’s that?’ I walked towards the TV and there were a lot of fitters—the men who made the limbs—standing round. And I said, ‘What’s happening?’ And they said, ‘An aeroplane has flown into the World Trade Centre in New York’. And I said, ‘My daughter works there,’ and they just gave me a long, strange look.”
Suria’s father John, a plastic surgeon, was home when a friend brought Alex back from the hospital.
“We came in and I said, ‘Turn on the TV, a plane’s flown into the World Trade Centre,’” says Alex. “So we turned on the TV and caught up with the fact that two aircraft had flown in. It obviously wasn’t an accident; something awful was going on.”
Suria’s brothers, Tom and Jack, came home and the neighbours dropped by to see if there was anything they could do, but by 10pm Alex realised her daughter probably hadn’t survived.
“I was watching the news and I knew that had she escaped or got out, she’d have done her very best to get in touch somehow. And I just had that feeling. I thought: this is the end.”
Confirmation that Suria had been in the north tower when the plane struck came several hours later when the friend she’d emailed about lunch told the family about the message she’d got early the previous morning.
Over the next few days, Suria’s American friends did what thousands of people in New York were doing: they put up her picture; they checked the ferries; they went from hospital to hospital hoping to find a trace of her.
In London, Alex and John were dealing with what they now knew had happened in their own pragmatic ways: she switched to maternal autopilot and, realising she had a household to feed, went to Waitrose to buy food. He took himself down to Chelsea and Westminster hospital to make sure that the young Middle Eastern doctors working for him were OK.
“People were being very racist to them,” says Alex. “So he needed to go and say: ‘Hello, I’m here, it’s all right. I don’t blame you.’”
The couple’s stoicism is amply reservoired; they met as medical volunteers in Vietnam in 1967 and were there for the Tet offensive. Later, John treated victims of the Kings Cross fire, the Paddington rail crash and worked in Sarajevo for the World Health Organisation.
“Disasters,” as Alex puts it, “were not new. But we never expected to end up involved ourselves.”
A month later, they flew to New York to sort out Suria’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights. It was the hardest thing Alex has ever had to do.
Suria had turned 30 a fortnight before she died and her birthday cards were still on the mantelpiece. On the kitchen table was a book called Jihad Vs McWorld and in a drawer was the spotty bag Alex made for Suria’s plimsolls when she started school.
“She’d carried it around with her ever since and I’d always laughed about it. But there it was, sitting in a drawer. It was just a day of tears, really. I think I just cried all day. There’s nothing you can do.”
The book in the apartment was not the only evidence that Suria was worried about the world—and the city—in which she lived. A little while before she joined Cantor Fitzgerald, Suria took a two-week holiday. After coming home, she and her mother went to Catalonia for three days and, sitting in a Barcelona bar, had a conversation that still haunts Alex. Their talk turned to terrorism and then to the earlier attack on the World Trade Centre, where Suria would soon be starting work.
‘Lightning never strikes twice’
“She said: ‘It happened before, mum, in 1993.’ She said she didn’t like the buildings; she said they’d tried to blow them up before and I came out with the usual cliches—that’s the trouble with September 11; one tends to talk in cliches—and I said: ‘Lightning never strikes twice.’
“And I can remember thinking to myself after she was killed: ‘I wonder if she thought of that after the planes had flown in.’ I wondered if she was saying: ‘I told you so, Mum!’ Or something like that. I’ll never know. I can only think and speculate. But she probably would have done. She was right.”
The Clarkes know there will never be a body. John is not concerned about its lack or the absence of a funeral, and Alex understood from her first trip to New York after Suria’s death that it was inconceivable that any part of her could have survived the pyre of the World Trade Centre.
“I knew that somewhere in that was my daughter, but I was there six weeks later, staying in a hotel way up in New York, but you could see the steam and the smoke still rising from there, so the temperature levels down below would have been very, very high. Science just told you. Things went straight down the middle and would have been going down through a gigantic coffee grinder and then been being cooked, really, I suppose.”
All they have left of Suria from that last day is her company ID card, slightly crumpled but otherwise intact, which was found at the Fresh Kills sorting site and returned to them in June 2002. A decade’s distance has blunted neither Alex’s ferociously rational analysis of events, nor her pain at all the things her daughter was denied.
“I don’t feel any better in some ways. She’s still gone. I don’t want to get emotional. But you still can and always will. It’s a big part of your life. Your life changes. But of course her life changed too. I’m often acutely aware and sorry that she didn’t have her life, because she was great fun, extremely hard-working and was a very clever girl. She was very independent and strong and I admired her for that and I was terribly upset that she couldn’t fulfil what she wanted to in her life.”
Alex hopes that Suria would have married and her children—had she succeeded in finding a man who could have stood up to her. “Her boyfriends certainly always found her difficult. Who knows? But anyway, that wasn’t to be. That’s just fanciful and make-believe.”
One of the few things Alex still struggles, and fails, to comprehend is the mentality of “Mohamed Atta and that gang”; of those willing to kill themselves and others in the name of God.
“It’s not the fact that they hate; having these political thoughts when you’re young is very common, but that they’re prepared to go and kill for it ... I find that difficult to come to terms with—the killing, the random killing. Suicide bombing I just cannot get my head around.”
She is also scornful of the notion that the killing of Osama bin Laden would somehow provide justice, or revenge, or even a measure of peace of mind.
“I just thought: ‘That’s interesting, Now what?’ It didn’t change anything for me whatsoever. People said: ‘Well, have you got closure?’ And I had to say: ‘I don’t know what closure is, really. I don’t know what it means.’ It’s something you learn to live with for the rest of your life.”
In any case, she reflects, acts of immense violence are hardly new in human affairs. “If you look at history—you don’t have to go back very far—in the first world war, there were all the young men who were just thrown to the slaughter in France and Belgium, and their poor families didn’t get bodies back, either. They didn’t know where they were buried. They didn’t know sometimes exactly where they’d died or what had happened. They had nothing. And they just had to get on with it.” Suria’s death, says Alex, has pulled the family together and—apart from the pain it causes—done them no harm. “I suppose if you asked my husband, he’d say, ‘Oh, she’s batty, she’s not what she used to be, blah blah.’ I might say the same about him. [But] that’s just growing old.”
It has also made necessities of former courtesies: whenever Tom, a journalist for Channel 4 News, is dispatched somewhere at short notice, he always rings his mother to let her know.
Alex used to speak to Suria two or three times a week and had been due to make one of her early calls on September 11.
“It happened on a Tuesday and I usually always rang her on a Tuesday and I didn’t that week so I was very upset that I hadn’t actually spoken to her that day. In a way, you say, ‘I never said goodbye’—and I never said goodbye—but of course young women go out and have dreadful road accidents and do things like that. It’s a common feeling. But there’s no way [of knowing].”
When this year’s anniversary has passed, Alex thinks the September 11 UK Families Support Group she chairs may wind down a little. She is 68, John is 72 and the task of commemoration will soon pass to the next generation.
‘Grief is the price we pay for love’
On Sunday, the Clarkes and some of the other British families whose relatives were murdered in Manhattan that morning will attend a private ceremony in Grosvenor Square in London, where Suria’s name—the ninth of 67—is cast in bronze on a memorial wall. Carved into the oak architrave above the names of the British victims is an inscription that is half-truism, half-imperative. “Grief,” it reads, “is the price we pay for love.”
Suria has now been dead for a third as long as she was alive. But something of her endures in Molly Suria, her 21-month-old niece, and, mutely yet unmistakably, in the many objects that she left behind in the house where she grew up: in the chunky barbecue she used to heave on to her Brussels windowsill to cook dinner on summer evenings; in the now-framed notepaper birthday card she drew for her mother; in the fairy she made for the top of the Christmas tree when she was three and a half. And, of course, in their memories.
“Suria, how do I remember you?” Alex asks the empty air. “With a smile, I think. It’s too easy to feel sorry for yourself and what you’ve lost. And I think I should feel very grateful that I had such a very nice daughter.” - guardian.co.uk